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A ‘really weird new normal’: Parents, students grapple with learning at home amid pandemic

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As Canadian parents and guardians face the stark reality of ongoing school closures this spring because of COVID-19, an uneven patchwork of provincial plans has developed to try to implement remote learning for a vast range of students.

When Alberta announced that its schools would close indefinitely in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, Danielle Fortin admits she considered the decision “pretty drastic.”

Now, with Canada’s coronavirus cases having risen dramatically, the Red Deer, Alta.-based mother of two appreciates that decision — along with the speed with which her province enacted a “learning at home” framework.

“Now that we’re in it” and seeing that physical isolation measures are likely to continue further into the spring, “it makes a lot of sense,” said Fortin, whose kids, ages eight and 11, are tapping into online resources and connecting with others via video chat.

“It’s going to take a lot of time for families and kids and parents to adjust to this really weird new normal we have going on,” said Fortin, who added that “it wouldn’t make sense to rush back.”

Scarlett Fortin, 11, studies at home in Red Deer, Alta. (Submitted by Danielle Fortin)

Just a few provinces over, however, Janet Chisholm has been frustrated with what she sees as Ontario’s slow progress at implementing its own plan for at-home learning.

Ontario, which includes the largest school board in Canada (the Toronto District School Board), broke down details of its learning-at-home plan on Tuesday — “but I think it’s a bit late,” said Chisholm.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce “used the phrase ‘lightning speed’ twice and I would say we’ve been off school for awhile now. I wouldn’t describe the response as lightning speed…. We’ve been having to teach our kids or manage on our own for the last week and a half already.”

An earlier learning portal Ontario set up was not what the mom of two, whose kids are eight and 10, had expected. Chisholm called it “a non-plan” that simply listed online links and “didn’t do a very good job of giving us guidance on how to be teachers.

“We’re not educators and we shouldn’t be expected to earn a degree in teaching overnight and try to develop curriculum on our own.”

Janet Chisholm helps her two sons with schoolwork at their home in Toronto. (Submitted by Janet Chisholm)

While the downtown Toronto resident acknowledges the prudence of Ontario extending its public school closures for at least another month, “we’d love to see our kids back to school May 4,” she said.

“I know other provinces have already pulled the plug on the year and I think I’d be disappointed if they did that.”

While some provincial governments have cancelled in-class learning indefinitely, others are taking more of a wait-and-see approach and thus far keeping school doors shuttered into May. 

Some provinces have issued specific objectives (including delivering age-specific hours of work on targeted subject matter), directed teachers to reach out to students and families (online or by phone) or released learn-at-home resources. Others say they’re still working out exactly how to continue delivering their curriculum to students.

The challenge of equity

One major challenge is ensuring that any at-home resources or curriculum that’s being shared is available to all students, some of whom may not have access to the internet, digital devices or adult support at home.

It’s vital for educators to consider equity and make sure students across the socioeconomic divide have access to what they need — especially now, said Matt Fabbri, a public high school teacher in Winnipeg.

“A lot of our kids are dealing with mental health issues and even that point of just having regular interaction with their teachers — sometimes that’s the only regular thing that they have every day,” said Fabbri, a teacher at Nelson McIntyre Collegiate who says getting in touch with and staying in communication with students has been a priority.

“It’s this time to really check in with our kids and not ask ‘Hey, how’s your homework going?’ but just ask ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you functioning? Are you talking to people or are you holed up in your house with nobody to talk to?’ “

WATCH | Talking to kids about the coronavirus pandemic:

How to talk to your kids about the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:01

‘We are teachers and we can manage’

Rather than dwelling on grades, his immediate concern is for his students to be able to learn and demonstrate what they’ve learned. He and his colleagues broke their process down to three concepts: encourage students to work on existing skills, check out new material they will eventually learn when school returns and explore for themselves.

“As a teacher, I’m not concerned about all students reaching a common percentage point, but more concerned with their own personal growth curves. Are they moving up and to the right?”

For instance, for younger students up to Grade 8, “any type of engaged learning is going to be great for them,” Fabbri said.

Winnipeg public school teacher Matt Fabbri is connecting with students in a variety of ways, including via online video, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted by Matt Fabbri)

Meanwhile, for high schoolers, he said, parents and guardians should “engage them in what they’re learning right now. ‘Hey, what documentary did you watch today? What article did you read today? What new thing did you learn today?’ And don’t accept the monosyllabic answers.”

