In September, as the pandemic summer began to wane, school children across Ontario found themselves back in the classroom for the first time since March.
For Jason Bradshaw, a science teacher with the Peel District School Board (PDSB), the occasion meant dusting off and booting up his laptop. He was one of many assigned to teach online, as PDSB staffed an entire digital school operating in parallel to in-person education. It gave students the option to learn from the safety of their homes.
The system wasn’t perfect, but was generally considered to be an improvement from what was scraped together in March. Students (and teachers) who wanted to work online had an option, as did those who prefered the classroom.
But the compromise wasn’t to last. Since the end of August, the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario has trended rapidly toward the top of case charts at increasing speed. In Peel Region, and especially in Brampton, the pace has accelerated faster than anywhere else in Ontario and the virus has spread out of control.
In mid-October, students were offered a chance to reassess. Would they prefer to learn online or from home?
The answer was overwhelming. The proportion of students opting to learn from home was so great that the model of online and in-person schools was no longer viable. Both PDSB and Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (DPCDSB) switched to a hybrid model for high school students that sees teachers juggling in-class and virtual class at the same time.
“The way I describe it: it’s similar to what I was doing when I was teaching online, but with a live studio audience,” Bradshaw told The Pointer. “I still have the computer in front of me, I can see my online students, I can interact with them. But I’m doing this all with some number of in-person students in front of me who I also have to engage and respond to as well.”
To try his best to maximize the learning experience for his students, Bradshaw has created a mission control cobbled together from board computers and his own devices. His system involves using a Chromebook to broadcast his lessons to students at home, a personal laptop is at the heart of the operation, a desktop links his online presentation to the class projector and an iPad helps to monitor the online chatbox.
“People are right to consider the accessibility for students, they should always be our primary focus … but in doing so, people forget this is not what any teacher has ever really trained for,” he added. “The way the system is working right now is leveraging the fact teachers are going to fill in the gaps and give a little extra to make it work [including providing their own devices]. That’s an expectation I don’t think is really fair for myself or my colleagues.”
Bradshaw says the majority of his students are tuning in online. It’s not uncommon, he says, to have five students in front of his desk and a further 25 learning online.
At PDSB, 57 percent of elementary school students are learning online and 43 percent in person. At the secondary school level, 45.1 percent are only online, while 54 percent are taking part using an “adaptive” model.
It seems the steeply rising COVID-19 case count in schools has convinced many students and families they’re better off learning at home. Data taken from dashboards maintained by the two main school boards at 12 p.m. on November 23 show 40 percent (or 163) schools in Peel had at least one active case of COVID-19. Of that figure, 56 DPCDSB schools were reporting a total of 130 cases, while 196 infections were spread out between 107 PDSB schools.
In the face of these figures, and startling rates of community transmission, Peel entered a 28-day lockdown on Monday.
Between September and November 15, there were 14 outbreaks of COVID-19 at Peel schools. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases in school where an epidemiological link can be found to suggest transmission took place in the classroom. Five additional outbreaks have been reported since November 15, including the recent brief closure of DPCDSB’s Holy Spirit School. Data from Peel Public Health says 64 percent of elementary staff or students involved in nine outbreaks were asymptomatic.
Despite the spread of cases in some schools and lockdown measures, DPCDSB teachers are still required to report to the classroom. Even those teaching courses entirely online are being told to do so from school property.
Measures introduced by Peel’s medical officer of health Dr. Lawrence Loh on November 8 told employers to give their staff the option to work from home if possible. While this is difficult for many, those continuing to work in DPCDSB’s entirely online elementary school could possibly have done so.
Yet, even in the face of closures, wide infection spread and warnings from Peel’s top public health doctor, DPCDSB has told its staff that to teach online they must be in a classroom.
“DPCDSB educators teaching students in remote-only learning mode will continue to do so from DPCDSB schools,” Bruce Campbell, general manager, communications and community relations, told The Pointer on November 10. The statement was reconfirmed on November 23. “As schools remain open and with no direction to close schools and implement 100 percent remote operations such as was the case during the initial closure period, DPCDSB educators will continue to be based in our schools.”
Asked for comment, Loh said the final decision lies with the board. “I have instructed owners/operators (in this case, the school board) to permit work from home wherever possible,” he said in an email. “It is up to them to decide what is possible.”
As Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce repeat that “the safest place for kids is in the schools, not in the community,” it is teachers who are stretched to keep students there. Not only are some now teaching from empty classrooms instead of their homes, others are learning to juggle two jobs at once to offer the best option to students.
“I don’t want to be too blunt, but I don’t think it’s a model that is giving either group of students the best possible experience,” Bradshaw added. “Your attention is being split; teaching online and teaching in person are two very different things… it almost feels like you’re doing the job of two teachers at the same time.”
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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer