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With all London schools closed, ‘distance learning is going to look different’

Sixth grade wasn’t supposed to look like this. 

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, Karly Thomas would be in front her class right now, teaching math, history or maybe doing a read-aloud with her sixth grade pupils. 

Instead, the elementary teacher at Prince Charles Public School is marooned in her basement, trying to figure out how to work from home, manage childcare and adapt to school in the age of the coronavirus. She’s unrelentingly positive about it. 

“I think it’s something you need to cling to, especially when you’re stuck at home with the same people all the time. I’m the type of person who really enjoys a challenge,” she said.

‘It is a huge task’

Teachers line up only a few at a time collect items left behind in their classes at Louise Arbour French Immersion Public School in London during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

As virtual classes get going for 79,000 students in the Thames Valley District school board, thousands of teachers across the London region will embark upon one of the most challenging chapters of their careers: to teach, guide and mentor their students online, without the benefit of being physically present to control their classrooms. 

“It is a huge task,” said Riley Culhane, the board’s associate director of learning support services. “We know this will look different for every single one of our families. Every one of our families will have their own unique sense of circumstances at this time.”

Those circumstances could include unequal access to technology, adult supervision or even connectivity, where a glitch-filled Internet session could make all the difference in a student’s understanding of the material.

It’s why educators have been making phone calls with parents, sending emails to families and arranging pickups at local schools, trying to close the gaps for families that don’t have the technology.  

‘We don’t expect parents to become educators at home’

Karly Thomas is a grade six teacher at Prince Charles Public School in London. (Supplied)

“We don’t expect parents to become educators at home,” he said. “It’s a unique time and it can add some additional stresses. By no means do we want our transition to distance learning to add additional stressors and additional barriers to our families.” 

Because of that, educators stress this new normal won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. While some students can expect to start virtual classes as early as Monday, others might take another week to get started, while others might not have the capability to log in at all because they lack Internet connectivity, or their parents need to use the device for work.

For those students Culhane said, educators will be distributing Internet-capable devices to narrow the technology gap between families. They’ll also be regularly phoning and emailing families to offer guidance and resources.

“We’re not expecting that a teacher would hold a class at a specific time of day and expect all students will be online at that specific time.”

“The work needs to be individualized for students and their families,” he said. “Distance learning is going to look different. Plans need to be extremely flexible.”

It means weekly lesson plans will include all the assignments, focus subjects and the time students should spend on each lesson for all five days. 

It means some parents will have to be more involved in their children’s learning, something teacher Karly Thomas said she found many parents are looking forward to. 

“I was anticipating a bit more animosity from parents, to be completely honest, and a bit more frustration, but that’s not what I was greeted with when I phoned parents, not at all.”

What she encountered were parents who were extremely supportive, grateful and even excited to take on a more active role in their child’s education. She said, in a way, social distancing has brought everyone closer together. 

“Honestly, I think it’s bringing our community together, finding ways to deal with this challenge and finding ways to stickhandle teaching our children.”

“It’s humanizing us all and creating a lot of compassion for teachers and parents that are working from home.”

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