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In a kindergarten virtual classroom at the York Region District School Board, half the children have the surname Wong, and two of them have the same first name.

It’s a similar story in other online classes that are filled with children sharing the same last names after the board, north of Toronto, separated its roughly 30,000 virtual learners into four areas and assigned them to classes alphabetically by surname. The board only later discovered it had inadvertently created groups that did not reflect the racially diverse nature of this part of the province.

The issue at York highlights the challenges school boards face launching virtual classes after the Ontario government let families choose between in-class learning and online instruction. Parents in a Facebook group have raised concerns about the lack of diversity and described classes in which all the students have the surname Chen or Cao. In other instances, half the class are Khans or Wongs.

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Clayton La Touche, an associate director at the board, said he understood parents’ concerns but that redoing the classes in a different way would have delayed the start of the school year. It is not out of the ordinary to have more than one student in a classroom with the same surname, but he acknowledged that having an entire class is unusual.

“It is an unintended impact of the decision," Mr. La Touche said. "However, although we certainly respect and would wish to have had mixed classes in that way, if it is a matter of mixing names versus forming classes in time to be able to have a reasonable start, in my belief it is a measured risk.

“At the end of the day, what we have is our students in front of teachers.”

At other school boards, including Peel and Toronto, an effort was made to keep virtual learners with their neighbourhood peers as much as possible, or to mix students.

One parent, whose son’s last name is Wong, said 15 of the 29 kindergarten children in his son’s York Region online class have the same surname. His classroom last year had only one other Wong out of 28 students. The parent, who lives in Markham, asked that his first name not be used to keep his child’s identity private.

The parent said it was comical when he first saw it. Then he wondered why the board was segregating and creating a lack of diversity in the class.

He hastened to add that the family likes the teacher and the class is going pretty well. It was just that he felt the whole process was not ideal.

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Another parent, Michael She, who lives in Richmond Hill, said his two children’s virtual classrooms have students with various last names, but that is not the case for some of his friends. “For fairness, a lot of parents would have wished, at a minimum, for a random distribution to keep it more representative of the York Region area,” Mr. She said.

Several school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, including York, have started virtual school more slowly than in-person classes because of families switching to online learning at the last minute amid a rise in COVID-19 cases. Some students still do not have assigned teachers.

Mr. La Touche said scrapping the process because of the alphabetical listing would have further delayed the start of the school year for thousands of students. “Not to minimize the concern in any way, however, the greater interest was in ensuring that we had a successful start and as timely a start as possible,” he said.

Vidya Shah, an assistant professor in education at York University, said considering that the provincial government gave boards only about a month to organize students for in-person and virtual schooling, mistakes were inevitable.

Prof. Shah said that for some students who were perhaps the only ones with a particular surname at their regular school, being grouped by surname “can be quite honouring and create a sense of community automatically.”

“In other ways," she added, “it goes against the very heart of public education, which is to have very diverse spaces with lots of students, with various identities that can come together and learn and take risks together.”

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In non-pandemic times, class lists are typically done in collaboration with teachers and school administrators. Darren Campbell, president of the elementary teachers' union in York Region, said many factors go into forming classes, including paying attention to the learning needs of students.

“This method [the alphabetical grouping] is not one teachers would feel creates the most successful class communities in a school,” Mr. Campbell said, adding: “It’s far from ideal.”

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