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A student in the French Immersion program at Laura Secord Elementary in Vancouver on April 3, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

One Southwestern Ontario school board ditched its French-language instruction and instead offered virtual learners a do-it-yourself computer program. Another is recruiting French-language teachers to online classrooms, more than a month into the school year. And in B.C., French-language learners at home are left with no choice but to study in English.

School boards in several provinces are having difficulty offering French-language instruction to its online learners because of a shortage of teachers, prompting concerns among parents equally resourcing both virtual and bricks-and-mortar classrooms.

“Parents didn’t pick online learning knowing that French was going to be cut. They made that decision before the school district or the ministry of education said it wasn’t going to be available,” said Nicole Thibault, national executive director for the non-profit Canadian Parents for French.

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French immersion has been popular for years among families wanting to give their children fluency in a second language, but it has also caused headaches for school boards struggling with a shortage of teachers. Those challenges are exacerbated during the pandemic, as boards have to staff both online and bricks-and-mortar classrooms. Some school boards have told parents that their children will simply not receive any French instruction online.

Ms. Thibault said she has heard of school boards in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario that have prioritized the French-language needs of students in classrooms rather than those who have chosen virtual learning. They weren’t prepared for the number of students who would opt for online learning, she said. In Alberta, she added, community groups identified individuals who weren’t qualified teachers but had French-language skills to tutor online learners in order to fill the void.

Loretta Notten, director of education at Waterloo Catholic District School Board, said her board in Ontario still faces French staffing challenges in its schools and it would be difficult to find still more teachers for virtual learners. Families who opted for online learning were told after the fact that both French immersion and core French, where students learn the language as a standalone subject, would not be offered. Instead, the board provided a software program as a resource to families.

Ms. Notten said the board values French immersion and acknowledged the disappointment among families, but called offering it to both virtual and in-class students a “tall order.”

“French immersion is a choice that a family makes. But then choosing to study virtually is also a second choice, if you will. And certainly we would prefer to be able to provide that if we could … but right now those are just the constraints in which we have to operate.”

One of the main issues is that school boards did not make it clear to families that they would struggle to offer French-language instruction to those who opted for online learning, said Joseph Dicks, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of New Brunswick and director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada.

“Whether you’re in a virtual environment or a bricks-and-mortar environment, if you’re in French immersion, you need to have a French language model. … You can’t call it French immersion and then let it not be French immersion. That doesn’t make sense.”

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At the Toronto District School Board, 48 virtual French-immersion and extended French classes still do not have a French-language teacher in place, the board said Friday. English-speaking teachers have been temporarily assigned to those classrooms, spokesman Ryan Bird said, and the board is looking at several measures, including recruiting French-speaking individuals who are not certified teachers.

Robert Hart said his eldest daughter, who is in Grade 6, would log in to her classroom site every morning for the past few weeks hoping to be assigned a French immersion teacher. It finally happened this week. Although relieved, Mr. Hart said the process was “really disappointing. It was such a mess.”

Lisa Curran-Lehman gave up on her children being assigned a teacher after weeks of waiting. She switched to in-person schooling.

“The fact that we had to figure out that virtual was less of a priority for French staffing, that was the part that did make parents angry,” she said.

Many students have been in French immersion for years, she said, and there was no indication when families signed up that there would be issues. “I think people are willing to accept some concessions, but no teacher at all for a month … is inadequate.”

Families are making “tough decisions” on whether to keep their children home and give up on the French program, said Glyn Lewis, executive director for the Canadian Parents for French for B.C. & Yukon. Boards in his province have told families that they are not offering remote or distancing learning in French, he said.

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“The school districts will say that it’s a program of choice, and there’s nothing binding them to offer these programs. The school districts will always say choice, choice, choice," Mr. Lewis said.

"To which we will say: If you truly believe in good public education, and diversity of learning and language acquisition, you’ve made a commitment to these parents. I think in the crisis that we’re in, it’s important to fulfill that obligation.”

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