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'Kids are not really connected': Hybrid learning failing, say York Region parents, teachers

York Communities for Public Education, as well as provincial teachers unions, want the province to invest in separate remote and in-person learning models
2021-07-24-Chalk talk protest-2-JQ
Students, parents and educators gathered at the Riverwalk Commons for a demonstration against hybrid learning July 24. (File photo)

Parents, teachers and students are continuing a campaign urging York Region District School Board to reconsider the "frustrating" hybrid learning model. 

York Communities for Public Education received about 550 responses to a survey asking people to weigh in on the matter. 

“Overwhelmingly, people who have responded are saying it’s not working and it’s frustrating and they’re angry,” said Newmarket resident Shameela Shakeel, co-chair of the group. 

YRDSB teachers at both the elementary and secondary levels are teaching students in the classroom, while at the same time teaching students who opted for remote learning.

According to a report from the board, 72,016 elementary students, or 85 per cent, are enrolled in in-class learning, and 12,613 students, or 15 per cent, are enrolled in virtual learning. 

At the secondary level, 38,543 or 92 per cent of students are enrolled for in-person learning, and 3,440 students or eight per cent are enrolled online.

The report said the board's decision to offer hybrid learning this school year came after community members said students want to be connected to their home school, it enables students to switch from in-person to online, and allows remote learning to continue to be an option as the majority of students return to in-person learning. 

“We recognize that there will be a learning curve for educators in the hybrid model and we know that similar to last year, teaching and learning opportunities offered by staff will evolve over time. The hybrid model allows for remote learners to remain connected to their home school with their friends and offers continuity of learning through a seamless transition from in-class learning to remote learning or vice-versa,” the report stated.

“All students receive classroom instruction from their teachers. Students will be able to re-establish connections with their school and peers which we believe will promote positive mental health.”

Shakeel said discussions about the challenges of hybrid learning often focus on the technology but “it’s not just the technology that’s an issue.”

She said she has heard from parents and teachers concerned about split attention for teachers and lack of connection for online students. 

“Teachers are limited in how they can have the kids interact and where the cameras can be,” she said. “Even though the board is saying they implemented the hybrid model so there is a connection to the school, the reality is that the kids are not really connected.”

In one anonymous response to the survey, a person expressed concern for the teachers in this situation. 

"Teachers' mental health is not being taken into consideration at all. If teachers aren't doing well, unfortunately, this will slowly start to show within the classroom, which can affect student learning. Teachers did not sign up for this. They we not given any training at all with hybrid teaching, which is very stressful," the respondent wrote. 

"Parents are already quick to judge teachers, pre-covid, and now, with hybrid, which isn't built for success, teachers will be judged even more. Teachers are now expected to plan two different programs for 1 class, or 4 programs for a split class. This isn't fair to teachers at all. There isn't enough time in the day to plan for 1, which will result in teachers to plan while at home, taking away from their family time. Hybrid will cause teachers to burn out quickly." 

Another person, who identified as a teacher in a hybrid class, expressed concerns about the privacy of students at home and in the classroom. 

"When a student is joining from home, their entire family life can be exposed to teachers and a class. If I am broadcasting my classroom and teaching to families at home, I'm concerned about the privacy of the students in my class. I certainly wouldn't want other families listening to any struggles my children might be having. We also know there are situations that happen in classrooms where a teacher needs to step in right away. Educators do not need an audience witnessing a challenging situation or the potential misinterpretation of what is happening." 

The person added, "The stress the teachers in York Region are feeling is palpable and I am concerned for the mental health and emotional well-being of many of my colleagues." 

Another respondent said, "The hybrid learning model is absolutely detrimental to our students. Teachers are being asked to teach two classes simultaneously, while battling unimaginable challenges with no proper training or support. Teaching large, often split, classes in a pandemic is extremely difficult. Adding hybrid learning has made teachers' jobs impossible." 

While they are just several weeks into the school year, Shakeel thinks this is a bigger issue than just an adjustment period. 

“I know it’s early days. I know that there’s a learning curve, we all know that. It’s just that there has to be another way,” she said. 

One Markham mother, Shahida Fazal, whose children attend Aldergrove Public School, said she felt the effects of hybrid learning from the first day of school. 

Fazal, the school council chair, said her biggest concern with the current model expects teachers to be present for both their in-person and online students. 

“You’ll have to give up on the quality. You’ll have to do the bare minimum because you can’t accommodate both,” she said. 

Following the first day of school, Fazal wrote a letter to YRDSB and shortly after the associate director visited the school and spoke with staff. 

However, she wants people to know that her concerns are not just about their school. 

“I don’t want this to be an Aldergrove issue, this is a system-wide issue,” Fazal said. “I don’t want them to have that view that this is an isolated situation because it’s not.”

The fight against hybrid learning has also been launched at a provincial level. 

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) has launched a campaign called Say No to Hybrid Learning that encourages people to write to their MPPs about the issue. 

“Hybrid learning is not about giving families a ‘choice’ – it is about cutting costs,” OECTA president Barb Dobrowolski said in a news release. “Rather than support our students and remedy the losses of two years of disrupted learning, the Ford government plans to cut publicly funded education by $12.3 billion over the next decade and double down on the failed hybrid learning model, failing our students, teachers, and communities.”

OECTA said that the hybrid model forces teachers to split their time and compromises the learning experience for everyone. 

The campaign calls on the Ontario government to invest in having classrooms that are in-person only or online-only. 

Meanwhile, Shakeel and her co-chair of York Communities for Public Education, Riya Bhatla, are planning to make a deputation to the YRDSB trustees at their October meeting. 

She said they hope to present data, anecdotes and feedback from parents, teachers and some high school students to encourage the board to reconsider the hybrid model. 

Muna Kadri, District 16 York Region president of Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, has also requested to make a deputation to the trustees about hybrid learning. 

“Over the past few weeks, hundreds of my OSSTF members have reached out with feedback about the rollout of hybrid learning in their classrooms,” she said in her request. “At a few board meetings trustees have specifically asked about feedback from teachers about the model. I am able to provide that feedback so that the trustees can have a conversation about hybrid that includes the perspective of teachers deploying the model.” 

Shakeel said they will likely present on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Prior to that, the board has announced that Friday, Oct. 15 will be an asynchronous learning day for all students, meaning schools will be closed to students so teachers and school staff can engage in professional learning on the hybrid model. 

"This additional professional learning will enable us to share effective practices and support, and be responsive to some of the feedback we have heard. We are committed to creating learning environments that enable all of our students, both in person and remote, to be successful, and feel connected and supported,” said in a notice to families about the asynchronous learning day.