In class, and online — at the same time
‘Double duty’ the new reality for teachers at a growing number of Ontario boards
They are teaching in-person and online. At the same time. The Upper Canada District School Board in Eastern Ontario was believed to be the first board to require its teachers to livestream lessons from their inperson classes so that kids who’d opted to learn remotely could watch, too, from home.
Then, just last week, both the York and Dufferin-Peel Catholic boards announced they’re shifting to a similar, double-duty model as they navigate both a teacher shortage and limited budgets amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province gave families the choice of sending their children to learn in person, or keeping them home to learn online. This has made it tricky for boards to plan and staff classes given the large number of children who chose virtual learning, and the option for families to transfer between the two. Some boards have yet to find educators to fill all virtual job openings, leaving kids without teachers.
Beyhan Farhadi, of the faculty of education at York University and an expert in online learning, wrote to the Upper Canada board with her concerns about having teachers responsible for such different types of learning simultaneously.
“The announcement to parents on Sept. 21 is unacceptable, unsustainable and sets up students and the teachers responsible for their learning to fail,” said Farhadi.
“How can a teacher do both without confining themselves to a limited space for the majority of the instructional period? I am saddened at the loss of quality learning that will result from reducing learning to chalk-and-talk and passive consumption,” she said.
In synchronous, or live, virtual environments, “teachers use small-group breakout rooms, student-led activities and inquiry-based projects, where teacher provide personalized one-onone support to students. They do not lecture at length,” Farhadi added.
Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said “our government delivered choice for parents — providing them with two options — in-class learning or virtual learning” and more than $100 million in funding for it.
“We also set the highest standards in Canada for remote learning to ensure our students receive a quality education through these unprecedented times” with three-quarters of the day expected to be “in a live, Zoom-like setting.”
She also said that “to ensure quality online education, we mandated online learning professional development for all educators, invested $69 million to help boards hire principals and administrative support for remote learning, and $15 million to purchase over 30,000 tablets for families in need. Moreover, days ago, we announced an additional investment targeting boards like Peel and Toronto, to bolster funding to ensure quality and safe education for those families and students.”
Most boards have created “virtual schools” with their own, separate staff of teachers and administrators.
But in its letter to families last week, the York Catholic board said “given the various operational and staffing challenges faced in the current remote learning model, and the need to find a solution that is sustainable for the remainder of the school year, a decision has been made in the best interest of all elementary students ... to reorganize class structures, allowing all elementary students to be a part of their home school. This new hybrid model blends face-to-face learners with remote learners into the same class under the direction of the home school classroom teacher.”
It goes on to say that “this hybrid model has numerous benefits, including keeping remote learners in their home school with their friends, maintaining physical distancing in classrooms and offering a seamless transition from inclass learning to remote learning or viceversa ... at any time.”
Schools in the York Catholic board will be closed Tuesday after the long weekend, and transition to the new model on Wednesday.
Boards that have, or plan to have, teachers take double duty have come under fire from parents and educators. Parents have started petitions opposing the moves, saying kids’ education will suffer.
Filomena Ferraro, president of the 4,000-member York Region local of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said there have been constant disruptions for staff and students already “since the beginning of the school year” and believes the board can’t afford to hire more teachers.
“I don’t think anything about the (hybrid) plan is good,” she said. “Our members are not at all happy, parents are not very happy.”
In the Upper Canada board, teachers are already feeling stressed.
At that board, based in Brockville, educators are actually on what’s akin to quadruple duty, said Erin Blair, head of the local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. That’s because they are responsible for in-class and live online learning at the same time, plus creating content for online learning for students who don’t want live lessons, as well as paper packages to be delivered to students that have requested them — much like a correspondence course.
“Each of those forms is a totally different way of teaching,” said Blair. “It’s not like you can do one style and apply it (to the others). It’s a disservice to students to do that ... and it’s an incredible burden, which my members are really struggling with.”
Blair sent an open letter to parents, saying “there has not been the necessary funding from the provincial government for school boards to make this return as safe as it could be.”
But a rebuttal letter from the chair of the board said Blair’s “featured misleading and inaccurate information” and said livestreaming “will not be livestreaming resembling what is used in reality TV programs where multiple cameras are videoing participants.”
Chair John McAllister said there will be one camera, and that kids will have the option of being on video, and can ask questions via a “chat” feature and view all class materials online.
For Cornwall teacher Heather Donihee, the “quadruple” duty she has taken on for her French Immersion students in Grades 5 and 6 is challenging, but she and her colleagues “are making it work because that’s what teachers do.”
“If I was teaching only in class, I would teach one way,” she added. “If I was teaching only (livestreaming) I would teach totally differently.”
Now, she talks to students online as if they were in class with her, asking them questions as she would anyone in the room.
She keeps the camera on her while she’s talking, and when it’s time for kids to work independently, she keeps the camera turned to the front of the classroom. Kids in the virtual mode can unmute their microphones and call out a question at any time.
The key, Donihee added, “is just trying to keep that level of engagement up, while they are sitting in front of a computer all day.”
A teacher arranges desks at a school in Montreal. Ontario school boards are asking teachers to livestream lessons from their in-person classes so that students who opted to learn remotely could watch from home.