Hamilton teachers’ union has concerns over Ontario’s push for live videoconferencing amid COVID-19

The president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers’ Local in Hamilton, Ont., says he has concerns over security and accessibility as Ontario moves forward with a live videoconferencing plan for teachers and students. Don Mitchell / Global News

The president of the union representing Hamilton’s elementary school teachers says he doesn’t “know what the payoff is” in Ontario’s recent directive to increase the use of live videoconferencing by teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers’ Local, says he has issues with the process on two fronts, saying students may not have the technology to access live learning and that the practice may also put both teachers’ and students’ overall security at risk.

On Monday, Hamilton’s school boards sent a letter to families outlining guidelines for privacy and security as schools begin a move to virtual classroom settings.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Ontario allows school employees to be voluntarily redeployed to congregate care

Sorensen told Global News that he “appreciates the intent” of the Ministry of Education in “improving” the learning process but says this is not the time since technology is simply not up to “snuff” to accurately “imitate” what really happens in a classroom.

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“There are many students that don’t have the technical abilities and the access to live learn,” Sorensen told Global News.

“It’s very recent technology, and to try to get 22, 23 students online all at the same time with always functioning technology is almost impossible.”

In addition, Sorensen believes there are safety concerns for both students and the teachers he represents, saying hackers could potentially record either party and manipulate that footage.

“We don’t know who’s going to be in a virtual classroom, not only in the students’ homes but in third-party homes,” Sorensen said.

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“We don’t know who’s listening, who’s recording, who’s editing, who’s mailing out again. It’s just something that hasn’t been thought through.”

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) director of education Manny Figueiredo says he understands Sorensen’s concerns around using live video between teachers and students but says that for some programs, it’s imperative to go the real-time conferencing route.

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“We do power reading for students who need extra support in reading in small groups of four,” Figueiredo told Global News. “The only way that program can continue is through synchronous live videoconferencing.”

Figueiredo said he also understands the concern over privacy for the student body and teachers but says the board is working through the issues by upgrading and standardizing online learning tools.

He says the board has been pushing teachers towards engaging in the HWDSB’s training network and learning standardized programs like Microsoft Teams and the board’s management system, called the Hub.

“But what it’s really highlighted, again, is that some of these free versions that people may be wanting to engage in outside of our network, outside of our standard platforms, create a greater risk,” Figueiredo said.

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Figueiredo says he sees promise in many of the digital platforms the school is undertaking amid the pandemic but admits it won’t replace the social learning a student can get from face-to-face meetings with other students and teachers.

“But let’s never forget that the school is a social fabric,” said Figueiredo.

“The physical space is important. But I think there’s an opportunity here to learn from this experience.”

Sorensen concurs and says what’s happening now with the pandemic is unfortunate and nobody’s fault, and he believes the system will get past the pandemic and back to a higher standard of education.

“I think maybe, at the end of the day, we have to realize it’s not going to be as good as what it was and what it will be again, which is actually having face-to-face, real physical — in the physical space — interaction between teachers and students.”

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