By Mike Baker
Lisa Barry was sat at her kitchen table helping her youngest son with his school work last Wednesday morning [March 10] when her email pinged. It was a notice from Trillium Lakelands District School Board [TLDSB], indicating that changes were coming to the system’s Learn@Home program, and that one of Lisa’s children may be impacted.
“I welled up with tears as soon as I saw the email come in, because I was so fearful of what it would say,” Barry said.
That feeling was prevalent in many households across the region. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many families made the decision to enrol their children in online learning for the duration of the 2020/21 school year. While safety certainly played a factor, the steady line of messaging we’ve been hearing from parents is they felt Learn@Home provided the best opportunity for consistency during a time when further lockdowns and school closures appeared to be a formality rather than a possibility.
Barry decided to keep her two sons – one in Grade 2 and the other in Grade 5 – home. While her older son enjoyed the online learning format, thriving through participation in live virtual classes, her younger son struggled. She quickly made the decision to transition him to asynchronized learning.
“I get a package of 40 to 60 pages of worksheets, and we have contact with a teacher two times a week,” Barry said.
This worked, as she was able to spend additional time with her son and help him along. Barry had steady communication with his three teachers, and she was excited to finally bring some consistency back to her youngest’s education. At the back end of last year, with the board still trying to figure out online learning, her son had five different teachers over the course of a few months.
Barry opened the email and started to read. She was informed that impending changes to TLDSB’s Learn@Home model would mean her son would be losing two of his three teachers.
Information was scarce last week, but TLDSB has since confirmed with the Times that less than 175 students from across the district have been impacted by the latest changes to online learning. The move comes as the board transitions more students back into the classroom.
“We’ve been addressing waitlists as best we can throughout the year where parents have requested their child move from online to in-school and vice versa,” said Catherine Shedden, TLDSB district manager of corporate communications. She noted that similar reorganizations had previously taken place in October and December. “We had a number of families waiting to move from at-home learning to in-school learning. We also had some [but much fewer] waiting to move from in-school to at-home learning.”
April Austen has had two children on a waiting list to return to in-person learning since October. She caught wind of this change on March 9, when she received a phone call from the board saying she had 24 hours to confirm if she wanted her kids to return to class at Archie Stouffer Elementary School in Minden. The proposed return date was set for March 15.
While she was happy to get her kids back into school, Austen admits she was surprised when she got the call.
“Prior to Christmas, I had reached out to the board to find out what was going on. By then, we had been on a waitlist for months. The board had promised there would be integration dates, but I was led to believe there was no space,” Austen said. “In the end, I was informed that my kids wouldn’t be returning to the classroom until [next] September.”
Through this latest move, Shedden confirmed that 107 elementary students have transitioned from at-home learning to in-school learning board-wide, with approximately 57 students moving from in-school learning to at-home learning.
The change has had severe impacts on classes and schedules – both online and in-person. For Kim Switzer, this was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“My son, Memphis, was just recently diagnosed with ADHD and has some learning disabilities. He’s been struggling this year. He’s really far behind academically,” Switzer said. “Memphis needs consistency. He needs a teacher to know what his triggers are, when he’s withdrawing because he doesn’t understand something. This is the reason why IEPs [individual education plan] are developed, so teachers know their students and can help and guide them accordingly. Now, with Memphis being moved to a new class with a new teacher, we’re back to square one.”
Having become fed up of the constant switches – Grade 3 student Memphis has already been moved to another class at least once this school year – Switzer said she will be pulling him from the TLDSB Learn@Home program and will be homeschooling instead.
“He’s going to shut down if we put him into a new class. We’re already struggling as it is. He’s not just going to bounce back from this one. It’s better for me to just call it a day and we’ll start picking up the pieces, even from the beginning of the year,” Switzer said. “We’re going to go back to the basics.”
Aarica Hurl was on the verge of doing the same with her son, Landon. When she first heard about the changes last week, she feared the worst.
“I was like ‘here we go again’,” Hurl said. “In the fall, when we started school, we put our daughter in JK for online learning. Within the first four weeks, they cancelled her class completely and shifted her into a whole new class. We just completely pulled her out of school. She hasn’t done any school since then. We had already decided, with Landon, that if there were any changes with him, we’re going to pull him out and homeschool him too.”
Hurl considers herself one of the lucky ones – Landon’s five-day schedule remained the same. The only change was that two students were added to his class.
