When Cheryl Ambrose readies her granddaughter for the first day of second grade, the pair won’t be walking to the bus stop or driving to school together.
Instead, the seven-year-old will mosey over to the front room in their Kitchener, Ont., home and set up for another year in a virtual classroom, as she has since she began junior kindergarten.
While many caregivers welcomed the end of remote learning with open arms, Ambrose is among those clinging to virtual schooling options. For some, the continued spread of COVID-19 and potential risk of long COVID are motivating factors. Others found their children learn better outside of a traditional classroom.
It was a combination of the two for Ambrose, though the decision was not without compromise. She had enrolled her granddaughter in French immersion for the first grade, but the Waterloo Region District School Board stopped offering the program for remote learners this year due to a lack of demand.
“It’s more important for her to be safe and for us to be safe – as safe as possible – than it is for her to continue with French immersion,” Ambrose said.
In fact, if the school board stops offering a remote option, Ambrose said she’ll start homeschooling her granddaughter rather than sending her back into a physical classroom.
“I never imagined I would be teaching. It’s not one of the things that was high on my list of things to do. However, I’m well organized, and we have access to resources, so I would move into homeschooling,” said Ambrose, who is partially retired but still manages business operations for her husband’s construction company from home.
As it stands, the Waterloo public board said 248 elementary students were learning remotely along with 143 secondary students, compared to 501 and 308 the previous year.
While remote learning is no longer compulsory, many jurisdictions continue to offer it as an option.
In British Columbia, for example, 18 districts offer online schools, as do 16 independent school authorities. Saskatchewan has remote options for kindergarten through Grade 12, while Manitoba offers virtual classes for high schoolers.
In Ontario, each board was given the option of whether to provide remote schooling.
The province’s largest, the Toronto District School Board, said roughly 1,250 elementary students and 950 high schoolers were enrolled in virtual learning for the upcoming school year, down from 2,300 and 1,375 the previous year.
While popularity waned significantly as the spread of COVID-19 slowed and enclosed spaces became less frightening for many, the pandemic-induced period of online learning pushed the field forward, said Roopa Reddy, a lecturer in social enterprise at the University of Waterloo with a particular interest in course design.
“There is a big difference between emergency remote teaching and learning that we started to experience a few years ago at the start of the pandemic, and courses that are designed to be online,” Reddy said.
Over the last three years, she said, teachers have learned when to employ synchronous — or simultaneous — learning and when it’s most effective to let students do things at their own pace.
For example, Reddy said, she’s found luck creating “mini lecture videos.”
“Duration is important,” she said. “It’s difficult to expect somebody to watch a one-hour or two-hour video of a lecture.”
But a five, 10 or 20-minute video is much more approachable for students, Reddy said.
“My approach in general does depend on the context of my students — things like the size of the class, the subject area, and the goals of the course all matter for those decisions of what makes more sense to be synchronous online, or synchronous in person, or asynchronous,” she said. “All of that depends on the context.”
Dave Cormier, a digital learning specialist at the University of Windsor, said that context can’t be minimized.
“It’s easy to forget that there are lots of people who still don’t have good connection to the internet,” he said.
That’s of particular concern for students in remote or rural areas, who he noted stand to benefit the most from remote learning because it gives them access to more specialized courses that may not be offered nearby.
Statistics Canada found in 2021 that 1.2 per cent of households with children did not have access to the internet, and the portion jumped to 4.2 per cent for those in the bottom 25 per cent of income distribution.
“If you come from a family where there’s one laptop and there are four kids, you’re going to struggle to have the time to be able to do the work,” Cormier added.
StatCan said 58.4 per cent of households with internet had fewer than one device per person.
Ambrose said she’s acutely aware that not everyone can take the path she’s on with her granddaughter’s schooling, whether it’s because of internet access, technology or even having to work from an office.
“Not everyone is able to take advantage of those opportunities,” she said. “We’re coming from a very privileged position. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
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