Most high school students in Newfoundland and Labrador will be moving to a blended learning model when they resume classes after the Easter break, with half the students in class one day and then learning online the next.
In a news release Wednesday, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said high school students who are attending classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic will move to a modified version of the "Scenario 2" approach for returning to class.
That means high school classes will split into two groups, with students alternating each day between in-person classes and online classes via Google Classroom.
The district said specific start times and schedules will be communicated to staff, students and families by the school administration.
Education Minister Tom Osborne said at a media conference Wednesday the tentative step toward classroom learning was taken partially on the advice of medical professionals, who warned of the perils of studying alone, day after day.
"The amount of time students are spending in their bedrooms or in their basements, isolated, is having an impact on emotional health, on mental health," the minister said. "We've heard some reference to vision issues as a result of being in front of a screen for numbers of hours each day."
The announcement comes amid pressure from some high school students and their parents, who say the online model put in place after a February outbreak of the B117 variant is no longer needed.
Newfoundland and Labrador has four active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, down from record numbers in February after a severe variant outbreak in a Mount Pearl high school sent the entire province into lockdown.
More classes missed under virtual model
In recent weeks, high schools have noticed an increase in absenteeism, Osborne said. "Even those who are logged in to the class may not always have the attention for [it], or may simply tune out.… We're seeing those impacts as well."
Concern over that rise is "precisely why" the board is implementing the new blended model, Osborne said, which keeps students learning and engaged five days a week.
Stack labelled the increase in students missing class "slight," rather than radical. Some of is resulted from guidelines prompting students to stay home when experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms or who otherwise might be at risk of spreading the virus, he said.
In some cases, those logged in are "in attendance, but not attending," distracted by their home environment. In other cases, students excelled, he said.
When students become disengaged, Stack added, special teachers are assigned to them.
While the blended model is "not ideal," Osborne said, "it does maximize the in-class learning, while still providing online learning."
It's a modified Scenario 2, which the board had implemented previously, he added. On days outside class, students will still have to log in and participate, as opposed to waiting until their next in-person session. They'll be able to hear and see their instructor through the teacher's laptop, and then work on assignments either alone or in groups through an online document, said board CEO Tony Stack.
Other models could have the teacher splitting a period between the online and in-class students, assigning different tasks to each.
'No reason' not to fill classrooms, parent says
A smattering of parents gathered outside Confederation Building on Wednesday afternoon to protest the board's decision.
"There's no reason why we can't be back to school full time.… All our Maritime colleagues, they are all back in school," said parent Marcia Porter.
"It should be a priority … to keep kids in school and keep them in full time."
Janessa Boyde, a Grade 12 student at Lewisporte Collegiate, says her time in Scenario 3 hasn't been all bad. But she'd rather see a full return to class.
"It's still hard to concentrate and focus, because you're in your own home, and your bed is like right next to you," Boyde said. "It's really hard to get into study mode."
She's also missing one-on-one moments with teachers. In a virtual classroom, if you don't understand the material, then everybody has to hear your question, she explained.
But the blended scenario, she said, is better than nothing.
"I'm just glad we'll get back to seeing our friends."
Risk of variant spread
Osborne said he'd also like to see all students in class every day, but deferred to public health rules. "We are following the guidelines, and we're seeing the maximum number of students based on the guidelines that are in place," he said.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, said her team is still wary of the potential for spread within high schools if another variant is introduced.
The changes will take effect April 14. Teachers will use the preceding two days to transition to the new model, extending the Easter break for students who are currently in class online.
Masks will be worn at all times, Stack said, according to public health rules.
High school students currently attending in-class instruction full time will continue to do so. Some smaller schools may move to full-time in-person classes, if it is feasible.
The blended model will apply to about 50 schools currently operating in Scenario 3, the virtual model. There are no changes to classes for students in kindergarten through Grade 9.
All classes for the francophone school district are already operating in-class at full capacity, according to the NLESD.