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As school boards blend in-person and virtual classes, criticism emerges for hybrid model



For Steven Ferracane, a teacher in Vaughan, Ont., and some of his Grade 5 students, it was the first day of school all over again this week, as the York Catholic District School Board, north of Toronto, introduced a new pandemic scenario combining in-person and online learners in the same classrooms. 

“It went OK considering it was our first day. The remote students, they all showed up on time, eager to learn,” said Ferracane, who now simultaneously teaches 15 fifth-graders in a classroom at St. Raphael the Archangel Catholic Elementary School, with seven more logging on live from home.

“We’re actually so happy to welcome them back to our school.” 

Though Ferracane believes this new hybrid model lays the groundwork in case of another widespread school shutdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak, he said it requires juggling his attention between the live students and remote learners to whom he connects through his dedicated laptop and means more work for him.

“I’m kind of looking at both of them at the same time, kind of bouncing a little bit back and forth…. As we progress, I’m hoping that we develop some sort of a routine,” Ferracane said on Wednesday. 

“But these are the situations, the circumstances that we’re in…. It requires a lot of planning, a lot of collaboration with your colleagues, to bounce ideas off each other [and] share resources.”

Teaching in-class and virtual students at the same time ‘requires a lot of planning, a lot of collaboration with your colleagues, to bounce ideas off each other [and] share resources,’ Ferracane says. (CBC)

The hybrid scenario of teaching both in-person and remote students simultaneously hasn’t typically been the format boards have adopted for their remote, elementary school learners this fall, with the majority establishing dedicated virtual classrooms.

In some cases, however, a school division may have paved its own way. Edmonton Catholic Schools, for example, asked elementary educators to choose between teaching in-class or online students, with some agreeing to the model of tackling both simultaneously, said Lori Nagy, the board’s manager of media and community relations.

In other areas, virtual schools had to follow provincial directives. Regina Public Schools hasn’t considered a hybrid model, said Terry Lazarou, the division’s supervisor of communications, noting that the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education had told school divisions “that this was not an option.” 

However, as challenges with online school staffing and class reorganization continue in different regions, more could potentially opt for this hybrid approach, which has already earned some criticism from families and teachers.

Parent’s petition urges board to change course

Elsewhere in Vaughan, after weeks of soothing her sons’ meltdowns triggered by remote learning, Afrooz Cianfrone faced renewed frustration when Jobim, 7, and Dante, 5, virtually rejoined classrooms in their York Catholic District home school this week. 

“We’d finally got the hang of it and it was working. The teachers were wonderful…. [My sons] weren’t really aware that they were separate,” Cianfrone said, since all of their classmates were learning from home. 

Afrooz Cianfrone, with her sons Jobim, 7, and Dante, 5, was so upset over the York Catholic District School Board’s decision to switch to a hybrid teaching model that she started a petition urging the leadership to change course. (Irina Kornienko)

She’s been so upset since learning of her board’s switch to a hybrid model that, after commiserating with other virtual school families in the board, she started a petition urging the leadership to change its mind. 

“The email that was sent home was saying that this is better for the kids, because kids would be happy to be a part of their home school. But the kids don’t see their classmates,” Cianfrone said.

“My son [Jobim] is extremely frustrated because now he knows that [other] kids are at school. He no longer sees the friends that he had on virtual anymore because they are now in another class…. It’s frustrating to feel like you don’t have a voice. You don’t have a choice.”

Cianfrone said she has multiple concerns, from teachers balancing the needs of two very different learner groups to whether remote students can effectively access an educator engrossed with an in-person class. Though she thinks teachers are doing their best, “it’s just physically and logistically impossible to do that [hybrid] job and provide equitable education for all kids,” she said.

“This is not the way you want your kids to learn.”

York Catholic teacher Mary Marcello expressed similar concerns about difficulty connecting with students under the hybrid model. Her first day on Wednesday required three computers: one projecting onto an interactive board for her in-class learners and two more beaming her face and an information screen to her remote students. 

