This past Friday one of our researchers received the latest issue of the MindShare Learning Report and noticed this item (see below).
In looking at the Annual Ontario School Survey 2021–22: A perfect storm of stress report from the Ontario-based People for Education, as would be expected in a report on a pandemic school year there is a section focused on remote learning (which the authors unfortunately conflate with virtual learning). In the virtual learning section, which they subtitle “the good, the bad, and the hybrid,” the authors wrote:
“There is not PIVOT as if it were a quick and easy move, it is a staggered crawl. – Elementary school principal, Southwest Ontario”
As of February 2022, Ontario led the country as the province with the highest number of weeks of in-person elementary and secondary school closures due to COVID-19 (see Figure 5). The terms “remote learning,” “virtual learning,” and “online learning” could all be used to describe students learning from home via an online platform, either synchronously or asynchronously, as a safety measure due to COVID-19 (Johnson 2021; Gallagher-Mackay et al. 2021). In this report, the term “virtual learning” is used, consistent with the terminology used in the AOSS 2021–22 survey questions.
Figure 5: Weeks of in-person school closures due to COVID-19, elementary and secondary schools, provinces and territories, March 14, 2020 to February 18, 2022
Sources: Values from March 14, 2020 to May 15, 2021 are derived from Gallagher-Mackay et al. 2021; values from January 4, 2022 to February 18, 2022 are calculated from news releases.
For the past two years, mass school closures in Ontario closely mimicked the fluctuating waves of COVID-19 case counts in the province, causing schools to shift back and forth between in-person and virtual learning on multiple occasions (see Figure 6). Principals responded at length about the challenges created by these changes.
Figure 6: Timeline of Ontario school closures from March 2020 to January 2022
In elementary schools, where students cannot use technology independently and rely on adult support, a shift to virtual learning meant that a significant amount of supervision at home was required; as well, there was an assumption that the supervising adult possessed a certain level of technological literacy. One elementary school principal in Eastern Ontario described the absenteeism that resulted from this situation: “Many of our families are unable to manage or support virtual learning, so when students request virtual, they predominantly request paper packages. We have very high absenteeism…many students have just stopped attending.”
In 2020, the provincial government made it mandatory for school boards to offer full-time online learning as an option for all students in elementary and secondary school (Government of Ontario 2020a). As demonstrated through PFE’s Pan-Canadian Tracker, this is not the case in many other provinces and territories (People for Education 2022). Providing this option added to the complexity of the province-wide shifts between in-person and virtual learning. Although the government and school boards across the province have had a responsibility to be responsive to student need during the pandemic, the decision to mandate virtual learning options for elementary and secondary schools has the potential to permanently alter the quality, control over, and nature of public education across Ontario.
During the 2021–22 school year, the switch between in-person, virtual, and hybrid learning options also created additional administrative demands on educators and divided attention between virtual and brick-and-mortar learning environments (see Figure 7). Principals discussed the disruptive and onerous administrative paperwork that was involved in managing student switches between these modes of schooling. While recognizing the importance of accommodating parents’ desires to be able to change modes throughout the year, principals cited the domino effect on schools that was created each time a student changed their mode of schooling, including coordinating staffing, distributing devices, altering timetables, and tracking attendance.
Figure 7. Type of schooling (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) that principals reported they were responsible for, elementary and secondary schools,2020-21 and 2021–22 school year, AOSS 2020–21 and 2021–22
A comparison of data from AOSS 2020–21 and 2021–22 reveals notable fluctuations in the proportion of elementary and secondary schools that operated in-person, hybrid, or virtual learning. These data were gathered from the question that asked principals to select what type of schooling they were currently responsible for (i.e., at the time of the survey). Although the proportion of schools providing in-person learning decreased for elementary schools, it increased for secondary schools. Moreover, while the proportion of schools providing hybrid learning increased for elementary schools, it decreased for secondary schools. This observation could be explained in part by the COVID-19 vaccine becoming available to youth aged 12–17 as of May 23, 2021. Children aged 5–11 did not become eligible for the vaccine until November 23, 2021 (Government of Ontario 2021). However, hybrid learning remained a common mode of learning in the 2021–22 school year, with 27% of elementary schools and 47% of secondary schools still using this approach.
