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Nora and Willa Stief during online school while their parents work from home and take care of a toddler amid surging COVID-19 cases caused by the coronavirus Omicron variant, in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 7, 2022.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Suzanne Chisholm is vice-principal at SIDES, a public online school in Victoria. She has taught elementary students in both classrooms and online. She holds a doctorate in education.

Online learning has been much-maligned since the pandemic began. In some recent headlines it has been called cruel, ridiculous and harmful. In Ontario, where many of the youngest learners don’t know what it’s like to be inside a physical classroom and have only seen their teacher on a video call, some frustrated and angry parents are boycotting online learning altogether. This makes it sound like we may as well throw our children overboard because online learning is so awful.

As an administrator in a public online K-12 school in British Columbia, I have a different perspective. Online learning can be an excellent option for many students, and for some students it’s the best option. However, it must be done properly, and it usually works better when it is a choice.

It is true that children benefit from in-class learning among their peers. It is also true that physical classrooms are wonderful places for most children, my own 10-year-old son included. It is tragically true that there are mental-health struggles for many children who cannot be in a classroom now because of COVID-19, and that is a crisis.

But imagine these scenarios. What if your child had anxiety about going into a classroom? What if your child or another family member was severely immune-compromised? What if your child was an elite athlete whose training schedule made it impossible to attend a neighbourhood school? What if you lived in a remote community where you couldn’t access certain high-school classes? You would want – and deserve – the same access to excellent K-12 public education that children elsewhere in Canada have.

Purposefully designed online education delivered by trained and skilled teachers plays a crucial role in our modern education system, and provides a vital alternative for many students and families, pandemic or not. The programs we offer at our school serve a diversity of learners, many of them among the most vulnerable in society. Families tell us how glad they are that we exist. Some parents say our school has been a lifeline for their child. Online learning is anything but cruel and harmful for these students.

It is not, then, that online learning itself is so terrible. Why, then, are so many families struggling with it?

The biggest problem is most classroom teachers who have been forced to deliver their programs online were trained to teach in classrooms, not on platforms such as Zoom. Teachers across Canada have worked hard and have adapted, but things have not always been smooth. When I hear about elementary students who are expected to be online synchronously for hours each day, I understand why families are frustrated. That is a recipe for boredom, restlessness and failure. It is often not even possible. For instance, what is a parent to do with one computer and two children at home who are supposed to attend class at the same time?

Teachers at our K-12 school do not require students to be online every day at a particular time. Instead, teachers provide high-quality curriculum-based materials that home facilitators (usually parents) work through with their students at their own pace. In some cases, there are weekly virtual classes in which students connect as a class on Zoom. For instance, students in kindergarten might do a virtual “show and share” once a week. Our Grade 5 students might chat about their art or do a home-based scavenger hunt. Others might connect to our much-loved weekly library reading session. Recently, we had a uniformed police officer read a story on a video call to an engaged group of children. Our Grade 12 chemistry students might attend a virtual tutorial. But for the most part, there is no obligation to be online each day at a particular time. This flexibility is one of the key reasons for our school’s success.

In evaluating online learning, it is essential to separate the difficulties and stresses of the pandemic from the mode of delivery. The real problem with most online learning today is the pandemic has created the conditions for it to be the only option at times. Juggling parenting, working and schooling at home is difficult, especially during a pandemic.

I empathize greatly with families who are struggling with balancing life complexities that include online learning. But we should also understand that online learning in itself can be useful – and vital – in some contexts. It can be excellent. We should all ask ourselves how we can improve educational experiences for everyone, whether they are in classrooms or online. Struggling with online learning is not an inevitable outcome.

These are extraordinary times in which we all need lifelines. The pandemic continues to pack powerful and painful punches. With many preparing for online learning in the Omicron era, we need to consider what this can be, instead of letting ourselves sink in collective despair.

Online learning can effectively fill gaps when in-person schooling is not possible, both now and after the pandemic. I see online school working successfully every day, so I am sure that all of us – parents, policy makers, principals and pedagogical pros such as teachers and education assistants – can work together to support students, regardless of the delivery mode of education.

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