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Students struggle as school goes online only in four provinces after Christmas break

Ellen and Rafael Robles tried to have everything in order for Monday morning when their son, Bento, started school virtually after the holiday break rather than in person: a good desk, chair, headphones and an iPad.

Still, the morning got off to a rocky start for the family in Woodbridge, Ont., a suburban community north of Toronto.

“The camera was not working, we couldn’t see the teacher, we couldn’t see anything,” recounted Ellen Robles, describing it as “a little bit of a nightmare.”

After immediately checking through a parents’ group chat that fellow classmates weren’t experiencing the same issues, she rushed to swap desks with him.

“He’s working at her [home] office with her computer, and she’s working from his desk with his iPad,” said Rafael Robles, adding that they’re now looking at getting another computer for Bento so he can do his online classes.

school starts virtually in january 2021
When the iPad wouldn’t work properly for her six-year-old son Bento’s virtual class on Monday, Ellen Robles quickly swapped seats with him. He continued the school day on her home office setup, left, while she worked at his desk using the iPad and her cellphone. (Submitted by Ellen and Rafael Robles)

Aside from a new device, however, Ellen Robles said they’ll also have to divide up their work days to aid the six-year-old’s learning.

“We have to block our time, so I will probably work tonight. I will try to arrange my schedule,” she said. “I will start really working today after he finishes school … so that I can be around and give him some support.”

It can be tough getting back into school routines following the winter break, but students in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario are facing additional challenges this week due to the fact that they’re hitting the books virtually — for at least a week — rather than returning in person, a measure several education ministries announced late last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

In Calgary, Pamela Roach and her son also had a rough first day back on Monday. Her seven-year-old, Declan, struggled to stay engaged and to be heard in his noisy Grade 2 virtual classroom.

That he’s in French immersion — a language Roach doesn’t speak — meant she ran into trouble supporting him, as well as her elder daughter, Caitlin. And like the Robles family, Roach was forced to put her own work as a university professor prepping for a new term and multiple courses on the back burner.

“Just being able to stay engaged in this virtual classroom, I think it’s very difficult for his age,” she said.

Given that Declan already had some struggles while attending school in person, “online learning makes it that much more difficult,” Roach said. “If he’s not understanding something, it’s harder to ask a question. It’s harder to engage with the teacher when everybody is talking to the teacher at the same time.”

back to virtual school in january
Pamela Roach divided her time on Monday between catching up on work and supporting her son Declan, 7, with his virtual schoolwork at their home in Calgary. (Submitted by Pamela Roach)

Like many parents, Roach is worried about the possibility that rising COVID-19 cases could force in-person classrooms to remain closed for longer.

“Today really made it clear that the pressure on people to keep working like everything is normal — [for] teachers to keep teaching like everything is normal and for kids to keep learning like everything is normal — is too much.”

For teachers who are also parents, it was a double whammy of trying to teach students while also juggling their own kids learning from home.

Toronto elementary school teacher Ashanty Sri spent much of Monday trying to calmly guide her grades 5 and 6 students through device compatibility and internet accessibility issues, as well as navigating how to most effectively teach when tech glitches kept booting students out of her online classroom or freezing their video connections.

“At one point, my lights started flickering. I was like ‘Please don’t shut down …’ It’s just that constant worry,” Sri recalled.

ashanty sri
Toronto teacher Ashanty Sri said her online classroom noise spilled over into the next room, where her daughter, Serena, 16, was having her own high school classes, and vice versa. (Submitted by Ashanty Sri)

Her classroom noise also spilled over into the next room, where her 16-year-old daughter, Serena, was trying to find her way through her own online high school courses and lessons — and vice versa.

“It was challenging,” Sri said, noting that older students need parental support and a good space for learning as much as their younger peers do.

“You can hear her teachers teaching her. I’m teaching my students, but I can hear their conversations. And she’s hearing conversations from my students, so she becomes distracted with that.”

‘A tricky balance,’ says infectious disease physician

In Alberta, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange noted in a social media post on Monday that in-person schools will reopen as planned on Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that “we will continue to follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health and medical experts to guide decision-making and to keep students safe.”

Any decision regarding opening or closing schools will require consideration of many factors, according to Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont.

Although schools have been more a reflection of what was happening in the community rather than a driver of COVID-19, “when you get to a point where you have such high amounts of transmission, all in the community, that can certainly change. I think that this is part of what is underlying us having an extra week of online learning. Maybe it might be even a bit longer,”  Chakrabarti said Monday.

“As the numbers in the community increase, we have to kind of adjust our recommendations, but at that same time, I do know that kids do need to be in school … so we have to balance that. I think that, at least for January, it’s going to be a tricky balance.”

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