Fabbri and his colleagues are also trying to take advantage of technology. One is streaming an hour-long phys ed class on Instagram daily, while another streams a chemistry class live from his home office. Others have switched things up to offer classes and Monday-to-Friday “office hours” via apps like Zoom.

As Fabbri juggles teaching with “trying to prepare emails and learn Zoom and [make] phone calls touching base with kids and parents,” he’s also overseeing three children of his own (ages four, eight and 10) learning at home.

“We are teachers and we can manage,” he said. “We’re going to figure out ways to help our students manage through this. That’s our job.”

‘Things are changing in front of our eyes’

Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced this unprecedented moment of change, it could lead to higher-quality e-learning in Canada, said Marina Milner-Bolotin, an associate professor of education at the University of British Columbia.

“Education is such a huge field and it has a huge inertia. Now we can see things are changing in front of our eyes,” said Milner-Bolotin, who has taught online for more than 10 years.

“I see one silver lining here: That people will start taking technology much more seriously after this crisis.”

Noting that she’s had pushback from colleagues who call online learning impersonal, she foresees that in the coming weeks, “amazing teachers who know how to teach online … will support the teachers who are hesitant.”

Marina Milner-Bolotin, associate professor in education at the University of British Columbia, believes this period could lead to a blossoming for online education in Canada. (CBC)

The Vancouver-based educator underlines, however, that effective e-learning doesn’t mean links, websites and “dumping a lot of resources on parents.” It requires real support, with provincial education ministers giving teachers specific online education training and bringing in experts for further development.

“It’s going to be a boom for online education,” Milner-Bolotin said, pointing out that e-learning can connect far-flung students with specialized teachers and extend more courses to a wider swath of kids.

“A lot of people will realize the power of online education.”

Shannon Rogers, a mom of four in Calgary, has some concerns about the decisions school officials have made in recent weeks. Her oldest, for instance, is bound for high school and he worries about being prepared. She also wonders about “running out of steam” herself. She’s reduced her own workload to focus on her children’s education.

“It’s a lot trying to homeschool your kids. I am obviously not a teacher, so this is not a skill set that I have,” she said, questioning whether she can keep her kids on task and “progressing confidently.”

What she has been happy with is how teachers, principals and Alberta education officials have adapted amid the pandemic.

“One of the kid’s teachers sent a video, for example, saying hi to the kids and sort of encouraging them to keep up with the work that they had already going on…. They’re doing their best. I think it’s been quite remarkable really.”

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Education

Supply Chain Canada, Alberta Institute Introduces the Supply Chain Workforce Marketplace

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The Province of Alberta is partnering with the Government of Canada to provide employment support programs and services. Now, Supply Chain Canada, with support from the Labour Market Partnerships Program, has stepped up for its community of professionals and for its country. The Supply Chain Workforce Marketplace as a free and open resource to help ensure visibility to the available supply chain talent across the country, and to help match this talent with opportunities. Whether a business is looking for supply chain talent, or a supply chain worker is willing and able to work, the Supply Chain Workforce Marketplace is the means through which they can tap into national resources. It has been designed to strengthen supply chains in Alberta by ensuring that all available talent can be rapidly utilized to support the country during this crisis, as we move into recovery.

The Supply Chain Workforce Marketplace is for members, partners, businesses, professionals, recruiters, those recently out of work, students and volunteers to connect and share opportunities with each other. Supply Chain Canada recognizes that it is only through committed support to our essential supply chain workers, businesses, profession and community at large that we can help achieve our collective well-being. As the voice of the supply chain community in Alberta, they take it as their responsibility to encourage these connections. It is how they keep Alberta moving in the months ahead.

Canada is blessed with having some of the most highly skilled supply chain professionals in the world. Due to the pandemic, however, there are many who are not currently employed. Our role at Supply Chain Canada is to ensure that those companies and organizations in need of talent are able to quickly and effectively find that talent,” said Christian Buhagiar, President and CEO, Supply Chain Canada.

Today, it is essential that businesses quickly find displaced supply chain talent so that their experiences and skills can be used for new and shifting supply chain demands across the country. The Supply Chain Workforce Marketplace is a way for Canadians to harness what is most representative of them: their talent.

Visit https://www.supplychaincanada.com/workforce-marketplace

About Supply Chain Canada
Supply Chain Canada™ is the voice of Canada’s supply chain, representing and serving more than 7,500 professionals across the country, as well as the wider supply chain community. It is a federation, with a national secretariat and 10 provincial/territorial Institutes. Its mission is to “provide leadership to the Canadian supply chain community, provide value to all members, and advance the profession.” Through its education, advocacy and resource-development initiatives, the association endeavours to advance its vision, to see that “Canadian supply chain professionals and organizations are recognized for leading innovation, global competitiveness and driving economic growth.” The association’s Supply Chain Management Professional™ (SCMP™) designation is Canada’s most-sought-after professional designation for those entering the field and advancing as leaders in supply chain.

