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Michelle McKay, seen here on Aug. 14, 2020, is a kindergarten teacher working from home, prepping for the upcoming school year.The Globe and Mail

In less than a month, millions of kids will return to school. What do parents need to know?

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With thousands of parents opting not to send their children back to school, the biggest challenges of remote learning will be faced by the smallest students.

When the pandemic hit Canada and in-person classes were cancelled in mid-March, teachers and students of all ages were thrust into a distance learning experiment that many parents consider a failure, with little live teaching, uneven expectations and few standards.

As the first day of school approaches, the Ontario government and many Alberta school boards are allowing families worried about the risk of in-person classes to register children of any age for online learning instead. Depending on where they live, some high-school students will learn from home part of the time.

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Education officials vow remote learning will be better this school year. However, it is not clear how it will work and whether teachers adopting new methods of instruction will be able to overcome the significant challenges of online schooling, especially for elementary students.

Many educators question the value of such instruction for young children, saying it is a poor substitute for direct interaction with a teacher and peers. It also typically means hours of screen time, which child-development experts caution against, does not allow young children to learn through hands-on play nor caters to their short attention spans.

“The younger you go, I think the more you need to look at what can you do offline to learn the skills, knowledge and aptitudes that you’re supposed to cover in that particular grade level,” said Michael Barbour, a professor of instructional design at Touro University California and an expert in distance education.

In order to take part in remote learning, many elementary school children, including those who need help with their work or using a computer, require a parent or caregiver to serve as a learning coach, Prof. Barbour said. As a result, the approach is not an option for many families.

“It’s really home-schooling under the direction of a teacher,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, that’s really what you’re doing.”

The Calgary Board of Education is stressing the role of parents in remote learning, warning in an update this month that the choice “requires a significant commitment from students and parents” and doesn’t “offer the same opportunities or supports as in-person learning.”

In Ontario, which is not mandating smaller class sizes, higher-than-expected numbers of families in some areas are choosing remote learning. While most school boards have not yet provided numbers, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board said last week that about 30 per cent of elementary students and 25 per cent of secondary students are already signed up for online schooling.

Under requirements that Education Minister Stephen Lecce says will create “Zoom-style classrooms,” Ontario teachers must provide five hours of “learning opportunities” a day, with at least three hours of live, synchronous learning for children in kindergarten and three hours and 45 minutes for Grades 1 through 8. Teachers must be available throughout the school day, and students will have a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities, guided instruction, large- and small-group learning and independent work.

Michelle McKay, who taught kindergarten last year, said requiring three hours of live remote instruction a day for kindergarteners is inconsistent with the Ministry of Education’s own early years pedagogy, which focuses on play and inquiry-based learning.

“It’s not developmentally appropriate. It does not align with any type of learning that would happen in the classroom,” said Ms. McKay, who taught in the Peel District School Board and is doing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “I don’t know how this is setting anybody up for success or setting young children up to love learning.”

After schools closed last spring, Ms. McKay connected with her students in regular one-on-one phone calls because they were easier for parents with more than one child sharing devices and for those who were shift workers. She also used Google Classroom to post suggestions for activities that children could do with their caregivers, including building forts, discussing the steps involved in cooking dinner and identifying numbers on neighbourhood walks.

But she said not being in the same room as her students meant she missed being involved in the process of their learning. When families sent her photos or videos of their children’s work, she had no idea how much time they had spent on the projects, whether they had struggled or if they had gotten help.

“By not being able to experience it live with a child, you’re missing tons of information,” she said.

Although remote learning is not optimal for young children, Wendy Terro, a centrally assigned principal at the Toronto District School Board, said the board is doing all it can to ensure students get a solid education even if they don’t step inside a classroom.

“We would love schools to be back to what they were at the start of last year, but in the situation we’re in, we want to provide the richest remote learning experience we can for our students,” she said.

Ms. Terro said teachers have learned a great deal since last spring, including through professional development sessions.

“It’s important to remember that when we jumped into this in March, a lot of people were starting from scratch, and there’s been tremendous growth,” she said. “As a system, we’ve learned a lot.”

Josée Beaudoin, director of Remote Network Schools, which helps isolated Quebec schools connect virtually, said the idea of providing distance education for young students was largely uncharted territory for Canadian educators when schools shut down.

“It’s new to do remote schooling at the primary level. It’s not normal,” she said. “You know, with these children so young, it was difficult to imagine how that could be done.”

Teachers assigned to remote classrooms this fall will need to be creative and develop strategies to overcome several challenges, Ms. Beaudoin said.

The first is figuring out which technology to use while setting standards for how the class will work together virtually, she said.

Remote educators also need to do detailed planning, she said, both for the material they will cover and to create a sense of community by encouraging children to interact with each other.

“At the primary level, this issue of interactions between students for learning is extremely important. So you have to plan these moments and to organize your tools to do so,” she said. “Learning is a social activity.”

In addition, teachers need to communicate with parents to share their learning plan, online schedule, expectations for independent work and links to resources.

Above all, Ms. Beaudoin said, teachers should approach remote learning with an open mind – and should not be afraid to make mistakes.

“It’s really new. So for teachers, they don’t have to be experts,” she said. “It’s learning by doing.”

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