York Catholic schoolteacher Mary Marcello. began September tasked to teach a Grade 2/3 split in person before being moved into an itinerant role. The latest shuffle sees her teaching a class of Grade 3s in-person and Grade 2s remotely. (CBC)

“I am concerned that I won’t be able to meet the individual needs of all the learners, both remote and face to face. I am concerned that I’m not going to keep them engaged enough…. They all have a right to education,” said Marcello, who began September tasked to teach a Grade 2/3 split in person before being moved into an itinerant role. The latest shuffle sees her teaching a class of Grade 3s in-person and Grade 2s remotely.

“Every plan that is presented to us, we want it to work,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t well thought out, that all stakeholders were not consulted to make this less disruptive, so that there wasn’t a constant shift in class placements.” 

‘An imperfect approach during an imperfect time’

Calling the hybrid model “an imperfect approach during an imperfect time,” Upper Canada District School Board’s director of education nonetheless believes that amid the uncertainties of the pandemic, it’s the choice that gives his district’s families the flexibility to move between learning at school and at home — as well as provide continuity of learning in case of significant disruptions.

Stephen Sliwa and his colleagues at the eastern Ontario school district which covers much of the region surrounding but not including the city of Ottawa were taken aback by a post-Labour Day surge of about 20 per cent of families choosing virtual learning. An earlier survey had projected just six per cent would choose learning at home.

After a surge in families opting for virtual school this fall, the Upper Canada District School Board enacted a blended model. Educators teach students in-person and online at the same time, as well as students whose families have requested either online learning or offline learning. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

However, after examining various remote-school models being prepped across the province, the board found that “they either didn’t make immediate sense to us pedagogically or were not affordable based on the resources the school district had or that we would not have the human resources in order to staff,” Sliwa said.

What Upper Canada District ultimately put into place is a hybrid model in which its educators teach students in-person and virtually at the same time, as well as any students whose families have requested either online learning (not delivered live) or offline learning.

“We did have to take some very quick action … to accommodate and to respond to the learning preferences that families had articulated and to make sure that we didn’t contribute to the uncertainty of having to change the model once we were already midstream,” he said.

WATCH | First day of school — again — as Ontario board moves to hybrid model:

After an increase in demand for online learning, the York Catholic District School Board outside Toronto has moved to a hybrid learning model where the classroom is made of students in school and online, but many parents are frustrated with change and calling for full, online learning to come back. 2:02

Still, the best-laid plan on paper isn’t what’s happening in the classrooms, said Kavita Prakash, a parent in Almonte, Ont., whose nine-year-old daughter, Shyla Barr, is a synchronous virtual student at an Upper Canada District school.  

“Their argument in favour of [a hybrid model] was our kids are joined with their classmates and — if we change our mind and want to get back in the classroom — it’s an easy transition, which does sound good in theory,” Prakash said. 

“It was, in my opinion, doomed to fail.”

As someone also currently teaching online full time at an English CEGEP in Gatineau, Que., as well as on contract at Ottawa’s Carleton University Prakash is acutely aware of the struggles in reaching students through a screen. 

“I’m trying to keep them interested, in an online world where I’m staring at blackness all the time because they don’t put the cameras on. You’re trying to get them to interact and you want to keep them interested and motivated,” she said. 

“You do a song and dance in the classroom anyway, but now it is more so.”

A teacher leads a class of in-person students and others joining by video conference. ‘You do a song and dance in the classroom anyway, but now it is more so,’ says parent and university instructor Kavita Prakash, who feels that under a hybrid model, even the most exceptional educators can’t succeed since they must split their attention many ways. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

Add in myriad technological woes from bandwidth issues that regularly kick online students off their connections to in-class noise drowning out their efforts to participate — and the result is virtual students like her fourth-grade daughter are consistently facing an uphill battle, Prakash said.

“I see her at a little desk [at home] with her hand up, asking questions and trying to get involved. And she feels ignored.” 

Though her daughter’s teachers are making extra efforts to connect one plays his guitar for all students at morning snack time, while another held weekend meetings to help get parents up to speed on online platforms  even the most exceptional educators cannot succeed since they’re being forced to split their attention so many different ways, Prakash said.

