Earlier decisions could have avoided chaos in online learning

As we entered 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce had visions of expanding online learning into the province’s schools. Be careful what you wish for.

Ontario has gotten online learning in spades and so far it has been anything but a success. Without a doubt, it was a difficult summer school assignment for the Ministry of Education and school boards across the province to prepare to educate elementary and high school students in both the classroom and remotely in homes, without knowing how many families would choose each option.

But the province and the school boards didn’t do themselves any favours by waiting until about a month before classes were to start to survey parents about their preferences. With only a few weeks to prepare, the province announced 20 to 30 per cent of parents chose the online option, forcing boards to reassign teachers to online teaching, reshuffle classes and transfer teachers to different schools.

It was a mad scramble that caused the biggest board, the Toronto District School Board, to twice delay the start of online teaching as it worked out staffing and technical issues.

If back-to-school plans were drafted earlier and communicated earlier, parents would have had time to make decisions based on what’s best for their children, not on avoiding what they fear the most.

And it was fear that motivated frantic parents, frustrated by the lack of details, to create Facebook and WhatsApp support groups, some with thousands of members, in an effort to share information days before classes were to begin.

With only hours to go before online classes were to start on Tuesday, far too many questions remained unanswered. What grade would individual teachers be teaching and what’s the plan if a teacher gets sick? Will the online system be capable of supporting thousands of students relying on live video conferencing at the same time?

When virtual online classes did open, too many parents were unable to sign their children in, or in some cases, no teachers were assigned.

The dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases as the return to school approached caused thousands of parents to rethink their choice of sending their kids into crowded classroom. The province made no effort to reduce class sizes other than to offer an online option in the apparent hope that enough parents would choose it.

At the TDSB, online enrolment rose from 56,000 students to about 78,000 in the final weeks before the virtual schools were set to open. In the final 24 hours before Tuesday’s launch of the virtual schools, the board hired about 350 teachers off its supply list and that still left it 150 short.

Meanwhile, to the west at the Peel District School Board, 10,000 students made the late switch to online learning, swelling the share of students choosing that option from 25 to 40 per cent and forcing a delay in starting online schooling.

That the rollout of the virtual schools last week was called a nightmare by some parents and teachers seemed inevitable. Online learning in the spring, when all students in Ontario were ordered not to return from March break, was deemed a failure in the end.

Synchronous learning was sparse and inconsistent, parents struggled with being their kids’ teachers, parents and with elementary students, their playmates. Far too many children made it quite clear they did not want their parents as teachers and had no interest in the computer, other than for video games.

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This time around parents aren’t expected to teach but the technical and staffing challenges remain. These are unprecedented circumstances but right from the beginning the province has seemed to be two steps behind in every aspect of introducing virtual learning.

Parents will have three chances — in October, November and January — to switch between online and in-class learning. While no parent is going to turn down having options for their children, the transfer of students between programs, combined with last-minute decisions and poor communications, is a recipe for more chaos.

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