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Schools closed for the year

Since schooling has gone virtual with distance learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Durham District School Board has noted an increase in families seeking support for mental health services. (Shutterstock photo)

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

Schools are closed for the remainder of the year.

The province made the recent announcement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to continue social distancing measures and help stop the spread of the virus.

For many students, they will be able to continue with their distance learning online and pick back up in the fall, hopefully at school, depending on how the situation continues to unfold across the province in the months to come.

However, for some students like Isabel, a Grade 12 student at Maxwell Heights Secondary School in Oshawa, this is her final year of high school and she is set to graduate this year. For students like Isabel, the pandemic drastically changed how they envisioned their graduation and final months of school.

“Obviously, when we found out about prom first, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s really sad,’ but now we’ve kind of come to terms with it and it’s easier to understand it’s happening for a reason,” says Isabel.

Being a “social butterfly,” Isabel says one of the best parts of school was seeing her friends and teachers.

“I was on our school’s leadership committee and have really good relationships with a lot of teachers, so seeing them in the hallway was definitely something that made my day better.”

Isabel was also part of the dance company at her school with many early-morning and afterschool rehearsals.

“Being in the school building for me was a large part of my weekly life,” she says, adding that she personally thrives in a classroom environment listening to a teacher and taking notes.

She says it’s been a struggle for some students, and even some teachers, to adjust to distance learning and it’s been a learning curve for everyone.

“[Everyone] is trying to figure it out so it’s nice to know that our teachers are trying and the students are trying and we all need to have patience with each other.”

Schools have been closed since March Break and students have been continuing their schooling online. DDSB officially launched their distance learning platform on April 6.

Lindsay Daniels, a dance teacher at Maxwell Heights, says getting started with the distance learning platform was one of the biggest challenges for her.

“Being a movement based educator, the majority of my classwork is physical. We’re in the studio together, so moving all of that to an online platform, which I had not yet used, was a learning curve,” says Daniels.

“I’m trying to determine ways in which to keep kids moving safely in their home environment, which are all different, when we’re used to an open studio,” she continues, adding a big part of the course program deals with creating class community and working with other kids to create movement sequences together.

“We haven’t been through this so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the vast majority of students were excited to get back to work and reconnect with their classmates, which is reassuring and really helpful for me as an educator,” says Daniels.

While there have been some challenges to work through, Daniels says there have also been a lot of positives to come out of the distance learning platform, such as being able to invite guest speakers into the classroom, including choreographer Luther Brown, and best-selling author Dr. Greg Welsh, who spoke on healthy living and the importance of movement.

“These are really cool opportunities that normally wouldn’t present themselves in our standard-day structure,” says Daniels.

She says the board has also provided resources for the educators to help them with the online platform.

“I’m learning new skills and am feeling confident and quite good about using platforms such as Google Classrooms,” says Daniels, adding she hopes to be able to continue to incorporate it in a classroom setting when school returns.

“It’s not perfect, and I really miss my students,” says Daniels. “But we’re making it work and that’s been kind of a cool outcome of this. The situation is driving innovation in education and really pushing educators to stay connected and engaged with students in unique ways that they haven’t had to do before.”

Durham District School Board Associate Director Norah Marsh provided an update on how distance learning is going to trustees at its most recent board meeting.

In a report given to the board, Marsh noted there has been an increase in the number of families seeking support for mental health services.

According to Mental Health Research Canada, the rates of anxiety and stress are increasing in Canadian families as a result of the pandemic.

“We are seeing evidence of this within our students and as families strive for some sense of normalcy, it is natural that they are looking to schools to help provide support,” the DDSB report states.

As a result, teachers are being directed to limit the number of compulsory learning tasks each week.

A student thought exchange was launched on April 29 for students to provide feedback about distance learning. More than 3,400 secondary students shared their ideas, which accounts for approximately 16 per cent of the total secondary student population.

A number of key elements emerged, including the variance of life circumstance, appreciation for the opportunity to see and learn from their teachers in person, workload challenges, the need for time management strategies, and a general feeling of missing the informal and social opportunities of being at school.

DDSB also launched a Thoughtexchange program on May 8 to elementary school families to get more feedback about distance learning. More than 3,000 families participated with preliminary findings showing that time management is a key stressor for families during this time.

On May 11, the DDSB circulated a pedagogical practice survey to Early Childhood Educators and teachers to better understand the strategies being used in their virtual classrooms. With more than 2,500 participants, the board found most were using Google Classroom as their primary platform for regular communication.

Educators looked at a number of factors when considering their use of pedagogical strategies to determine what’s most suitable for their students’ wellbeing and learning.

According to the report, student data indicates some students have concerns with dedicated learning times and that flexibility is important. It was also identified that students appreciate two-way communication or the use of video to explain key concepts.

“We’re going to remain committed to doing our best, responding to family needs and doing our best to meet them where they are and move forward,” says Marsh. “We recognize that distance learning does not replace regular classroom interactions and learning but we’re really looking to try to create those opportunities as best as possible.”

DDSB also continues to support its educators in shifting to a distance model through professional learning. Since April 15, more than 100 PD sessions have been offered to approximately 4,000 educators, according to the report.

“We know that the needs are changing as closures extend, and we will continue to offer professional learning and provide assistance,” Marsh continues. “We know it’s not perfect. We know this isn’t an ideal teaching and learning environment but we will continue to try to meet the needs as the situation evolves.”