It wasn’t just the move from classrooms to computer screens. It tested basic ideas about instruction, attendance, testing, funding, the role of technology and the human connections that hold it all together. Nearly two years later, a rethinking is underway, with a growing sense that some changes may last.
This may be an opportunity to reimagine what schools will look like in the future. It’s always important to continue to think about how to evolve schooling so the kids get the most out of it. Others in education may see a similar opening. Learning loss is getting new attention. Schools with poor ventilation systems have been slotted for upgrades or have already installed the needed improvements. In the need for upgrades, can be cited the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board’s task of having to add about 600 air purifiers to the 200 already in place at end of the 2020-21 school year, to cover the 800 needed in its schools and centres. It would not be unusual to conclude that similar circumstances are prevalent in many other school boards across Québec.
Many teachers, in Laval and elsewhere, who made it through a crash course or self-taught learning to teach virtually, are finding lessons that endure. There are a lot of positives that happened because teachers have been forced into this uncomfortable and often awkward situation. The reality is that Covid has changed education and attitudes for both teachers and students. And, make no mistake, school systems in the world are not done with remote learning. They want more of it. However, this isn’t necessarily a shared opinion amongst educators in Laval and Québec.
After a year when some systems did nothing but teach by computer screen, it has become clear that learning virtually has a place in the schools, if simply as an option. It’s like a genie that is out of the bottle, and you can’t get it back in. In many respects, this was overdue. Few suggest that remote learning is for everyone. The pandemic showed, unmistakably, that most students learn best in person — in a three-dimensional world led by a teacher, surrounded by classmates, in a school environment. But school systems across the world are looking at remote learning as a way to meet diverse needs — for teenagers who have jobs, children with certain medical conditions, or kids who prefer learning virtually.
Distanced learning has also emerged as a way to expand access to less-common courses. If one high school offers classes in Italian, Greek, Spanish, students at another school could join remotely. In reality, this is nothing new; universities have been using remote learning for many years offering degrees which are accredited and valid in most provinces in Canada leading to a chosen career.
Teachers, administrators, and school personnel are taking all that they have learned from the pandemic and going with it. The pandemic has helped school boards to see that it is possible and it can be done. Not everyone imagines the same path forward. In elementary and high school, remote learning is a supplement, not a substitute, for in-school instruction, emphasizing that classroom learning is best for most students and that remote school can mean intense isolation. Staring at a screen all day is not optimal and “Zoom” fatigue is real.
While remote education has worked for many families, most kids have struggled — and the toll on mental health and social well-being is hard to ignore. Could these almost two long pandemic years — when so many children fell so far behind, when students dropped off the radar, when teachers could hardly tell who understood what as they tried to teach from a distance — could this be the time that Québec education gets serious about understanding and helping kids.
Moreover, with remediation, the goal is to make up what a child missed the first time around. The problem is students may never catch up. Accelerated learning, by contrast, seeks to make grade-level work accessible to those who are behind through a combination of intensive help and modifications. Realistically, there is simply not enough time for teachers to make up all the lost time and material.
Undoubtedly, the mental health struggles of the school children will outlast the pandemic. Many teachers have stated that some days they didn’t see or hear anybody. There was no interaction at all. When they’re in the physical classroom, you can see if they’re struggling. You can push them and help them. You can check in on them. But this was crazy according to several teachers’ remarks.
“Crazy” is a word several Laval-area teachers have used to describe teaching during the pandemic. And frustrating. And exhausting. They had to become technology wizards, Zoom screen DJs, counselors, cheerleaders and teachers, all in one. Workloads doubled and stress levels quadrupled. Nothing in their training had prepared them for this. But as the end of the 2021 school year had approached, many looked at what they learned about teaching and about themselves during the pandemic and thinking about how they’ll incorporate that in their classes once some normality would return.
For many teachers, the past year has only confirmed the importance of their vocation. And being a present and encouraging educator for students has never been more necessary. They had to shift their thinking and shift the way they taught lessons when they went online. Even veteran teachers were back to being new first-year teachers in this whole new world.
Over the last year, by necessity, the vast majority of students have been connected. Millions of devices and hotspots have been purchased and distributed. The question now is: Will this new, more equitable arrangement persist? Most say yes. Time will tell. The days when out-ofschool learning required only paper and pencil are long gone. Today, students live their lives online and use Internet-based resources for so much of their modern education. Education does not only happen at school. Kids do homework at night and that’s education. For decades, students took their places at desks in classrooms, as teachers took attendance. But as schools shuttered and students began to learn remotely, the conventions of taking presence through “seat time” fell away.
Everywhere, school systems scrambled to come up with new ways to define attendance in remote school. Was it enough just to log in for the day or tune into a Zoom class? For many school leaders, the issue was a balancing act as they tried to support students who may be in crisis — as Covid-19 has claimed lives and left many workers strapped and jobless.
Parents, students, and teachers were hyper-focused during the pandemic on when closed schools would reopen. Some school boards began to consider permanent changes that would meet the changed and changing education landscape. Referring to remote learning that began during the pandemic and will last beyond the crisis, teachers will be doing a lot more of that now, and this emerging way of teaching kids through blended learning is not a butt-in-desks model of education. Not so easy. We’re still not out of the woods.