“Teachers are being taken advantage of,” she said. “It’s not so much that I’m seeing online learning as a problem. It’s how they’re having these teachers do it that’s a huge problem.” 

Passionate appeals from vocal parents like Cianfrone and Prakash can, however, put a chill on adoption of the in-class-and-live-online scenario. 

Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, located in the west end of the Greater Toronto Area, announced last week it would merge in-class and live online instruction in early November, citing the challenge of increasing numbers switching to virtual. This week it partially dialled back the plan now to take effect in mid-November  after a torrent of protest from remote-learning families who had just settled into their virtual classrooms after earlier delays and problems.

Now, “we are looking at a combination of [dedicated] remote and hybrid, with a commitment required from parents to remain in their selected mode for the remainder of the school year,” Bruce E. Campbell, the board’s general manager of communications and community relations, said in a statement.

“This will mean that we will have to undergo reorganization in schools/classes only one more time for the remainder of the school year.”

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OPINION | Looking south, at a shuddering elephant




This column is an opinion from Calgary author Aritha van Herk.

In Canadian director Sandy Wilson’s film My American Cousin, a B.C. girl bored with her “nothing ever happens” life invests in her visiting American cousin, Butch, all the excitement and adventure she yearns for.

A runaway car thief, he proves to be a rogue, but he represents all that is compelling for young, starry-eyed Sandy. Despite its period nostalgia, the film could be a lesson in Alberta’s fascination with that hot-car, quick-fisted, smoky seducer from the south.

Albertans have always peered across the 49th parallel with a mixture of trepidation and envy.

Some Albertans identify with what’s south of the border, the free-wheeling laissez faire of make-it-or-break-it, more than they do with what radiates from Ottawa or Toronto. Some have learned, at their peril, that an angry ambition can curdle business deals and handshake investments. Some are polite but wary.

Either pro or con, despite ourselves, we’re a version of colony, figurative more than literal, true, but still entranced, tugging our forelocks to American aspiration, inventiveness, and even pushiness.  

Given our history, the Albertan alignment with our neighbours should not be surprising.

An early attachment

Before the border was surveyed and the west colonized and settled, Indigenous peoples moved freely across and over the territory of the great plains.

When the nascent NWMP dragged themselves west, the same Mounties who were supposed to halt the whiskey trade detoured to its very headquarters, Fort Benton, to access supplies for their exhausted and demoralized men.

And the first sitting member of Parliament to represent the district of Alberta in Ottawa, in 1887, was an American, reformed whiskey trader D.W. Davis.

Over time, we have enjoyed altercations and suffered alliances. We’ve witnessed opinionated pundits and politicians who press for greater connection, if not the downright annexation of Alberta by the U.S.

The Wexit party might think they are advocating for independence, but they would ultimately bolt straight into the wide-flung arms of the U.S.A.

Still, we’ve tried to keep our distance, pretending to take a higher road, civil acquaintances rather than bosom friends.

Rallies have erupted into extravagant jamborees, says Aritha van Herk. The situation to the south is certainly closer to trench warfare than the thoughtful and dignified expression of citizenship. (AP)

The antics of the American voting process, described by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic as “The Election that could Break America,” are, to say the least, unsettling. Rallies have erupted into extravagant jamborees rather than the serious subject of psephology, that branch of political science studying elections.

Exacerbated by COVID-19, systemic xenophobia and economic uncertainty, the situation to the south is certainly closer to trench warfare than a national vote, a thoughtful and dignified expression of citizenship. 

Now, on the eve of the upcoming event, we watch more warily than ever, watch with an intensity and interest that combines anticipation with horror, nervousness with schadenfreude — delight in another’s misfortune.

Like that proverbial train wreck, we can’t look away, and if we comfort ourselves that “it won’t affect us,” we are truly delusional. It does, and it will.  

Many and determined are the pointy-fingered tweets and posts that claim, “Them, not us,” “We aren’t like them,” we’re “civilized” (now there’s a fraught word), we only take to the streets over maple syrup and hockey. 

We think that the mantra, “We’re Canadian, eh,” will protect us. 

Not true. We cannot afford that complacent sense of superiority. 

