As the new school year starts there are still so many unanswered questions. All parents of students are anxious and unsure about what will happen when students return to school. There is also conflicting information on what precautions are being taken at school and many details change on a daily basis.
For students with a physical disability, the return to school or remote learning is an especially anxious time. For some of these students, a return to in-class learning is totally out of the question and the Minister of Education has been very clear it is parent choice. Parents who feel the risk to their child is too great have the option to keep their child learning at home. However, this comes with its own challenges. Remote learning in the spring happened suddenly and there were lots of problems. While there should be lessons learned and improvements to remote learning it is still not the ideal way to educate students. For those considering a return to in-class learning, there are risks from the exposure to other students and the school staff. As a parent, you have to decide what level of risk you are willing to accept.
As you make your final decision about the return to school or remote learning there are a number of issues to consider.
Keeping your child at home seems like a safer option in terms of health and safety but there may continue to be challenges with remote learning. Some parents may face difficult decisions in terms of their own ability to be employed or to continue providing 24/7 care of their child. If siblings are involved it is even more difficult. Do you keep the siblings home as well or face the risk of what they might bring home from school?
For secondary school students in many school boards, remote learning on alternate days with a quad semester approach has already been determined. Local outbreaks of COVID-19 and the resulting quarantines of small or large groups mean that almost every child will be expected to learn at home for some of the time this year.
The results for remote learning in the spring of this year were overall quite poor. While individual students, who were self-motivated or who had strong support at home with access to technology and internet, there was some success. For students who were able to maintain a strong connection with the classroom teacher and who had regular synchronous sessions with the teacher and classmates, they felt engaged and made some progress. However, many students felt abandoned and alone and lacked the motivation to complete assignments or engage in learning.
To improve remote learning this fall, the Ministry of Education has released a Policy/Program Memorandum, Requirements for Remote Learning, that requires at least 180 to 225 minutes of synchronous learning every day. A remote learning Principal, and in many boards dedicated teachers, have been identified for remote learning. In terms of equipment for use at home and internet access, the Ministry has also continued to make it clear that school boards are responsible to ensure students can learn at home and that students have the supports they need. Funding has been provided by the government to support students who need computers or internet access.
The early indications from the learning at home experience in the spring is that isolation can be harmful for students and that they need peer interaction and the daily structure of the classroom. Efforts to get students back in the classroom should be encouraged, although there will continue to be risks associated with the in-class experience.
The Ministry has invested in additional funding for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and janitorial services for cleaning of schools. They have mandated masks for staff and students in Grade 4 and above, and also provided extra funding for cleaning of buses and PPE for bus drivers. The Ministry of Education is promoting cohorts with reduced interaction with other classes and grades, and teachers. However, they have not reduced class size at the elementary level and have provided school boards autonomy to decide on additional measures.
This means there will be significant variations in the school experience across the province. Given that the local risk or incidence of COVID-19 also varies, there should be some room for variation. However, having one school board mandate masks for Kindergarten to Grade 3 and another who does not creates an inconsistent approach and variable risk.
Tips on Return to Learning
Although each of us alone can’t change Ministry or school board actions, we can be proactive in planning for the return to learning for our own children. The following are tips to consider as you support your child’s return to learning this fall.
- Request a transition meeting – Many schools have been holding transition meetings with families to plan for the return to school or remote learning. If you have not had one, contact the classroom teacher or the Principal to request a meeting.
- Prepare for the transition meeting – Make a list of your questions and concerns so that you don’t forget anything at the meeting. Be prepared to talk about the experience of your child with learning at home, what worked and what didn’t. Identify what supports your child will need to be successful in the coming school year.
- At the transition meeting – Ask about how they will be assessing your child’s current readiness for learning and gaps in learning that may have occurred. Ask about the strategy to help your child catch up, if necessary. Share your concerns about the planned format (in-class or at home) and the additional support that may be needed. Make sure you leave the meeting with a plan you are comfortable with and that identified follow up actions by you or the school.
- Prepare your child – Children are affected by the stress or anxieties of their parent. They may also have their own concerns about re-building relationships with peers, or being able to continue their favourite activities. Reassure your child and identify actions that you or they can take to address the concerns.
- Participate in any school events or activities about the return to school – You are not alone and all parents want more information about how the health and safety of heir child will be protected. Visit the school website or attend virtual information sessions. Some school boards have posted videos to show what the school experience will look like this year. Follow up with the classroom teacher or principal if you have concerns.
- Take care of yourself – This is a stressful time and it is important you take care of your self physically and mentally. Arrange to talk to other parents or friends if you like to talk or arrange some time alone if the break will help. Exercise and meditation are also helpful strategies.
The return to learning will not be easy and we can’t predict the results. You can only focus on your child and doing your best to ensure a successful return to learning.
Autism Ontario has developed a Checklist for Transition Meetings.
Accessibility for Ontarian with Disabilities (AODA) Alliance and Ontario Autism Coalition Youtube video of Town Hall on Return to School.