Hybrid is the most difficult task assigned to teachers to date. – Elementary school principal, GTA
Hybrid learning, sometimes referred to as blended learning, is a combination of online and in-person instruction (Johnson 2021). For educators in Ontario’s publicly funded schools, it is also the approach wherein “students attending face-to-face and students attending remotely will be taught simultaneously by the same educators” via streaming on a technological device (York Region District School Board 2021). Teachers are expected to engage and interact with students in person as well as with students who are learning from home; this expectation includes split-grade classrooms and students with diverse learning needs, and no caps on classroom sizes in grades 4 and up (Government of Ontario 2020b).
The logistics of managing a physical classroom as well as an online learning platform simultaneously are complicated. In AOSS 2021–22, principals were very clear about their perspectives on hybrid learning:
Hybrid learning presents a lot of challenges as each mode of learning requires different planning and full supervision. It is a challenge to keep both meaningfully engaged, especially when we have students with special needs. – Elementary school principal, GTA
Hybrid learning is a disaster. Almost every student who started in it chose to leave and go to full-time virtual or return face to face. The stress it puts on staff and students is disproportionate to any advantages. – Elementary and secondary school principal, Northern Ontario
There are several staff who have risen to the challenge and made their hybrid class very successful. Additionally, the hybrid model does offer a seamless switch in the case of students moving on and offline. However, hybrid, as a model, is not ideal at all. The students who are learning from home are competing for attention with the many students learning in the classroom who, quite naturally, get attention first. Teachers try their best but the students who can move into their direct line of vision can get attention first. At the same time, the students in the classroom are having to wait far longer for individual attention if there are various tech difficulties (happens daily). As well, “teachable moments” that occur throughout the day are far more difficult to share with all of the students—running outside to see how far the rainbow stretches across the sky will naturally leave out the students learning from home. – Elementary school principal, GTA
The challenges of hybrid learning include increased workloads, stress, and anxiety for educators; a decreased capacity to support students with special needs or disabilities; an unrealistic expectation that teachers can be in two places at once; lower rates of student attendance, participation, and engagement; and minimal advance notice provided by the government for planning. Nevertheless, in AOSS 2021–22, 37% of principals reported that teachers in their schools were still teaching via hybrid learning.
Although some benefits of virtual learning have been highlighted since the beginning of the pandemic, very little has been documented about any advantages of hybrid learning (Collins-Nelsen et al. 2021; People for Education 2021a). As one elementary school principal in the GTA noted, “It is like teaching swimming and rock climbing in the same class. Not a valuable way to teach or learn.” As well, the stress, increased workload, and balancing act that are demanded of teachers asked to deliver hybrid learning are difficult to ignore. Another elementary school principal in Southwest Ontario wrote that “Hybrid learning is an unreasonable expectation for a teacher. When you try to be everything to everyone you become nothing to no one.”
It will be critical for both policy-makers and school boards to consider the experiences and expertise of school staff when re-evaluating the use of hybrid learning as well as virtual learning in the future, and the implications of these modes of learning on different populations. For example, an elementary school principal in the GTA noted that, “In a low-income school, flipping to online is not as easily accomplished as it is in more affluent schools as the accessibility to devices is just not the same.”
These results shouldn’t surprise readers, as they are quite consistent with what the Canadian eLearning Network has consistently found in their Pandemic Pedagogy Research Series. For example…
- “Some provinces and territories were potentially much better positioned to provide continuity of learning than others. For example, several provinces and territories had centralized e-learning programs that could have been leveraged to provide online course content, a learning management system, and other online tools for emergency remote teaching…. [However, this is simply] an overview of the relative position each jurisdiction was in with respect to the potential to transition to some form of remote teaching – emergency or otherwise; not necessarily how they actually made that transition or how many teachers were actually practicing some form of e-learning.” (Nagle et al., 2020a, pp. 2 & 4)
- “Some jurisdictions announced specific plans for remote learning, other jurisdictions relied on existing online learning programs for students who remained at home. Finally, few jurisdictions announced or published specific plans for professional development or training for teachers new to remote learning.” (Nagle et al., 2020b, p. 1)
2020-21 School Year
- “In some instances, along with the school opening plans that were in place for Fall 2020, some jurisdictions had remote learning plans in place for the complete 2020-21 school year. In other instances, school districts and boards were left to determine individual remote learning plans with or without use of provincially or territorially provided resources. Given the lessons that could, or should, have been learned during the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching in Spring 2020, the reality was that some jurisdictions did not put in place the necessary planning or preparation to allow for uninterrupted continuation of learning. As the Fall 2021 approaches, despite a full year coping with pandemic school closures, most jurisdictions announcements have once again focused on a ‘safe’ return to school buildings.” (Nagle et al., 2021, p. iii)
- “Looking back, there certainly was limited teacher training in preparation for the hybrid and remote learning that was to come. It seemed the focus on getting students in school buildings took away attention to continuity of learning based on what might (or as epidemiologists warned was likely going to) happen. In retrospect, temporarily delaying school openings at the start of the school year, or after the return from planned closures (e.g., summer and/or winter holidays or spring break), to support planned teacher training might have helped improve continuity of learning during forced closures during the school year.” (LaBonte et al., 2021, p. 7)
- “the remote learning models – as well as the hybrid learning and concurrent teaching – that emerged during the pandemic were not well known and had little or no research into their efficacy.” (p. 8)
- “Even those schools that remained open, often used a model of hybrid learning that boards/districts and teachers were unprepared to implement with the level of fidelity needed to ensure that students had an equitable learning experience to the in person, classroom-based context” (p. 10)
- “that most jurisdictions still did not make systematic preparations for hybrid learning or remote learning (beyond what was experienced during the Spring 2020 or the 2020-21 school year).” (p. 12)
- “demonstrate a pattern for the continuation of putting all efforts and focus to in-person instruction, again with minimal focus on preparing for a ‘toggle’” term where students have to switch between in person and remote learning (p. 12)
In fact, in LaBonte et al. (2021) the authors provided Ontario as a specific example of a jurisdiction which lacked in its planning for the reality of pandemic pedagogy.
In stark contrast, in Ontario the concurrent teaching model – where classroom-based teachers teach students in the classroom and simultaneously to remote students logged into web conferencing software that live streams the classroom – began emerging during the 2020-21 school year. It was dubbed as ‘hybrid learning,’ but as discussed earlier the Ontario model was the concurrent teaching model of hybrid.3 This ‘live’ broadcast teaching model with students in the classroom and others logging in by video remotely was planned for by many boards after the Ministry of Education announced that all school boards in the province would offer a remote learning option during the 2021-22 school year (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021; C. Wilson, 2021). While many boards already offered optional online learning programs that were quickly doubling in size, some boards were unable to offer an online program that covered the full curriculum (King, 2021; Simcoe County District School Board, 2021). Further, many school boards lacked the necessary funding to create or offer an online or remote learning program (Wong, 2021b). In essence, the concurrent teaching or hybrid learning model was the only way that many school boards were able to meet the Ministry’s remote learning policy requirement that was within the board’s financial means. Even before the start of the new school year, the model had fallen under criticism (Stewart, 2021) and recently teachers unions are speaking out about its negative impact on both teachers and student learning (Fox, 2021a).
3 For a detailed discussion of various hybrid student arrangements and configurations in the United State, see Arnett (2021). (p. 13)
Regardless if it is the People for Education or the Canadian eLearning Network, it is important to remember that the remote learning and hybrid learning models that have been implemented as stopgap measure during the pandemic are – in most instances – not representative of the planned distance and online learning that has been available to K-12 students for more than two decades in Canada.
LaBonte, R., Barbour, M. K., & Nagle, J. (2021). Pandemic pedagogy in Canada: Lessons from the first 18 months. Canadian E-Learning Network. https://secureservercdn.net/220.127.116.11/sgf.292.myftpupload.com/wpcontent/uploads/2021/11/CANeLearn-Pandemic-Pedagogy-in-Canada.pdf
Nagle, J., Barbour, M. K., & LaBonte, R. (2020a). Documenting triage: Detailing the response of provinces and territories to emergency remote teaching. Canadian eLearning Network. https://secureservercdn.net/18.104.22.168/sgf.292.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Documenting-Triage-canelearn-emergency-remote-teaching-report1.pdf
Nagle, J., LaBonte, R., & Barbour, M. K. (2020b). A fall like no other: Between basics and preparing for an extended transition during turmoil. Canadian eLearning Network. https://secureservercdn.net/22.214.171.124/sgf.292.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/A-Fall-Like-No-Other-canelearn-remote-teaching-report2.pdf
Nagle, J., Barbour, M. K., & LaBonte, R. (2021). Toggling between lockdowns: Canadian responses for continuity of learning in the 2020-21 school year. Canadian eLearning Network. https://secureservercdn.net/126.96.36.199/sgf.292.myftpupload.com/wpcontent/uploads/2021/08/canelearn-2020-21-school-year.pdf