Distrust and disinformation snowballs

Pent-up anxiety about COVID’s changing rules and isolation, cases, and deaths grows. The sweep of distrust, disinformation, or “issues management messaging” snowballs. The churn in health care and education, the real struggles of job-loss and insecurity, contribute to this toxicity. 

“I trust my gut, not the public health people” is the most terrifying sentence I’ve heard, when “we are all in this together” — or at least we’re supposed to be. 

COVID seems to have given us permission to express our own distrust of science and the “liberal elite,” an excuse to retreat into a willfully blind individualism. Ideas have become less preambles than weapons, and their weaponizing is tied to suspicion.

We communicate only with those who share our views, in a bubble that has nothing to do with viral safety. We subscribe to a taste-driven world, and respect only monetary success.

The desire to replace best practices with a back-to-basics suspicion of change, a return to “common” values, and a denial of the advantages of diversity, all speak to some larger and more troubling trend, visceral and reactive.

At a time when we do need to work together, affective polarization is increasing incrementally, both in Canada and the States, although in New Zealand and Germany, for example, it is measurably decreasing.

This is not a direction we want to intensify.

The Wexit party might think they are advocating for independence, but they would ultimately bolt straight into the wide-flung arms of the USA, says Aritha van Herk. (Gabriel Brown/CBC)

Equally capable of divisiveness and stupidity, we are just as susceptible to disinformation as our American cousins. Trump is a symptom rather than an exception, and all the fake news, conspiracy theories, and credulousness drift across the border like phosgene. 

If Alberta figures itself as ex-centric, reluctant to cooperate with other provinces and jurisdictions, where do we look for community?

The truculent partisanship playing out in politics today is sobering, and if we insist on grievance mongering instead of consultation, we abjure the greater good and mirror our neighbour’s chaotic and headlong plunge. 

Our worst Albertan trait is to align ourselves with outlier thinking rather than a far-sighted imagining of a future that will certainly be different from the past.

In that respect, we’re nostalgic more than entrepreneurial, lamenting those heady boom days when we should be remembering the future, and how infinitely different it has to be. And how many opportunities it will offer too, if we only allow ourselves to evade the algorithm of yesteryear.

We’re engaging now in more argument and dissension, regardless of the fallout, than a unified quest for solutions. Discord is everyone’s second language, and we seem incapable of believing in the best before we jump to conclusions.

We target anxiety. We cannot seem to discern when we are being manipulated. We spend a lot of time squabbling about possessions: “mine,” we scream, or “not fair.”

Crippling partisanship

Partisanship is crippling leadership, a real peril when the best way forward is to unite in the face of a pandemic that needs to be quelled, an economy that needs a reset, and a nation that must come to terms with its hazards and history.    

The constant expression of moral outrage begins to argue the validity of its presence.

QAnon, hate speech and viral conspiracy theories manifest themselves in perhaps quieter but definite aspects of our attention and commentary.

Make no mistake, when that elephant below us starts thrashing around, we feel the ground shuddering and those convulsions only too readily become ours. Imitation may be considered flattery, but it is neither imaginative nor intelligent. 

And so, while I too will be watching the results of the American election with that irresistible fascination for a slow-motion train-crash, I will resist my joie maligne, delight in another’s suffering. More than sympathy for the devil, my attention will be worry. 

Believe me, I want to be wrong. I hope so.  And polling suggests that a lot of Americans don’t like what they’re seeing either. Civil discourse could make a comeback.

On the other hand, perhaps I should spend the evening re-watching My American Cousin, enjoying the ironic conundrum of falling in love with the duck-tailed, tormented James Dean figure who shows up from across the border in a Cadillac convertible — before he leaves again.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

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Tentative teachers contract includes 7% wage increase




The proposed contract Nova Scotia teachers will be asked to vote on next month includes a seven per cent wage increase over four years.

A video presentation to members, which was posted online, shows a two per cent wage increase in the first year of the deal, retroactive to Aug. 1, 2019.

There would be another two per cent increase in the second year, followed by 1.5 per cent wage increases in each of the final two years.

Teachers would also see a 25 per cent increase in marking and preparation time, if the deal is approved.

