Roughly 14 per cent of Hinton’s students within the Evergreen Catholic Separate School Division (ECSRD) have opted for virtual at-home learning in September. Mike Paonessa, superintendent of ECSRD explained that families were given two options; in-class learning under the provincial COVID-19 conditions and guidelines, or virtual at-home learning.
At home learning would allow them to remain registered with the school and the division would support their learning at home through teachers and programming.
“In Hinton it is roughly 14 per cent of our kids and that is division wide, Hinton is no different. In Hinton we will have roughly 70 kids that are going to be at home learning and the remainder will be at school learning,” Paonessa said.
ECSRD has about 4,300 students and around 600 will learn from home.
After speaking with colleagues across the province, Paonessa noted that anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of students opted for at-home virtual learning.
Families within the Grande Yellowhead Public School Division (GYPSD) received an email inviting them to identify which option would work for their family this month.
Parents are still connecting with principals about their intentions, stated Dr. Kelly Harding, assistant superintendent of GYPSD.
ECSRD has reorganized their teachers based on the number of kids in a classroom. If a whole class of kids is at home, that teacher is teaching virtually, and other teachers may teach virtually part time and in-class part time.
This is allowing for smaller class sizes in some instances and greater opportunity for physical distancing.
Each grade has access to an online teacher across the division but teachers may be reorganized each quarter based on the changes.
ECSRD broke their school year into quarters, in order for students to change their decision of virtual or in-class learning throughout the year.
At each quarter, some students may be coming into the schools and others may be leaving for virtual learning.
“We put money aside from our division to hire some teachers to work online,” Paonessa said.
Paonessa also noted that very few parents have chosen to completely leave the division for traditional homeschooling. While the province is allowing kids to practice extra curricular sports, ECSRD is choosing to hold off on sports until after the school year has begun.
Physical education will be offered in all schools, outdoors as much as they can, and avoiding team or contact activities.
“Starting with things that are adaptable in this environment just to see how things go,” Paonessa said.
Despite school boards stating they are ready for the new school year, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) called on the province to push back the first day of school to give teachers and principals more time to prepare for teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are some divisions in North America that have gone back with success and others have gone back with failures. We’re able to learn from the things that are going on and whether it’s Hinton or otherwise, the potential delay to the start of the school year for students entering would be stronger if the teachers and the divisions had more time to prepare,” stated Jesse Smeall, a Hinton teacher at Ecole Mountain View and local ATA president.
Students in many other Alberta divisions are returning the first week of September but GYPSD is returning students after labour day on Sept. 8, allowing teachers three days in schools to prepare.
Most teachers are asking for additional time to prepare for the additional health guidelines in place.
One of the three preparation days for GYPSD teachers is called “Kick off,” where the whole division gets together for professional development, while the other two include school staff meetings and in-class preparations.
“But with all of the additional measures being asked, whether it’s the spacing, the plexi glass, or the masking, or any of those things, even photocopying additional booklets because there is no shared materials, we need the extra time,” Smeall said.
Smeall added that GYPSD has a solid plan in place and it aligns with the provincial guidelines.
“They started preparing that at the end of the last school year when we were in emergency remote learning. They were ahead of the game for that,” she said.
Extra time could potentially create a safer environment as certain things will take time to put in place, Smeall noted.
“There are some teachers that are extremely comfortable going back and then on the other end we have some underlying health concerns with some teachers where there is some hesitancy going back. For themselves, for their students. It’s a tough situation,” Smeall said.
The level of how comfortable her colleagues are about returning to the classroom varies greatly, but most are ready to go back with some hesitancy in this brand new situation, Smeall added.
“While our re-entry plan, as written, already provides school boards with the ability to delay or stagger school start dates should they decide that is in their local best interest, I agreed to further engage with education partners and get their views on this ATA request. This was done by having follow-up discussions with the Alberta School Boards Association and the College of Alberta School Superintendents,” stated Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education on Aug 21.
Upon those discussions, the partner groups indicated their confidence that school re-entry plans provide local school authorities with the autonomy and flexibility to ensure local needs are met and to prepare schools for a safe re-entry.
Schools under the GYPSD rolled out individual re-entry plans on Monday taking into consideration their unique schools.
“Across the division we’ve made some really significant operational adaptations to ensure that we can provide real comprehensive well supported at-home learning options for families,” said Harding, during a virtual GYPSD press meeting.
Schools developed procedures outlining hand hygiene and cleaning requirements for schools.
Physical distancing is recommended through the provincial guidelines and face masks are required for teachers, staff, and students in grades 4 to 12.
Each principal will determine how physical education will occur within their schools, but gymnasiums can be used to deliver physical education programming.
HCHS will not be running any extra curricular programs this fall and will re-evaluate based on new information throughout the year.
“School principals have been working all summer to implement all of the government mandated health and safety protocols. They are also supporting parents to return to in-class learning if the at-home option is not working. Alternately, if parents want to shift their child to the at-home option later on, they will facilitate that shift,” Harding said.
High school students within GYPSD have the ability to choose from on-site learning, hybrid virtual learning at home, or at-home virtual learning.
Hybrid learning means they will receive a digitized virtual learning package of all the curricular outcomes, instruction, and learning, which can take place partially at school and partially at home.
High school students in the hybrid option have a special area within their schools where they can go for their virtual learning and get support from their high school teachers.
“Kids taking Math 30-1, Chem 30, or Physics 30; they really need that comprehensive support from teachers. We built this because we wanted to offer the best choices to our parents that we could,” said GYPSD superintendent, Carolyn Lewis.
The options available for junior high and elementary students are either on-site learning or at-home virtual learning. An adult will need to be available to help support the child in their virtual learning.
Virtual learning is completely digitized but paper packages are available for families with an undependable internet connection.
GYPSD is encouraging parents to purchase a chrome book for their students if possible.
In an instance where that isn’t possible, they can communicate with the principal who may be able to loan them equipment that will help them with their virtual learning.
When schools switched to virtual learning in the spring, the programming was modified with only a few hours of instruction each day, but GYPSD is now offering the full courses virtually.
This means students can participate in a virtual classroom via their computer camera and microphone, receiving instruction and accessing the work.
Attendance is taken every day via their virtual classrooms and the courses are a lot more formal going into the new school year compared to the spring virtual learning.
For those students using paper packages, attendance will be tracked by the teacher assigned to them using the telephone and in-person meetings at The Learning Connection (TLC) sites within each community.
Teachers will work with parents to determine the process that works best. To help students and their families, Alberta distance learning teachers are available to offer support as well as GYPSD teachers.
Lewis explained that the GYPSD teacher may not necessarily be a teacher in the child’s regular school, depending on the number of kids who return to class and how the schools are reorganized.
“Some of our teachers may be teaching traditional in class and some of our teachers may be providing support virtually to our children at home,” Lewis said.
Students can also book a desk at a TLC site where they can receive support from TLC reachers.
“We’re ready to go for the fall and should we go into another quarantine, we’re ready for every single child to be in virtual education this year,” Lewis said, assuring that the division is ready to move into any scenario proposed by the provincial government and Alberta’s medical chief officer of health.
“What I’m proud about and outstanding in our jurisdiction is our amazing staff. Our principals in particular, who are so committed to their families, they want to do right by them. Every step of the way,” stated Lewis.
Lewis pointed out that since the government changed the school funding formula, only the school in which they are registered receives funding for that child.
This means, if a number of kids are pulled from the division and they lose those allocations, they could lose staff, she explained.
For more info on GYPSD schools, head to gypsd.ca, or find info on ECSRD schools at ecsrd.ca.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice