In-person or remote? Under stay-at-home order, it’s decision time again for HWDSB parents

·3 min read

Families of elementary students in Hamilton’s public board must decide by the end of the weekend if they plan to switch learning models between remote and in-person — whenever physical classrooms reopen.

“We understand these are challenging times,” said Bill Torrens, superintendent of program with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), adding that only parents and guardians who want their children to switch delivery models need to fill out the form on the portal.

The HWDSB transition date is scheduled for Feb. 25, but Torrens said they don’t intend to make any transitions until in-person learning resumes. Earlier this month, the province extended remote learning in Hamilton school boards until at least Feb. 10.

This is the second of three scheduled opportunities to make the switch throughout the year. A reorganization of classes that took place in early November saw about 1,500 students reshuffled. Torrens said the remote program grew by about 400 students at the time.

He said they’re not expecting as many students to make the switch this time around, but anticipates that “slightly more” students will move to remote learning permanently.

“If they were feeling uncomfortable about it previously, they probably would have moved in November,” Torrens said.

He said high COVID-19 case counts is another factor.

“There is that general concern ... about returning to any kind of congregated settings,” he said.

Though remote learning has been a challenge for Beth Hurl and her daughter — “a social animal,” she says — the single mother has decided her six-year-old will finish off the first grade from home rather than send her back to the classroom amid school disruptions and high COVID-19 case counts.

“There’s so much that they don’t seem to have control of,” she said. “In my gut, I just don’t feel good sending her back.”

Hurl, a single mother and stay-at-home parent, said she put in a request this week for her daughter to learn remotely — in part for her daughter’s safety, but in part to help reduce the spread to other demographics that are known to experience more severe symptoms.

“She may end up with just a runny nose, but she has to come grocery shopping with me. We still have to interact in public,” she said. “It’s not for us, so much, it’s for somebody else.”

The Catholic board has pushed back its transition date, initially scheduled for the week of Jan. 13, indefinitely.

“We thought that with all the uncertainty with regard to when in-school learning would resume, that it was just unfair to ask parents to make a decision without more certainty, so we have deferred,” said HWCDSB chair Pat Daly.

Courtney Fleming, a single mother of a Grade 3 student at Lawfield Elementary School, said she would like to keep her daughter at home, but she can’t.

“I need to send her back,” she said. “I would love to have another option, but the options aren’t there.”

Her daughter has been learning remotely since mid-December, when they both tested positive for COVID-19. Children need social interaction, she said. But, for now, the benefits of staying home outweigh that need.

“Is this hard on children? Absolutely ... it’s incredibly difficult for them and it’s incredibly difficult for parents,” she said. “But it is exhausting as a front-line health-care worker.”

Dr. Martha Fulford, infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital, said she is an advocate for kids to be in the classroom.

“The good news story about COVID is it doesn’t actually make kids very sick,” she said, adding that the toll its taken on mental health is “not OK.”

Fulford is a contributing author on a SickKids report, the third edition of which was last updated Jan. 21, advocating for “the safe continued return of children and youth to school.”

“We should be figuring out how we’re going to coexist with this virus long term,” she said. “The pandemic we can control is the pandemic of harm to our kids.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator