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Kearie Daniel, executive director and co-founder of Parents of Black Children, poses for a portrait on the front porch of her home in East Gwillumbury on Feb. 10, 2022.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Before the pandemic, when students were in classrooms and the term “remote learning” was mostly just a theory, Kearie Daniel’s eldest child, now 11, required a nudge to complete homework. He was a bright young student and generally happy in school, but he was pulling some Cs and B-minus grades on report cards. His teachers were concerned about his behaviour, including how he stood in line and how he responded to being teased by a classmate.

When the first wave of COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual, Ms. Daniel noticed a sudden change in her son. He was taking more responsibility with his work, even completing an extra project on Black Lives Matter using PowerPoint.

His next report card came back with As and Bs.

“He seemed so much happier, he was at peace,” said Ms. Daniel, who lives in Ontario’s York Region. “He’ll still say to me ‘Can I do online?’”

Many students and parents complained about the hardship of learning at home, from technological glitches to little ones dissolving into tears having to stare at a screen all day. But some students thrived. For them, learning online carried unexpected benefits. This was especially true for children who had felt excluded or uncomfortable in their schools prior to the pandemic – those who had experienced racism or bullying in their classrooms, or have anxiety or learning disabilities.

Ms. Daniel said her son “blossomed” at home. Other parents have shared similar stories, saying that remote learning removed certain distractions or safely shielded their children from microaggressions that can take place in a physical classroom.

Experts say all of this raises deeper questions about how public education can adapt to meet the needs of students.

Ms. Daniel is the executive director and co-founder of Parents of Black Children, an advocacy group that supports families and seeks to counter anti-Black racism in schools. In the previous school year, when students in her province of Ontario spent more time learning online than their peers in other parts of the country, her organization served 86 families. Only three months into the current school year, with children settled into classrooms, just as many families have already asked for support navigating the education system – a reflection of the systemic discrimination Black students face, she said.

Educators may have good intentions, Ms. Daniel said, but online learning meant “our kids didn’t have to go to school and watch their behaviour, watch their tone, watch how they sit, watch where they’re standing, watch their hand movements.”

“For my son,” she added, “it was freedom. It was an immense shift.”

In her conversations with high-school students taking one online credit before the pandemic, Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral researcher in equity and e-learning at York University, found that they were satisfied with their decision to take a virtual course. And for the three self-identified Black students in the group, their satisfaction was relative to the harm they were experiencing at school. “It’s not necessarily that when they’re online, they’re finding an affirming environment, but that they’re finding the absence of anti-Black racism.” (Ms. Farhadi interviewed 20 students as part of her larger dissertation project, which ended in 2017.)

“The responsibility of responding to harm in schools lies with the schooling system,” Ms. Farhadi said. “When we tell a student who is experiencing bullying, racism and general harm in school that they have an option to learn online, that is removing the student from the in-person learning environment and everything else that comes with it.”

She worries that the public education system is not doing enough to support students, regardless of race, for whom online learning is a “relief” and not a “real choice,” meaning they feel forced to make the decision.

Even before the pandemic, Shannon McLay, a mom in Burnaby, B.C., preferred the online learning option for her 16-year-old son. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder around the age of seven. In elementary school, he was disciplined for his behaviour instead of receiving supports, she said. He had little help when he started high school.

Ms. McLay was told by educators that online learning was not the right fit for her son, and that he wouldn’t be motivated to work on his own.

Now in his third year of online learning, his grades have climbed from Cs in the eighth grade to marks in the 80s. He is more confident.

“He gets to be him, and he doesn’t get punished for it,” she said. “It’s been a huge game changer for us.”

Students have shared a similar sentiment with Jen Gilbert, a professor of education at York University who has been researching how young people at two Toronto high schools understand gender and sexuality.

Prof. Gilbert had heard about how queer and trans students were particularly at risk during lockdown, mostly because they were separated from their supports, away from friends and potentially isolating with families who were unsupportive.

That was true for some students. But Prof. Gilbert was caught off guard by the responses from others. They told her that lockdown gave them “breathing room” to think about their gender and sexuality. They did not necessarily enjoy the virtual schooling experience, but they remained connected with friends and supports through social media.

“We saw a lot of young people having time to reflect on who they wanted to be in the world, how they felt in their bodies. And they talked about that being possible because they had a bit of space from what they called the toxic culture of high school,” she said.

Prof. Gilbert is still trying to make sense of what she learned, and hesitant to interpret what it could potentially mean for the public education system. But her findings suggest that schools could do a better job of creating open spaces for students to ask questions about themselves, so they feel more secure in those buildings, she said.

Schools are complicated spaces, that “can be both a welcoming refuge and also alienating,” she added.

For the better part of a decade, Tyler Black has been examining how school affects the health of students. A clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, he is also a psychiatrist who works with children and adolescents. His practice is busier in the school year than the summer vacation period.

Attending school is helpful for child development, but it is also causes anxiety and stress among many students. During the pandemic, Dr. Black found that 20 per cent of his patients enjoyed the online learning experience that minimized distractions, and hoped to have the option continue. Thirty-five per cent wanted to be back in a school building, and the group in the middle were not affected either way.

“Many times, when I’m meeting with a child clinically my prescription is don’t go to school,” Dr. Black said. He said students with straight As sometimes feel such immense stress that their health deteriorates. “I would be talking to teachers and families about how much they can cause their kids stress when they care too much about the academics and too little about the child’s well-being.” He encourages schools to develop mental-health curriculum as early as Grade 4, and advises parents to be more lenient on attendance.

“Returning to school isn’t some panacea for mental health. It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “The kids who found school challenging, they’re not going to be thrilled about going back.”

Ottawa mom Carly Haydt watched as her eldest son grew more isolated and anxious in school, and then excel when he switched to online learning.

Her son, who is 15, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. He was bullied at school, and would become anxious if others misbehaved or disrupted classroom time. The school tried to help, giving him space in a separate room if he grew overwhelmed. But he would still return home upset, and the family would spend time in the evenings discussing how to respond. Even before the pandemic, Ms. Haydt had considered online schooling options for when he started Grade 9.

“He did as best as he could, but we could see him struggling.”

In the last school year, when Ontario offered the option of online learning, she enrolled her son. He made the honour roll in Grade 9, participated in classroom discussions and was less anxious. Her board, the Ottawa Catholic School Board, opened permanent virtual schools. Her son enrolled in online learning again this year, and Ms. Haydt volunteers as the school council chair. (Her youngest son has autism, and while he is relatively high functioning, it is difficult for him to learn on a screen.)

She has mixed feelings about her eldest returning to the physical classroom: As he approaches graduation, she doesn’t want him to miss out on in-person activities, even though the virtual school has met his needs. He maintains his friendships from school, and he has met more students online. He’s active in other ways, too. Through a local hospital, he works on a youth project where researchers float proposals by a group of young people to understand how meaningful they would be for participants.

“There’s something to be said about the fact that he learns better in this environment. He absorbs the material better, there’s less distraction, there’s more focus, there’s more pride in ownership of his education,” she said.

“These stories of kids … who have some mild special needs succeeding in the virtual environment have been huge. He’s definitely not the only one.”