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Ontario families scramble to prepare for virtual learning as school resumes


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Ontario families scramble to prepare for virtual learning as school resumes

Allyson Bradley and her daughters have transformed the family dining room into a classroom of sorts, getting it ready for when school resumes on Wednesday to online learning.

The tabletop has been cleared of arts and crafts, making way for pencils, books and laptops, and the white board and magnet board are set up.

“It’ll be all three of us on a computer at the same time,” said the Peel district high school teacher who will be leading lessons remotely, as her daughters, aged seven and four, participate in their own online classes.

“Sitting across the table from my two kids trying to keep their attention on a computer and not on each other or their toys, while simultaneously trying to teach my own classes and support my students, is going to be incredibly challenging.

“People aren’t designed to function this way. It’s the equivalent of doing three full-time jobs at once. I’ll be working the hardest I’ve ever worked and still failing to do anything well. It’s a demoralizing way to exist. We never should have been put in this position.”

Across Ontario, educators, parents and students were left scrambling to prepare for a return to class Wednesday, after the winter break. As a result of surging COVID-19 cases, in-person learning, which the province last week assured Ontarians would resume, has been paused.

On Monday, Premier Doug Ford warned that Ontario faces “a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead” and ordered that schools switch to online learning until at least Jan. 17.

The about-face frustrated many educators and families who are calling on the province to use the next two weeks to ensure a safe reopening for schools. Among the demands of some parents and teachers’ unions are measures such as getting N95 masks out to all school staff, HEPA filters in all classes and shared spaces, making additional rapid testing available, prioritizing access to booster shots for educators, and reinstituting the reporting of COVID cases.

Bradley and her husband decided last week they wouldn’t send their girls to school, had they reopened on Wednesday to in-person learning, because the province has stopped reporting COVID cases in schools. Instead, they planned on leaving the girls with their grandparents. So Bradley was glad to hear this week that schools would not reopen for in-person learning because she can now stay home and supervise her daughters. But this sudden pivot comes with challenges.

Online learning last year was “a disaster” for daughter Natalie, who’s in Grade 2. And virtual learning will be new for Isobel, who’s in Junior Kindergarten. By Tuesday afternoon, the Mississauga mother still wasn’t sure what to expect for her daughters on Wednesday, such as whether their learning would be synchronous (live) or asynchronous, (which can include pre-recorded lessons and assignments and allows independent learning time for students.)

Toronto’s public board says classes will be synchronous on Wednesday and that teachers have started reaching out to students to connect with them. At the city’s Catholic board, students have been reminded about how to access the online classroom and on Wednesday teachers will inform them of the hours for learning. Both boards have urged families who need computer devices to reach out to their schools.

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On Tuesday, the Toronto District School Board held a planning and priorities committee meeting on reopening school. Staff said the board is securing more devices for students in need, which may take about a week. It also noted that N95 masks have been provided to all schools and administrative sites for staff and that the COVID screening tool is being updated. When asked about the availability of rapid antigen COVID tests and PCR tests for when students return to in-person learning, the board said it is waiting for more information from the ministry.

In Kingston, Lia De Pauw is a working single mother of two boys. Her son Isaak, 22 months, is in daycare, but she hasn’t secured child care for Thorben, 7.

De Pauw, who works in local public health and has been recently assigned to work at vaccine clinics, is trying to secure emergency care for Thorben, which only starts up next week. She has lined up a babysitter for Wednesday and Thursday, but nothing beyond that. She’s now juggling multiple options about what to do, “while also ensuring that I’m not going too far into debt or living too close to the margin.”

She believes closing schools was a “completely irresponsible decision,” and would have preferred the province make further restrictions elsewhere to try to limit the spread of COVID.

“If our goal is, ‘What’s the safest thing for children?’ it’s much better for kids, overall in their health, to be at school,” she said, adding schools are lower-risk locations for transmission than other places in the community.

De Pauw is “completely fine” with Thorben not participating in remote learning “because virtual school was such a disaster.”

Toronto mother Jessica Lyons who has three daughters, aged 10, eight and three, feels “some relief” that in-person learning is paused, adding she planned on keeping her two older girls at home over the next two weeks.

“The setup that kids were in for going back on Wednesday was truly terrifying and awful,” said Lyons, a part-time nurse and member of the Ontario Parent Action Network. “I’m thankful we’re not sending kids back for a mass infection event right now.”

She too wants to see the province devote more resources to making schools safer.

“They have to turn things around at this point and actually begin seriously investing and caring about public education.”

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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