More than 500 New Westminster students are learning full-time from home this year – but that doesn’t mean they’re losing their connection to their local schools.
That was the message school trustees heard during a presentation at their Oct. 27 meeting about the expanded online learning programs being offered this year in light of COVID-19.
In response to the pandemic, the New West district set up a new online “distributed learning” program for students in kindergarten through grade 8, while expanding its course offerings for high school students. A report presented to trustees showed 505 students signed up for full-time online learning: 438 at elementary and middle school levels, and 67 more in high school.
Maureen McRae-Stanger, the district’s director of instruction, learning and innovation, said having students learn at a distance from their teachers has brought along both opportunities and challenges.
She noted teachers are using a combination of “synchronous” learning – such as classroom meetings, happening live and in real time – and “asynchronous” aspects, including lessons the students pursue on their own time. Partnerships with parents and families have been key, she said.
“They are definitely part of our online learning program. They are supporting their children at home; they’re connecting with teachers online; they’re joining virtual classroom sessions as well. We really need their support to make the program work,” McRae-Stanger noted.
She told trustees the district has focused on keeping students connected to their home school – realizing that, for many families, online learning is a temporary choice.
“We know that this program, right now, could be a transitional support for families that aren’t quite ready yet to come back to face-to-face instruction, so we want to make sure they still feel connected back to that home school,” she said.
The district has done that by grouping students from the same school and grade levels into the same “classrooms,” led by a teacher from their home school whenever possible.
Students who require extra support – from learning support teachers, education assistants, child and youth workers, counsellors and the like – are still being supported by their team from their usual home school.
McRae-Stanger admitted the transition to online learning has come with a huge learning curve for teachers, especially those in the K-8 program for whom the entire program was brand-new this year.
“They’re not used to putting all their curriculum and instruction into an online format,” she pointed out.
For some, it meant adjusting to new teaching platforms. All elementary school teachers are using MS Teams this year, while high school teachers are using Blackboard Collaborate.
With collaboration and ongoing professional development, McRae-Stanger said, teachers are now using more of the features those programs have to offer – such as video conferencing capabilities that can put students into more of a “virtual classroom” setting rather than just looking at boxes on screens. Teachers have also jumped in to make their own instructional videos for students, rather than just using ready-made videos from external sources.
“The power in these videos is having your teacher sharing that lesson with you,” McRae-Stanger pointed out, noting the videos have been especially helpful for English language learners who might struggle with extensive written instructions.
Teachers are also giving students a chance to participate in virtual “assemblies” and other group experiences – for occasions such as Orange Shirt Day in September and for the upcoming Remembrance Day.
Students are also still able to experience in-person activities. McRae-Stanger told trustees about one online kindergarten teacher who’s getting small groups of children (with their parents) together at Moody Park on Wednesdays for outdoor learning – physically distanced, with appropriate COVID-19 protocols in place.
“This is a very complex process, to shift an entire program into an online format,” McRae-Stanger said. “I’m really proud of the teachers in our online school and the work they have been doing. This is brand new for all of them, and they really have embraced this and done some pretty incredible things.”
The online learning programs are being staffed by teachers who were granted accommodations because their medical or personal circumstances put them at high risk from COVID-19, as well as a number of others who were reassigned from regular classroom teaching due to lower in-class enrolment.
The school district has applied more than $1.2 million in extra federal COVID-related funding towards staffing this year – the bulk of that for the online distributed learning program.
District online learning principal Pam Craven told trustees that having new staff in the online programs has brought a new level of excitement to the teachers at the high school level.
“It’s wonderful to hear the buzz happening in the rooms now as they’re talking about the different opportunities, which has also been heightened with the additional staffing,” she said. “It has really sparked interest (and) renewed some of our teachers in providing different types of activities while they’re collaborating and talking to each other.”
Families who opted in to the online learning programs this year have been offered two chances to return to the classroom if they so choose. One of those dates - Oct. 6 – has passed, but another window will open up in December for those who want to return to in-class instruction in January.
At that point, McRae-Stanger noted, the district will assess the numbers who’ve returned to class versus any new demand that may arise and will restructure the program accordingly.
School board chair Anita Ansari lauded the staff for their efforts to make online learning work.
“It feels like we’re building the airplane while we’re flying it,” she said. “And I see you all building the airplane, building the curriculum, building the programs that allow us to do our work and at the same time using it. It’s a big ask we have of you. You guys are doing great, and I’m super grateful that we have you here doing this work.”
ONLINE REGISTRATION: BREAKDOWN BY GRADE
Grade 1: 58
Grade 2: 56
Grade 3: 50
Grade 4: 44
Grade 5: 54
Grade 6: 32
Grade 7: 44
Grade 8: 41
Total K-8: 438
Grade 9: 13
Grades 10-12: 54
Total 9-12: 67
GRAND TOTAL: 505