School board, teachers’ union call for collaboration as e-learning returns

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Students, teachers and parents around the region are preparing for another round of online learning as Quebec closes school buildings to slow the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Eastern Townships School Board chair Michael Murray confirmed on Dec. 31 that elementary, high school and adult education students would return to class online on Jan. 6. In-person learning will resume no later than Jan. 17. Laptops and cell modems will be provided to students who need them, as during previous online learning periods earlier in the pandemic.

“We have to look at what’s being required of us and figure out how to do it with the least burden on students,” said Murray. “We recognize that online learning is not a good process for all students, and that kids do better when they attend school. Online learning also requires a lot of additional work for teachers…and we’re also concerned about the extra oversight role that’s thrust on parents in this situation.”

Heidi Yetman is the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), which represents 8,000 teachers across the 10 boards of the English public school system in the province. She says teachers are “pleased not to have to return to school in person on Jan. 10,” given the high numbers of COVID-19 cases, but are concerned about the impact of e-learning on students who have additional educational needs or who lack access to reliable internet.

“The hardest thing for teachers is when directives change quickly; they need time to prepare,” she says.

Katherine Korakakis, president of the English Parents’ Committee Association of Quebec, shares many of Yetman’s concerns.

“Everything is last-minute, and suddenly you have to think about how to work from home while the kids study.” Korakakis says she wishes schools would provide students with single online schedules instead of relying on subject-matter teachers to send separate emails with links. She acknowledges that the situation doesn’t always allow teachers to prepare as much as they would like. “We know this government likes to do everything at the last minute,” she says.

Yetman says teachers “have gotten better” at making sure students get the resources they need to learn effectively online. However, she says additional support for teachers – such as a dedicated tech support service, reimbursement of home wifi costs, more accessible mental health services for students and teachers and an online learning code of conduct for students and parents – would make the transition between online and in-person learning easier. She says the QPAT has a good working relationship with most boards, including the ETSB, but would like to see more collaboration on the part of public health authorities.

“Public health authorities don’t know what it’s like to be in a classroom, and teachers haven’t really been listened to or collaborated with. Teaching is already a very difficult job, and when you add all of these other measures – whether it’s online learning, distributing rapid tests, cleaning, or telling students to pull their masks up, teachers are the ones taking on that work,” Yetman said. “Most teachers don’t enjoy e-learning, but they will do it to protect everyone’s health and safety. In-person learning can’t be replaced; that’s how students build relationships and socialize and learn how to live in the world. You can’t really do that behind a screen.”

Yetman, a former high school teacher, advises parents to “be patient and understand that we are all in the same position. We keep hearing the students have lost learning, but… eventually we will get it back.”

“This is a phase we have to get through, and we’re focused on reducing the burden on parents and students,” says Murray, the school board chair. “It’s not what we wish for, but we can certainly cope with it, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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