This school year had to be different. Double vaccinated, with blue skies ahead, this school year was meant to be a return to normal, or at least a return to some semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, blended learning in high schools in the GTA has guaranteed a path strewn with pitfalls.
Teachers in most Ontario school boards navigate two classroom realities at once, teaching both online and in person simultaneously. The York Region District School Board has extended this learning model to elementary schools, while the District of Durham is the only school board in the GTA to separate virtual and in-person learning. This motley approach to education has a negative impact on educators, students and parents. Everyone hates this situation – it is confusing and untenable.
Eight-year GTA high school teacher Mary-Anne Wiltshire was eager to return to class and bond with her students. With blended education this year, her goal has been elusive. “I may have 1 to 3 students online [per class]. Trying to bridge the gap to make these students feel engaged is so difficult. I call it a song and a dance. We dance between entertaining our students who are in person while maintaining engagement with home students we don’t even know, who don’t feel comfortable turning on their cameras.
I can relate to this experience. One of the hardest parts of teaching practically last year was not being able to communicate with my students the same way I would if I saw them physically every day. My online students rarely turned on their cameras and rarely spoke. While some were chatting animated, late last year I realized I had no idea what most of them looked like, or who they were as individuals. For me, the best part of teaching has always been getting to know my classes; blended learning robs me of this opportunity.
My two sons are in high school this year. My oldest son Mustafa, in grade 11, thinks the teachers are being pulled in two different directions in the classroom. “They [teachers] pay more attention to classroom learners than distance learners. As a student in class, it’s pretty good. It’s more or less what we had [before the COVID shutdown] except that the lessons are longer and that we have to wear masks. “
Wiltshire, who is teaching drama this semester, points out that blended learning is also exacerbating feelings of social isolation distance learners have faced during the pandemic. “More precisely, for the arts, we feed off the connection, the buzz, the noise and the energy of the room. At home they are so anxious and isolated and they don’t have that experience at all. They watch everyone have this experience and they are so disconnected. I feel so guilty for it.
Then there is the inequity inherent in this blended learning experience. I cannot check what my students are doing online when they are “in” my class. As a result, every educator has had to rethink the way we administer tests and summatives. Some of these changes are good, others are bad, and all are happening at a rapid pace that leaves some children – especially students without access to technology – behind. Not to mention that online students have access to the internet during tests, which makes academic honesty even more difficult to confirm.
Mustafa, like many students, is also concerned about equity issues. “How can teachers be sure that the students at home are not cheating? My teachers give fewer tests, more homework. He feels rushed – they [school boards] rushed it. They think they have a better system [this year] but they don’t.
This sentiment is echoed by Wiltshire: “My students express all they want [hybrid] to finish. The students at home want to go to school, but their parents are worried. It is not sustainable, it is not fair to the students. This is not what anyone who signed up for.
Wiltshire’s recommendation, shared by the majority of parents and students across the province, is to abandon blended education. “It should be phased out after this year. We are supposed to be in person. We have to resume our usual school day.
She has one final note of hope for parents, shared by most educators I know: “Your children are our jobs and our lives. This is what we signed up for, to be able to teach them, to inspire them.
However, she cautions that things will only get more difficult for students who learn at home, as they become even more isolated. “I worry about them. They will fall behind socially. My kids online are sending emails, but it’s just not the same experience.