Online learning keeps New West kids connected through COVID-19

17 teachers and more than 600 students are involved in the school district's newly expanded 'distributed learning' program

The New Westminster school district has created a brand-new centralized hub for its expanded online learning offerings.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school district decided to offer an online “distributed learning” program for kindergarten to Grade 8 students for the first time ever this fall. At the same time, it also expanded course offerings for secondary-aged students.

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In the end, the option was taken up by more than 600 students at all grade levels. Maryam Naser, the school district’s associate superintendent, noted the number has been fluid as students have been moving in and out of the program daily since the beginning of the school year.

But, as of Sept. 15, when Naser made a presentation at the school board’s education committee meeting, there were 491 students registered in the K-8 program. At the high school level, 88 students were signed up for full-time online learning and 118 for part-time.

Those numbers mean the district was, in essence, able to create a “school” out of the distributed learning program.

“We’re very pleased that we have been able to really create what is a very large elementary school or middle school in its size, in terms of the number of students being serviced and the number of staff who will be working in this scenario,” Naser said.

Naser said the district has worked hard to keep families and students connected to their home school.

“We hope that this is a short-term situation; in any case, we hope that our students are back next year at the very latest,” she said, adding the district has chosen to keep children from the same school together in the same online “class” – with a teacher from their home school, where possible.

Children who need other supports, such as counselling or resource teachers, will continue to access those at their home school.

“Many of these students will already be familiar with their school counsellor and will have comfort and a relationship with that individual,” she pointed out.

At this point, the district has 17.2 FTE (full-time equivalent) teachers assigned to the online learning program.

Robert Weston, the district’s director of human resources, notes 8.2 of those came from teachers requesting “accommodations” for the new school year.

In total, he said, the district received more than 20 applications, nearly all of them from teachers, for accommodations due to a variety of medical and personal circumstances that elevated their risk of returning to the classroom in the face of COVID-19.

More than half of them could be accommodated within their own school, Weston noted - for some, it may have meant Plexiglas barriers or face shields; for others, it may have involved a reconfiguration of the classroom.

The remaining 8.2 FTEs were assigned to the distributed learning program, and they’re now working out of a new hub created in an office space at New Westminster Secondary School that used to house a UBC counselling centre.

Weston noted that space was renovated and upgraded to ensure all health protocols were followed and those teachers can work from a safe, central environment.

The district was able to assign nine other teachers to join them, as lower enrolments caused by students moving to the online program meant a need for fewer staff at schools. Those teachers may still be working from their current schools, but supporting the online learners.

“It gives a very good support to that program,” Weston said.

Weston said the district has worked cooperatively with the New Westminster Teachers’ Union throughout the process to ensure that teachers’ needs could be accommodated while still maintaining necessary staffing levels for all the district’s programs.

Now, he said, the district is focusing on providing support staff – such as administrative and clerical staff – for the distributed learning and Hume Park Home Learners programs.

Extra federal education funding announced at the end of August will likely be used to help the school district cover some of those costs. See a related story here.

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