During the summer, the Ministry of Education announced that publicly-funded school boards in Ontario would be required to begin the 2020-2021 school year by offering two teaching systems: in-person and virtual learning. For the TDSB, getting both systems up and running has proven to be an extraordinarily challenging task.
Whereas initial polling from early August suggested approximately 20% of students would choose virtual learning, at the time I am writing this article, roughly 30% of our 240,000 students are enrolled in our five virtual schools (one secondary school and four elementary schools). This increase makes the TDSB’s virtual school system equivalent in size to the fifth largest board in Ontario – serving approximately 80,000 students and employing more than 3,000 teachers (and still short several dozen French Immersion/Extended French teachers). Preparing the TDSB’s five virtual schools to meet these unprecedented requirements has been “virtually” complex – due, not only to sheer size, but also to the organizational, technological, staffing, and pedagogical issues involved as well.
In the case of Leaside, students did not follow this general pattern. In September, 85% of Leaside High students elected to return to in-person classes, and the percentage of elementary students electing to return to bricks and mortar was even higher, reaching into the high 80s at our three elementary schools. Many reasons may account for these trends: low neighbourhood case counts throughout the summer; parents needing to go back to work; dissatisfaction with online learning in the spring; a desire to return to normalcy and connection; and confidence that our local schools would be able to provide a safe return to school. That said, a number of neighbourhood families have chosen virtual, and although there have been bumps along the way in operationalizing this new system, many families are finding success and connection through this new method of learning too.
To be sure, the in-school experience is certainly different from before. Layers of risk mitigation are in place in all of our buildings: everyone is masked, cohorted, and divided into specific zones of the school; other requirements include pre-screening before arrival, with additional screening as kids and staff enter our schools; and there is regular hand washing and hand sanitizing, as well as enhanced cleaning of high-touch surfaces throughout the day. Parent volunteers, once such a strong presence in Leaside schools, are no longer permitted to help on a day-to-day basis because of strict no-visitor policies in our buildings, and our beloved tradition of the fall cross-country season, like all school sports teams and most co-curriculars, is on hold. The over-arching focus is on creating a safe and healthy learning environment for our students and staff.
And yet, despite all these measures and changes, Leaside schools remain vibrant places of laughter and learning. Walk by Rolph, Bessborough or Northlea at any time of day and you are likely to see and hear classes playing outside or partaking in an outdoor learning experience. It was a long six months apart – some joke the longest March Break on record – and it is so good to be together again.