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Canada’s largest school board will be delivering internet-connected devices to about 29,000 households as educators across the country struggle to level the playing field for poorer families even as they worry that the gaps will widen during this pandemic.

As school closings stretch from weeks into months in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19, new challenges are emerging in education around how to make sure children who may not have adequate resources at home are still learning.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), like others across the country, is equipping families over the coming week with WiFi-enabled devices and iPads or Chromebooks if they don’t have them at home, hoping this will help keep students engaged in their schoolwork.

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Increasingly, however, education observers are realizing that even though teachers across the country can send work to their housebound students, hold video chats and telephone calls, even the very best educators will struggle to overcome the loss of one key element: the school building.

The bricks-and-mortar classroom is one of the biggest assets in narrowing the divide, and distance learning during this pandemic is widening inequities that may end up setting back some children from marginalized communities even further, education observers say.

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John Malloy, the TDSB’s director of education, acknowledged that technology is only one aspect of distance learning. The home situations of students vary and many may not receive help from families with their schoolwork for a variety of reasons, including parents who are considered essential workers or who are struggling after losing their jobs. Other students may have special needs that require a high level of supports, or be English-language learners who need extra assistance.

“We may have struggled to serve some students in school. That struggle will be greater remotely,” Dr. Malloy said. “[I’ve told principals] please use all the creative strategies that you know and understand to be sure that we leave no student or their family behind.”

“Learning is important. But well-being has to take a priority and we can’t race the learning agenda and forget about the well-being agenda,” he added, saying that the school board is looking at how to have social workers, guidance counsellors and child and youth workers connect with students.

Some provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, have outlined how many hours of work teachers are to assign students a week based on their grade level. In Ontario, for example, students in kindergarten to Grade 6 are to receive five hours of work a week. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, said that school divisions and teachers will implement a “supplemental curriculum program” for students who want to continue learning.

Beyhan Farhadi, who recently earned a PhD at the University of Toronto examining education inequity and e-learning, said expectations in some provinces put increased pressure on families and magnify existing inequities. She said she is concerned that some students could be penalized for not getting the work done.

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“There is an assumption that students are going to be disciplined, they are going to be supported by parents and caregivers. Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous,” said Ms. Farhadi, who is also a teacher with the Toronto board.

She added: “We definitely shouldn’t put learning on pause. [But] we can provide supports both in resources and one-on-one for our most vulnerable students, if we centre them in our planning.”

One of the main concerns educators face is how far behind students, especially those from marginalized communities, will be in their learning when school resumes, despite their access to technology during the pandemic.

Karen Robson, an Ontario research chair in educational achievement and at-risk youth at McMaster University, said “there’s going to be a lot of catching up” for students who were already struggling.

“A lot of the income inequalities are going to be exacerbated by this,” she said. “There’s going to be parents at home who have access to technology, who work from home, who are on top on all of this, probably really keen to help their kids with this … But that’s not the case everywhere. There’s going to be massive differences.”

Teri Mooring, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, said she is advising educators to go slow in restarting what she described as “emergency remote learning.” Many families, she said, are dealing with food insecurity, shelter and health issues, and schooling may not be a priority.

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“It’s a health crisis, not an education crisis,” she said.

Ms. Mooring said students may often forget some of what they learned over their summer break, and educators will be more mindful with this longer absence if school resumes in September.

“Will it be more accentuated in September? Perhaps," Ms. Mooring said. "And teachers will know that because we’ve all been through this and will take measures to ensure that those gaps are reduced.”

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