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Children wait outside Elizabeth B. Phin Public School ahead of their first day of classes in Pickering, Ont., on Sept. 8, 2020.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Elementary remote learners at Canada’s largest school board are set to begin school this week, but some will be left doing independent work as the board scrambles to find teachers to meet last-minute demand for online instruction.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said on Monday that while many of its roughly 60,000 elementary virtual learners have a teacher for Tuesday morning, others will be on a “rolling start,” which means that live lessons will happen once an educator is assigned to the online classroom. The TDSB said it needs 2,200 for the elementary virtual school, and it has 1,700 assigned so far.

“We know that this will be a disappointment for some and is not how we had hoped to begin the school year,” according to a letter sent to parents on Monday. “Please let me assure you that efforts to hire more teachers have been ongoing and staff have been working around the clock and through the weekend to keep things moving forward.”

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TDSB schools opened last week for in-person lessons, but the board has delayed the start of its virtual classes twice as more families switched to online instruction amid rising COVID-19 infection rates. More than 77,600 students have enrolled in the TDSB virtual school, including about 60,000 elementary children.

The province’s back-to-school approach offers a choice to all families between in-class instruction and remote learning. Roughly a third of all families have opted for virtual school. The move has sparked a discussion about the government’s decision to give parents choice, and whether allowing families to change their minds right into September has caused unnecessary chaos that could hurt public education.

Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce said recently that while he understood the “massive challenge” it would be to put two million students in some form of learning environment, he stood by his government’s decision.

Part of the issue, said Toronto parent Adrienne Vanslack, is that several boards, including the TDSB, allowed families to change their minds in the first two weeks of September. She and her husband decided in late August that their four-year-old daughter would start kindergarten online. Her daughter began counting down the days to the start of online school, only to have it delayed.

“It’s been heartbreaking for me to watch her get her hopes up and then have it not happen,” Ms. Vanslack said.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said the choice between online and in-class learning was needed in order to avoid excluding large numbers of students from the public education system. However, when the government changed expectations and funding in the last weeks before school started, school boards had to survey parents again and then scramble to redo schedules and move teachers, she said.

“The constant changing of plans ... led to a lot of parents having some concern about the confidence in sending their children back,” Ms. Abraham said, adding she is worried about the potential for chaos in a few weeks when families are again presented with the option to switch.

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Already, the Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, struggled to get its virtual school going this week after roughly 10,000 students made a last-minute switch. Over the summer months, Peel staff had estimated that a quarter of their students would opt for virtual learning, but COVID-19 cases were low then. In the end, more than 40 per cent of students chose remote learning and the board was forced to delay the start of its virtual school to this week.

“It’s really caused us to reflect on how we become agile and follow the decisions of families,” said Colleen Russell-Rawlins, the board’s interim director of education. Education needs to meet the needs of children, she said, and parents demanded choice this school year. “There’s just a variety of lived experiences, and really a variety of student needs.”

Still, Carl James, a professor of education at York University, said that while choice respects the decisions of families, it could exacerbate inequities in public education. A recent analysis by The Globe and Mail showed that Greater Toronto Area families living in more racialized neighbourhoods are more likely to opt for remote learning. In Toronto, in particular, 36 per cent of families in low-income neighbourhoods had chosen virtual learning compared with 22 per cent of families in high-income neighbourhoods.

Prof. James said he is concerned about the long-term effects on children, especially if the students struggled in school and there are not enough supports in a virtual learning environment.

“If we want to maximize whatever choice this provides and the opportunities, then we’re going to have to put in place some supports for those to be able to utilize this choice effectively so children’s' outcomes, educational engagement and participation can be maximized,” he said.

Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral researcher at York University who is examining education inequity and e-learning, said that because of the mixed messages from the government to boards and the delayed planning, schools did not have a chance to communicate safety protocols to families.

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“I think inevitably there were parents that were going to demand that their children learn online.”

She added: “If we had time, we could have communicated real options and not have parents responding out of fear. And that’s what we’re seeing these last days.”

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