Currently, due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, all Toronto schools are closed to in-person learning until at least February 10, 2021. When the first shutdown occurred after March Break last year, the TDSB was unprepared for a prolonged closure. Teachers had little to no training in online pedagogy, there was a lack of widespread technology, and the Ministry of Education provided limited guidance and few expectations for learning.
This time around, our ability to pivot to remote learning has improved dramatically. All teachers have received professional development for online teaching, and thousands of TDSB staff have accessed an additional variety of online, free training programs. When schools closed in December for winter break, all of our teachers had online classrooms set up and running, students and staff took home everything they would need, and all Leaside schools ensured students who would need devices would receive them. On January 4th, when all schools officially moved to online learning, Leaside schools were ready.
This is not to say that online learning is easy or works for everyone. For the 2020-2021 school year, the Ministry of Education set high expectations for live, interactive learning, often referred to as “synchronous” learning. Educators were required to provide synchronous learning to kindergarten students for 180 minutes/day, and to students in Grades 1-8 for 225 minutes/day.
However, now that all learning is remote, parental concerns about synchronous learning have changed somewhat. Last year, many Leaside parents found their children did not have enough of the personal connection offered by synchronous learning; now, parents are raising concerns about too much synchronous learning, especially for our youngest learners. Despite the impressive efforts of our educators, parents of our youngest learners are finding it hard to work at home while supervising and helping with online learning. Kindergarten and primary students need help logging in, frequent breaks and help with snacks and lunchtime. Although older students are more independent, many still struggle to engage in online work.
For students with special needs, the challenges are even more pronounced. Consequently, the Ministry has required schools to remain open for special education students who cannot manage remote learning. In Leaside, Northlea’s Intensive Support Program welcomes 10 students each and every school day, despite the provincial lockdown. Many students with special needs receive physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and more when they are in school. In a remote setting, none of these supports is available, causing long-term setbacks and developmental gaps. The willingness of those front-line educators who answered the call to come in at a time when COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing (and all other classrooms are closed), speaks volumes about their commitment to our most vulnerable students.
With this in mind, not only is it crucial that we follow the guidelines to reduce the number of cases in our city, but also that we advocate to ensure educators be prioritized in Ontario’s vaccine rollout plan. We all want schools to reopen safely and as soon as possible, so that all students have access to the type of learning that best suits their needs.