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Online learning can impact students' mental health: New West school district

Supporting students' mental health and social-emotional learning are important parts of the K-8 online program
When students can no longer connect with friends in traditional ways, what impact does that have on their mental health? That's a challenge that New West is facing with its online learning program. Photo via Getty Images

Online learning isn’t just about offering curriculum: it’s also about supporting students’ mental health.

The New Westminster school district is accepting applications next week (Dec. 7 to 11) from families who want to opt in to the kindergarten-to-Grade-8 online learning program that’s running this year in response to COVID-19.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf said the district is aware that online learning comes with an added challenge in looking after students’ mental health.

“While we definitely have dedicated staff working hard to support a robust K-8 online program, we also know that it’s having an impact in not being fully connected and having no face-to-face instruction,” he said at the school board’s Nov. 17 operations committee meeting.

“It’s important for us to really recognize that isolation can in fact … have a negative impact on our students’ mental health. We know our students need social interaction and play to learn. That hasn’t changed.”

Hachlaf said the district is remaining “hypervigilant” about that issue to ensure it’s providing all the supports it can to its remote learners.

At a parent information session Dec. 3, director of instruction Maureen McRae-Stanger said the online learning program focuses not just on the B.C. curriculum but on social-emotional learning. When students feel connected to teachers and their peers, they do better academically, she noted.

The program works to keep students connected to each other, to their teachers and to their own home schools so that students can maintain a sense of community in the absence of face-to-face learning.

Students who need any extra social-emotional support – such as from a child and youth worker – will continue to receive that support from the staff at their own home schools.

Pam Craven, the district principal in charge of online learning, said teachers prepare individual learning plans for each student, taking into account their “strengths and stretches” and setting goals for the term.

“Teachers are also working very hard to support that social-emotional learning and build relationships,” she said. “It’s much more challenging in an online setting to do that.”

Craven noted teachers in the online learning program need parents and guardians to work with them to keep the lines of communication open.

“That’s a two-way thing,” she said. “We need you to be reaching out to us.”

At the same time as the district is preparing for a new intake into online learning, the 440 or so students currently enrolled in the remote program are also being given a chance to opt back in to the classroom.

Hachlaf said the district’s goal is to have students ultimately return to face-to-face instruction, where possible.

“This online program is intended to be a transition so that when families deem they want to return and feel safe within their context, we are quite supportive and, in fact, encouraging that process,” he said.

Families who enter the online learning program in January will have a chance to return to in-class instruction, if they so choose, in the spring. A window will open up in March for a return to class in April.

For full details about how to opt in to the online learning program, see