TORONTO — Rachel Rosen doesn’t even know what classes she’ll be teaching in three weeks, let alone how she’ll juggle preparing in-person and online lessons.
An ever-fluctuating set of back-to-school guidelines from Ontario’s Ministry of Education has left Rosen with little information about how to approach delivering learning materials both in class and online.
“The board makes its plans, and lets us know the plans, and then the ministry changes the plans,” said Rosen, who teaches at an alternative high school in Toronto. “It’s really been jarring to have all of this time without being able to actually prepare.”
The province is giving parents the option to keep kids out of the classroom and have them learn from home, with materials provided by their schools.
And in two dozen school boards, including the Toronto District School Board for which Rosen works, high schoolers will do remote, online learning half the time.
Rosen said she typically teaches tech courses — photography, graphic design and film — which lean heavily on collaboration and sharing equipment, so preparing online materials will be particularly difficult.
She said classtime will be divided up into synchronous learning, which is a more traditional lesson, and asynchronous learning, which would see students working independently.
She said online asynchronous learning is easier to manage — she’ll give students tutorial videos and time to work on the written parts of their assignments.
“In terms of the synchronous learning part of it, I really have no idea how that’s going to work,” she said. “We’re being expected to do that in the classroom, which means that this video conference is going to involve me wearing a mask when I’m teaching, which I think is going to be kind of hard for the students.”
But even without the mask, she said, online learning isn’t her first choice.
“So much of what teaching is, to me, is relationship building,” she said. “And if I’m not able to connect with my students, they’re not going to understand why they need to be invested in what I’m teaching them.”
The head of the union that represents many of the province’s high school teachers said it’s not just Rosen facing these kinds of issues. Many teachers in boards adopting the adapted model for secondary schools still don’t know how they’ll manage teaching students in class and creating online learning materials.
“It’s just not a reasonable expectation,” Harvey Bischof said. “And I don’t mean that people would have to work hard. I mean you cannot effectively do both. They are two completely different modes of education delivery. And there’s no possible way for one educator to do both, or certainly to do both well at the same time.”
From the structure of lessons to making sure students understand what they’re being taught, Bischof said, teaching is entirely different online than it is in-class.
Complicating matters, he noted, is that different school boards are developing different plans for how in-class and online learning will be handled.
That could mean students in different boards are learning different pieces of the curriculum online and in person, potentially leading to an uneven playing field.
Bischof said it’s another symptom of one of the union’s chief complaints about the back-to-school framework: that the Ministry of Education is, in his view, “abdicating” its responsibility and leaving too much up to the school boards.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford have both argued that it’s necessary for them to provide flexibility in their plans, because some parts of the province have seen very few COVID-19 cases and are at a much lower risk of outbreaks.
They’ve said a “one size fits all” approach to pandemic response doesn’t make sense in a province as big as Ontario, and they characterize the fluctuating plans — most recently, Friday’s announcement that boards can stagger the start to the school year throughout the week after Labour Day — as a response to boards’ requests.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2020.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press