With the prospect of students being out of classrooms for the remainder of the academic year, provinces are gearing up online resources and programs to fill the void.
Ontario rolled out a “learn at home” online portal on Friday that won’t replace being in the classroom, but is meant to address parents’ concerns about learning loss over the next two weeks of schools being closed. Alberta, meanwhile, released some details on how students will learn while they’re at home, including online course packages and telephone check-ins from teachers.
Governments and educators across the country are taking the unprecedented step of re-imagining what a classroom will look like under COVID-19 as they try to limit learning loss and balance the inequities that exist among families in accessing technology.
British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have shuttered classes indefinitely, while other provinces, including Ontario, have said the closures will last two or three weeks.
Pressed on whether school closures would be extended beyond two weeks, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Friday that “everything is on the table,” and the government follows the advice of the province’s chief medical officer of health.
School and daycare closures are part of an approach called physical distancing, which focuses on limiting social contacts. In school and daycare, young people are in close contact and at risk of spreading viruses. Children and youth are also vectors: they can carry the virus home to their parents and grandparents.
When schools are closed, the biggest concern for parents is how to care for their kids. You don’t have to lock them in the house for three weeks. Kids can play outside.
It’s hard to work in these circumstances, so you have to make alternative work arrangements. Working remotely is also a physical distancing measure.
In some countries, child care has been provided for parents who work in essential services. The good news is that these measures should be temporary.
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- Know the rules in your province with our quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned
The province said it will offer interactive online activities for elementary students, and a focus on STEM courses for high-school students as part of its first phase of learning at home
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said if school closures are extended beyond the two weeks, more will be rolled out in the next phase and that would include a greater emphasis on online learning – a contentious issue in recent collective bargaining with the province’s teachers’ unions.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said on Friday that it was unclear what the government intends to do, saying that the union has not been consulted.
“I have gone through the website and seen resources but the Minister provided no description of expectations for students whatsoever, so I’m not sure how much learning will actually happen," Mr. Bischof said.
Alberta said it consulted with its teachers’ association and school boards in developing a plan that outlines the average hours a week of work students will be assigned. In kindergarten to Grade 3, for example, teachers are to assign an average of five hours of work a week, while high-school students would receive three hours of work per course a week.
The government said that teachers will evaluate what curriculum has not yet been covered and plan assignments that students can do at home.
“Government expects that every student, regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status, will continue to learn while in-school classes across the province are cancelled," it said in news release.
Some private schools have already moved online.
Daniel Held, executive director of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said 14 schools with about 7,000 students have shifted to distance learning this week.
His four-year-old daughter, who attends a nursery school, is participating in story time and circle time with her teachers, while his eight-year-old is interacting with educators and classmates in a Google online classroom and doing assignments.
“This is not like normal school; it’s an adaptation,” Mr. Held said. “I’m always grateful for teachers, and now I’m in awe with what they are able to do. It’s not just about the curriculum, it’s about creating an environment where the kids feel nurtured and safe and have consistency during these turbulent times.”
Brett Copeland, who teaches Grade 8 language at the Robbins Hebrew Academy in Toronto, is online twice in the afternoons to teach his students on a social media platform. His classes are studying the novel The Outsiders, and this week shared their PowerPoint presentations on topics including politics and fashion from the 1960s.
“We’ve maintained the integrity of our curriculum in a way that really was shocking,” said Mr. Copeland, who is also director of the middle school. “The kids are amazingly engaged. I think for them they enjoy that sense of community still. They can connect with their peers.”
Mr. Copeland, who has children attending public schools, acknowledged that not all families would be able to access the resources that are available to students in private schools. But he said that many parents are being creative in keeping their children engaged in learning.
“If you have committed individuals who are creative, who are passionate educators, they will do amazing things," he said. “You can also just see from Pinterest to Instagram, parents whether they are educators or not are trying their best.”
E. Wayne Ross, a professor in the department of curriculum and pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, worries that regardless of government motivations, inequities in the education system will be amplified as students learn from home.
He said that parents should understand that during this time of upheaval, learning experiences, especially for younger children, do not mean recreating school in their homes.
“Rather than using worksheets or drilling kids on math facts, or trying to set an agenda based upon textbooks or the provincial curriculum, parents should focus on creating opportunities for the kids to take the lead by exploring things that are of interest them,” Prof. Ross said.
He said that schools fail to allow students in classrooms to drive their own learning by digging deeper into interests.
"In school, students are told what to do, read, and study,” Prof. Ross said. “So it’s really important for parents to allow their kids to learn what it means to be responsible for their own learning, the first step is unlearning the approaches used in school so that young people learn to speak for themselves, understand that they have agency regarding their own education.”
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