SOURCE Supply Chain Canada

For further information: Pat Campbell, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Supply Chain Canada, [email protected], 416-977-7111 x3202

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San Ramon Valley district picks new superintendent

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DANVILLE — The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has looked to the north — Canada — in selecting its new superintendent.

John Malloy, the current director of education at the Toronto District School Board, was chosen as the finalist for the job after an extensive search process that included input from the community, educators and the search firm. The Toronto District School Board is the largest in Canada and serves more than 247,000 students in 583 schools throughout Toronto, according to the news release. San Ramon Valley Unified has an enrollment of 32,000.

Malloy was set to retire Nov. 1 from the Toronto job, according to the Toronto Sun, when he accepted the San Ramon position.

“I am privileged and excited to be the new superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District starting August 1,” Malloy said in a video statement. “I was drawn to the district because it was clear to me from afar that you are committed to students — their achievement, their well-being, holding high standards, supporting their learning. And that really resonated with me.”

Malloy, who has more than 30 years of experience in public and private education, will replace Superintendent Rick Schmitt, who announced his retirement April 3. Schmitt’s term runs through the end of June.

The school board will confirm a job offer to Malloy at an upcoming board meeting, with details on the contract length and salary at that time.

“We are excited to welcome Dr. Malloy to the San Ramon Valley Unified School District,” School Board President Greg Marvel said in a statement. “He quickly emerged as an outstanding candidate whose vast experience and strong leadership abilities will greatly benefit the students, families and employees of the SRVUSD, as we navigate a new path forward in education during these uncertain times.”

Malloy, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, attended school and worked in the United States before going to Toronto as a teacher in the Toronto Catholic board, according to the Toronto Sun. He headed the Hamilton-Wentworth board and also worked as an assistant deputy minister in Ontario’s Ministry of Education before taking the helm in Toronto four years ago.

At its May 26 meeting, the San Ramon Valley school board — over the objections of nearly 300 people — approved 2.56 percent salary increase for its top management. The decision included boosting Superintendent Schmitt’s salary to $357,832, retroactively to July 1, 2019.

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has 36 schools with more than 32,000 students in Alamo, Danville, Blackhawk, Diablo and San Ramon.

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‘I had to fight for it’

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For Mariam Abeid, education has always been an almighty struggle. 

Growing up in Kenya, she had to fight to complete her schooling in a community where girls’ education wasn’t a priority. She later married a Toronto man whose parents promised she could pursue her education in Canada – but she says they went back on their word and compelled her to become a full-time housewife.

Her husband later died, leaving Abeid – by then a mother of three –penniless and distraught. But Abeid refused to give up and is now graduating with a master’s degree in child studies and education from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and is looking forward to her first teaching job.

“I thank God that I applied to OISE and got in,” Abeid says. “I got an education there and I got my life back. I have more courage, more strength and more confidence in myself now.

“I don’t know how my life would have turned out now if I didn’t go there.”

It’s been a difficult journey for Abeid, who recalls how her life was turned upside-down when her husband died in 2010. “I was beyond myself,” she says. “I kept crying. I had no idea what I would do. I just kept hugging my kids and crying.” 

While still dealing with that tragedy, Abeid got word that her father in Kenya was ailing with a heart condition. She went to visit him, leaving her children behind at the insistence of her in-laws. What was supposed to be a short trip to Kenya turned into a year-and-a-half after her family refused to let her leave, and demanded she find a way to bring her kids over from Canada.

Eventually, Abeid managed to return to Canada, but says her in-laws – who were then living in an apartment that had been leased in Abeid’s name and that of her late husband – refused to return her children.

“I didn’t even know what the laws were in Canada. I was completely oblivious,” Abeid says. “I didn’t even know the country I lived in for 10 years because, after getting married, I was always at home. I had no friends and they prevented me from going out alone.”

U of T grad Mariam Abeid (second from left) and her three children (photo courtesy Mariam Abeid)

At one point, Abeid was forced to stay in a shelter in downtown Toronto. There, she met a lawyer who took up her case and, in 2012, helped her regain custody of her children and take back the apartment from her in-laws.