“It’s been at 10 per cent for more than 50 years,” Wally Fiander, the union’s lead negotiator, said in the video.

“Any increase in prep time should be considered to be a significant gain.”

Proposed deal reached last week

The proposed agreement also includes increases in the professional development funds for each of the regional centres for education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial, the province’s French-language school board.

The tentative deal was reached last Friday following a two-day negotiation session. In total, 26 days of bargaining went into reaching the tentative agreement. Teachers have been without a contract since July 31, 2019.

The union has scheduled three telephone town hall meetings next week to review the proposal with members and answer any questions ahead of a ratification vote on Nov. 18.

Unlike previous instances, the union executive is not making a recommendation to members on the proposal. During the last round of contract negotiations, the province and executive reached three tentative deals, all of which were recommended to membership. They were all voted down.

Teachers are seen protesting outside Province House in 2016. (Robert Short/CBC)

That ultimately led to a one-day strike by teachers as thousands of people descended on Province House in protest while the government imposed a contract through legislation.

The deal teachers will be asked to vote on does not include matters related to the pension plan. The government and union have agreed to deal with that outside of the collective agreement through the use of a three-person expert committee.

The financial terms of this proposed agreement are not dissimilar to the contract the province recently agreed to with Crown attorneys. That four-year deal also included a seven per cent pay increase over the life of the contract.

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Island’s universities challenged to ‘build community’ amid remote learning – Nanaimo News Bulletin




Universities and colleges weren’t spared by COVID-19 and leaders from Vancouver Island post-secondary educational institutions talked about the challenges they’ve faced and the adjustments they’ve made.

A discussion on ‘The Future of Post-Secondary Education’ took place Wednesday at the Vancouver Island Economic Summit, with Deborah Saucier, Vancouver Island University president, Philip Steenkamp, Royal Roads University president, Chris Horbachewski, University of Victoria vice-president of external relations, and moderator Michael Hawes, Fulbright Canada executive director, talking about the coronavirus and its impact.

Hawes said the pandemic’s implications for post-secondary education are significant and said the traditional model of in-person learning and on-campus instruction has been turned on its head.

“Its effects are far-reaching. It affects the core business model of the modern university, it affects the framework for public support, it affects the local economy and it affects how students, staff and faculty deal with their study and their work,” Hawes said. “In many ways, the issue isn’t just about delivery, it’s about the nature of the modern university and how to deal with change.”

Saucier said VIU’s pandemic approach changed over the span of seven months. The university implemented a hybrid model, featuring both face-to-face and online learning for the fall.

“We moved more than 80 per cent of our offerings to a technology-mediated format in a week and we kept a number of things face-to-face … things like experiential learning opportunities, [practicum], but also our trades programs continued to meet face-to-face,” Saucier said. “This really required heavy lifting by the part of our staff and faculty to work with WorkSafe B.C. to ensure that everyone was able to do so safely.”

Horbachewski said the impact of the pandemic on UVic has been significant. Residences have only 40 per cent of beds filled and food service operations and recreation and athletics have also been reduced.

“We‘ve seen a significant increase in expenses,” said Horbachewski. “It costs to move students online. We had to build out new systems. We had to bolster bandwidth, we had to ensure that the supports were there for our faculty members and our researchers because at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that we did not affect the academic quality. We have to rebuild a student experience. How do you build community when everybody is remote throughout the world right now?”

Steenkamp said post-secondary institutions have a challenge to reach out to people “who have been the primary victims” of the pandemic. He said an entire generation suffered from the 2008 recession and never really regained footing.

“We hear in this pandemic, in particular, women have been affected. We hear that indigenous people have been affected, other marginalized groups, as well, so I think it’s really incumbent on us working with our partners, in government and society generally to think about how we can reach out and serve those communities so that this isn’t … a ‘K-shaped’ recovery where some people continue to do well and others continue to do poorly,” Steenkamp said.

With some 75,000 students, 9,000 of whom are international, at five post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island, the education sector is a vital element in the economic, social and cultural life of the Island, said Hawes.

Put into perspective, more than $40 billion flows through post-secondary institutions in Canada, creating $55 billion in economic activity, Hawes said.

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