The biggest change is being felt a few rungs up the ladder. As a result of the changes, between 10 and 20 teachers who were leading online classes have been laid off by TLDSB. One of these teachers, speaking to the Times anonymously this week, says the entire situation was mishandled and could have been dealt with much better at the board level.
“There I am on Wednesday morning teaching, and I’m seeing crying faces on the screen. Parents popping up. So I ask what’s going on, is everything okay – then one of my students says ‘well, no. Dad read me an email. Things are going to change. I’m not OK’. It was heated. There were tantrums. There was some swearing,” the teacher said. “At this point, I knew there was going to be a change, but I had no idea people were going to find out this way.”
According to other parents from throughout the region, the scene was similar in their own student’s classrooms as they learned about the unexpected changes mid-class.
The teacher, we’ll refer to her as Agatha, received an email on Friday, March 5 from her union representative informing her that, due to a board reorganization, her one-year LTO [long-term occasional] contract was in jeopardy. Then, on Tuesday, March 9, Agatha received a phone call from her principal informing her that the class she was teaching was going to be cancelled. She was sworn to secrecy and told a notice would be going out to parents the next day, Wednesday, March 10.
Following the in-class-crisis, Agatha was able to recompose herself and her students, and they spent the rest of the day “talking and crying.” They spent their final day together on Thursday, March 11.
“Thinking about these students, this little group of virtual friends… They’re the only constant they have in each other’s school life right now. I had to split them up into six different classes and then we all, basically, said goodbye to each other. It was really sad,” Agatha said.
While she understands the nature of her LTO contract meant her position was never totally secure, and holds no grudge or ill will in that regard, Agatha believes TLDSB has done a massive disservice to the students who have been uprooted by this latest reorganization.
“I just wish they could have found another way to keep us together until June. We’re in March already, June is so soon. Just keep us together, for the children’s mental health really, and their families. Now they have to deal with so much change. Now they’re going to be going into a class where they could know nothing, or everything. Teachers teach at different rates and levels, so I have no idea where these kids are going to be at,” Agatha said.
Barry is concerned about the impact these changes have already had on her son. When she pulled him aside last week to inform him that he wouldn’t be working with two of his three teachers anymore, he was indifferent.
“He was almost complacent, just numb to it, which in itself is heartbreaking to see,” Barry said.
She thought it was ironic that TLDSB, as a school board that prides itself on being a champion for its students’ mental health, would decide to push through a change that impacts so many on such short notice.
“It’s almost become a buzz word for them – mental health, mental health. Nobody asks if the child will be affected mentally… It was such poor planning to send the notice out during a class period in the morning, there was just no thought put into the impact that would have on students, staff and parents,” Barry said. “I think there should have been parent consultations. There has to be a better way to do this.”
“TLDSB puts out that they do everything with mental health in mind. Mental health is number one, number one, number one. I just don’t see it. I think there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action,” Austen said.
When asked to comment on the claims made by some parents that their child would be negatively impacted by the reorganization, and that it would have severe effects on their mental health, Shedden said any concerns should be directed to their child’s teacher.
“If a parent is concerned about their child’s mental well-being they need to speak with the classroom teacher. There are many supports that can be put in place to assist when a child is feeling anxious or concerned,” Shedden said.
Despite being excited to see her kids return to school, Austen admits she still feels some level of anxiety, brought on by the lack of communication by TLDSB. While she knows her daughter will be in a brand new class made up of senior kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2 students, that’s just about the only piece of information she has.
“My daughter has anxiety, we have dealt with it for years and there has always been an open line of communication with the school. But now, when I’m calling up Archie Stouffer to see if they know where the classroom is so that I can calm my daughter down, or if they know who the teacher is so she can get excited, they just don’t have any answers. How am I supposed to prep my kids for this transition when I’m getting no information given to me.”
As she prepares to homeschool her son, Switzer reiterated her belief that, this late into the school year, the board should have left things as they were for online learning, and simply transitioned those who wanted to go back to school back into the classroom without impacting the Learn@Home program.
“The system itself, honestly, if they could keep it steady, is really not a bad idea. They just need to keep it consistent. The flip flopping and switching classes and the cutbacks, you know what – pay your teachers, hire them on and let them do their darn job,” Switzer said. “They should have hunkered down and finished off the school year. So many kids have been shuffled around too much. Whoever it was that needed to open their pocket to pay staff to keep them on a little longer, that’s what should have taken place. At the end of the day, the kids are the ones who are suffering here. No one seems to be thinking about how this impacts the kids.”