Abeid began to take her first steps toward a career in education at her kids’ school. She began volunteering and her talent in dealing with children was spotted by a teacher who suggested Abeid look into getting a diploma in early childhood education.

Abeid ran with the idea. She studied at Humber College before completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, where a professor recommended she pursue a master’s degree at OISE.

After attending an OISE open house and learning more about OISE and U of T, Abeid says she was sold – so much so that she applied to three different master’s programs at OISE, and didn’t bother applying to any other university.

“Everyone was like, ‘You’re crazy, you should apply elsewhere, too. Why are you only applying to one university?’” Abeid says. “But I said, ‘I don’t care, I’m okay with anything I get at OISE.”

She says the strength of OISE’s master’s in child studies and education stems from the way it blends research and practice.

“We learn about how children learn, what’s behind it, child-centred approaches and so on – and it’s very research-based, which I liked a lot,” she says. “Then with the [Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study] Lab School downstairs, I got to see how the theory was integrated into practice. I was seeing it take place in the school.

“How you prep students to be able to handle what you’re teaching them and what they’re learning, how to ask questions – all of that.”

At OISE, Abeid also found a culture of caring and support.

“It’s very intimate and it’s a small group. We get to know our teachers and they get to know us,” she says. “Most of the time, I was dealing with personal problems, but I could go knock on a professor’s door and they’d drop everything to listen to me, talk to me and sometimes even give me advice. It helped me so much.”

Abeid’s time at OISE was marked by a strong work ethic and perfectionist attitude – something she traces back to her childhood in Kenya and her desperation to go to school.

“I had to get good grades to show that it’s not a waste of time for a girl to go to school,” she says. “I had to fight to keep my grades up so I could justify going to school. I couldn’t even complain about anything because then they might say ‘Okay, if you don’t like school, stay at home,” she says.

“Even now [at OISE], when I had a serious family reason to leave class or get an extension on a paper, I had a lot of trouble doing it. The professors were so understanding but I still couldn’t bear it.

“I think it stuck with me. I don’t know what do – it’s a curse and a blessing at the same time.”

Michael Martins, a Grade 3 teacher who supervised Abeid’s internship in his classroom at the OISE lab school, described her as “an extraordinary individual” whose cheerful demeanour belied the personal challenges she was navigating, and whose positive attitude in the face of adversity was a source of inspiration.

“Mariam entered the Grade 3 classroom every day with a smile, ready to support children in any way possible,” says Martins. “Her ability to connect to students was observed each day as she brought a calm and understanding attitude to each interaction. She was incredibly reflective and always looked at each challenge as an opportunity to learn and improve.

“Not only have the obstacles to completing her master’s degree been immense, but she did all this while supporting three children at home on her own. Mariam’s story is an inspiration to anyone, as her enduring positivity is a model of what it means to be resilient and practise a life of gratitude.”

Abeid’s drive helped her secure financial support in the form of the OISE bursary program and a scholarship that supports exceptional U of T students who plan to pursue a career in primary or secondary teaching in Ontario.

She is now looking forward to starting her career as an assistant teacher at the OISE lab school, where she looks forward to teaching and improving her understanding of classroom dynamics.

Her goal is to eventually do a doctoral degree at OISE and conduct research on mental health and wellness in classrooms and schools. It’s a topic that’s close to Abeid’s heart, as she saw her daughter struggle with anxiety through her school years.

“I wasn’t happy about what I saw in my daughter’s school,” Abeid says. “When she was in elementary school, the teachers were afraid of her. One teacher told me she was scared when my child was having an episode and didn’t know what was wrong with her. In my mind, I thought, ‘You’re a teacher – if you see a child like that, you should be able to help.’ That saddened me a lot.

“As teachers, we sometimes forget that we have that kind of responsibility, and we think it’s only about taking care of what’s going on inside the classroom. We need to take a step in educating ourselves on mental health and wellness and how to help the kids.”

Abeid says her daughter – now 19 and preparing to start university – and two younger teenage sons are her biggest fans, and that she strives to convey to them and all young people to never take education for granted.

“I hope and pray that I’m an inspiration to them. If I can do this, I believe they can do much more,” Abeid says. “I tell them every day, ‘education is power.’ It levels you out with everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re wealthy or poor – if you have good education, you can go wherever you want and there is no limit.

“I know the value of education because I had to fight for it.”

As for what her own future will bring, Abeid is clear about one thing: Her journey of learning is only just getting started.

“I don’t want to stop. I don’t think learning ever stops, especially when you’re a teacher.”

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