By Cole Parkinson
COVID-19 has certainly put a wrench into Horizon School Division’s regularly scheduled programming but teachers, staff, students and parents are all adapting to this unusual spring.
During Horizon school board’s regular meeting held on April 27, the board were apprised of how staff had shifted gears from in school learning to at-home learning.
“I think most people are probably pretty informed that schools are open but classes are cancelled. There have been some conversations in other countries and other provinces around relaunch and what that could look like and what kind of steps need to be in place for that to happen. There are conversations going on with board chairs and superintendents coming up within days and weeks ahead and I don’t think any firm decisions have been made,” explained Wilco Tymensen, superintendent of schools.
From Horizon administration’s perspective, things happened so quickly they had to adopt different strategies to allow students to continue their learning.
“This focus has been consuming the entire learner services team ever since classes were cancelled, effective March 16. At that time, we quickly tried to figure out how to extend learning to all students at home,” stated Amber Darroch, associate superintendent of learner services. “Very quickly we adopted language where rather than saying distance learning or online learning, we are using terms like emergency teaching or remote teaching, at-home learning because a fully effective and developed online or distant learning program would take months to develop, lots of infrastructure, teacher training and we would have to orientate the students as to how they were going to learn and what the expectations would be. As it was, they went home one day and never came back so we didn’t get to do any of that preparation.”
Among the big change from in-class to at-home learning, there is also the challenge of reduced hours of learning per week.
“The province has provided guides to teachers to identify those essential curriculum outcomes that were still remaining to be taught and to do so on a very reduced timeline. For an elementary child, that is only five hours a week or all the way to high school, three hours per course, per week. If a student registered for distance learning at other times during the year, they would expect to be doing 10 hours a week in a single course so this is a significant reduction. As such, teachers are just working really hard to figure out how best to connect with students,” continued Darroch, who also explained teachers had been using a variety of methods such as Zoom and phone calls to check in on their students. “The team at the division level, we have some specialists who continue to extend services as part of our inclusive education plan. Someone like JoAnn Hill, our speech-language pathologist, is doing digital lessons and speech therapy by calling home or doing it via Zoom or Google Meet so parents are still getting support and students are getting speech support. Our behaviour consultant, Laura Elliot, is calling and consulting with parents and giving parenting advice at home and support for students who may be struggling with the lack of structure of school that they have lost.”
Another challenge that has been evident since the start of the shut down of in-class learning was how to assess students.
Without the ability to provide traditional end of the year tests, teachers and administration had to shift their focus in terms of how to assess what the students were learning.
“Assessment-wise, as soon as classes were cancelled, we had to figure out how would we know what students have learned when we don’t have the luxury of having them in our classrooms anymore. So, in determining some guidelines, what we have done is made some suggestions to schools as to how they might tackle this,” said Darroch. “One of the key things to consider is ways other than the traditional test to assess what students have learned. Also to deemphasize and not use a final exam so we are putting emphasis on learning during each unit of study rather than a final at the end because we aren’t going to print those finals in high school and have everybody come to the gym like they would at any regular time. We have provided guidelines for how schools can respond in the absence of those structures.”
While students are a large focus for staff and administration, they also realize this situation puts a great deal of stress on parents that they normally don’t have.
With that in mind, they have added a few features to their website to help parents with their at-home learning.
“And finally, supporting parents. On our Horizon website, we have got a section called At Home Learning and that area is updated regularly with links, content and activities that parents can adopt and use with their kids at home. As well, teachers are sharing all kinds of resources,” added Darroch. “What we are really trying to do is strike a balance of supporting families and not overwhelming them with things that aren’t manageable to transfer to the home learning environment.”