TORONTO — Several Ontario school boards are planning to continue offering virtual learning next year, forging ahead before provincial direction is set, and saying it’s now more about a different mode of learning rather than a pandemic response.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Toronto Catholic District School Board and Toronto District School Board are all set to continue remote learning in 2023-24.
The Durham, Peel and Lambton Kent district school boards plan to offer virtual learning again, subject to enrolment. They are surveying families on their preferences for the upcoming year to find out if there will be enough interest in remote offerings.
Brendan Browne, the director of education at the Toronto Catholic board, said this year there are about 700 elementary students learning remotely and about 280 in secondary virtual school. Since there is clearly still demand, it makes sense to continue to offer it, he said.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told Global News there are about 2,300 elementary students enrolled in virtual learning with around 1,375 high schools students enrolled in online learning for the 2022-2023 school year.
“It could be for individual family situation reasons, it could be for medical reasons,” Browne said.
“Sometimes it can be for reasons that are really specific to the student, that it’s more conducive to learning for them. So as long as families are interested and there’s a choice, we want to be able to provide support, because we want to be able to reach every learner.”
Ontario decided in February 2022 to require boards to offer virtual learning for the current school year, and hasn’t yet made a decision for 2023-24. But boards like the TDSB are not waiting.
“I know the TDSB and some other boards are moving forward with this virtual option in the new year just because it fits in with when staffing is typically done,” said Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the Toronto public board.
“Since the pandemic began, staffing has had to be delayed further into the year because we were waiting for exactly what that fall plan would look like. Now, we can’t wait for that. We want to go back to our typical time of staffing … We want to make sure that families can make these decisions with everything in mind, and then plan for next year.”
Gwyneth Evans is one of those parents anxiously awaiting word from the Durham board on whether it will be able to offer virtual again next year. Both of her children — one in senior kindergarten, the other in Grade 7 — are flourishing in remote learning, she said.
Her older child didn’t like attending school in person, pleading to not have to go in the mornings and often having to be picked up in the middle of the day because she didn’t feel well, said Evans.
In virtual, her daughter logs on promptly every morning and does all her work with no complaints, she said. Her younger child is reading beyond his age level, Evans said.
“(Education Minister Stephen Lecce) always talks about in person, it’s better for the kids to be in person, it’s better for their mental health to be in person,” Evans said.
“No. There’s some that it’s better for their mental health to be at home in virtual.”
Elementary teachers, however, are adamantly against the option, with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario saying it is “fundamentally opposed to (virtual learning) being used as an instructional and learning model.”
“Instead of extending the reach of online learning in our public schools, the provincial government and school boards should be focused on demonstrating a commitment to in-person learning and providing sufficient funding to offer smaller class sizes and adequate supports for students,” the union said in a statement.
“Classroom environments are carefully and intentionally designed to foster inquiry, conversation, and collaboration, and they evolve to respond to children’s learning needs.”
Meanwhile, many boards are waiting for provincial direction before setting their plans for next year, but some _ particularly smaller boards with relatively low demand for remote learning _ are anxious about the possibility of a renewed requirement.
In the Avon Maitland District School Board, about 80 elementary students and 50 secondary students are in virtual learning this year.
“This presents challenges for elementary because of very small numbers (per) grade so they need to be combined,” the board said in a statement. “For secondary, it’s difficult to find a timetable that meets the students’ needs.”
— With files from Global News’ Dave Bradley