In every corner of the country, restaurants have reopened to indoor dining, while people can once again visit bars and sports venues. But when it comes to schools, Halifax parent Leah Rimmer is still not able to get past the front door.
For the second year in a row, many school boards require parent-teacher conferences to take place virtually – a safety measure, according to administrators, but also a source of confusion for some parents, who wonder why the choice between in-person or online is not available if they are vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Why can’t I just show my vaccine passport? I’ll wear a mask, I’ll socially distance from the teacher,” said Ms. Rimmer, a mother of four. “What’s the real issue here?”
Parent-teacher conferences, which are typically held this month across Canada, occur outside of instructional hours. In any other year, the meetings would allow parents into classrooms for a conversation with teachers, and a chance to walk the school hallways and see the artwork on the walls – difficult to do over the phone or on a computer screen. For parents with young children, it would likely be their first time inside the school building.
However, school board officials say that they are being especially cautious because they don’t want to risk exposing their staff to the virus, which would in turn disrupt schooling.
Radean Carter, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg School Division, said the virtual conferences are “being done out of an abundance of caution” to ensure the safety of schools and the wider school community. The school division’s parent-teacher conferences also involve students, and are scheduled for Nov. 19 this year.
Ms. Carter said the Manitoba government recently allowed for in-person conferences, but also left it to the discretion of school divisions.
“That would require that every attendee provide proof of vaccination when attending in person, and so we have chosen to continue with virtual conferences for the time being,” she said, adding that some in-person meetings would be permitted for special-needs students.
Sue Dunlop, an associate director at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, west of Toronto, said that the local public-health unit advised the board about limiting visitors in the school. Other school boards in Ontario have also opted for virtual parent-teacher interviews. (As part of their recently escalated job action, elementary teachers in Toronto’s Catholic school board will not be participating in parent-teacher interviews initially scheduled for next week.)
Ms. Dunlop said that families and educators have adapted to an online environment over the past year. “I can say that meeting with someone one-on-one through the screen, while you’re missing that in-person interaction, you can still have a very good conversation that can be very open and honest and supportive.”
In Halifax, Ms. Rimmer said her eldest son started junior high last year and she hasn’t had a chance to meet his teachers or see his classroom. She misses the energy that comes from sitting with teachers for an in-person conversation. “I don’t think that translates quite as well virtually,” she said, adding that she would have liked families to have a choice.
Jenna MacQueen, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Department of Education, said that schools have turned to virtual conferences to limit the spread of the virus, but feedback from parents also showed that more families participated in online meetings. The response suggested that parents preferred the option because it better accommodated their schedules, she said.
In Surrey, B.C., Jordan Tinney, superintendent of the school district, said that many schools in his province have given families a choice between in-person and virtual interviews. “For access reasons, we’ve said to make both available,” he said, adding that some parents don’t want to commute for a 10-minute meeting.
Mr. Tinney said that being in a school can sometimes be uncomfortable for some parents, particularly those from Indigenous and Black families. In those situations, it was especially important for the board to accommodate families so they could still connect with teachers, he said.
Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said holding virtual parent-teacher conferences this month is a safe measure because communities have different rates of COVID-19 exposures. However, school boards and governments need to consider how to bring families back to schools this academic year, whether it’s through testing or vaccine passports, she added.
“The school is such a rich environment, and that cannot be conveyed online.”
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