Class sizes were major source of concern when Hamilton school’s reopened. What about online class sizes?

·3 min read

It’s the size of online classes, not in-person classes, that are posing problems for teachers and students, says the head of a local teachers’ union.

“All online classes are as big as they can be,” said Jeff Sorensen, president of the public board’s elementary teachers’ union. “Full-day kindergarten classes are around 29 students per class. In Grades 4 to 8, where there are no class caps, we’ve been told that nearly all of them have at least 30 students.

“Handling 30 kids in a physical space is difficult enough. It’s virtually impossible to keep track of so many 13-year-old kids online and manage to make sure they’re attentive and doing the work.”

While much of the fuss around school reopenings initially concerned in-person class sizes and physical distancing, online class sizes have become a recent source of frustration for parents whose children are in classes that have more than 30 students and one teacher trying to manage them all.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has said that a number of online classes in Grades 4 to 8 have over 30 students, with the largest being a Grade 7 class of 33. All kindergarten classes are at or under 29 students.

In the board’s latest reorganization of classes and resources, some online classes have increased in size or merged with others due to a cut back on teaching staff.

“It’s hard to keep 30 students online and engaged when, from the vantage of the teacher, it’s like you’re looking at 30 small rectangles in one video conference. When you get into the older grades there isn’t always a parent around to keep track of their child, so you can’t count on someone being on the other end of the virtual classroom making sure the student is doing their work, completing the work, not disrupting each other and following classroom rules,” said Sorensen.

Virtual classrooms have been a source of difficulty for Hamilton school boards since the schools opened in September. Teachers have reported having limited technology available to them, while parents have complained about difficulties for both teachers and students to get acquainted with the software used to conduct virtual education.

As of the latest reorganization, 9,050 HWDSB students are enrolled in online classes. The number jumped by a net total of 300 students in late October, when the board gave students an opportunity to decide if they wanted to switch from in-person classes to online or vice versa.

Bill Torrens, superintendent of student achievement at the HWDSB, said the board hopes to compensate for larger class sizes with good teaching staff.

“There is evidence that class size can have an impact on students, but good teaching practices still have a positive impact on students regardless of class size, too.”

Still, Torrens acknowledged that class sizes in the virtual school program are large.

“I know we always use the word unprecedented, but these are unpredictable times and there may be, for whatever reason, a move for parents to return to the bricks-and-mortar schools later on. If parents continue to want to come to remote learning, obviously we’d need to find a solution for that.”

The board has struggled with financial constraints that have resulted in fewer full-time teaching staff and smaller school budgets.

As part of last week’s reorganization, roughly 400 teachers were moved to new classes or schools while several full-time jobs were eliminated.

After discovering a potential budget deficit of $10 million by the end of the school year, the board recommended cutting back on some expenses, including teaching staff, which it has reduced to the tune of $2.3 million.

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator