When Cheryl Ambrose prepares her granddaughter for the first day of second grade, the two will not walk to the bus stop or drive to school together.
Instead, the seven-year-old will sneak into the living room of her home in Kitchener, Ontario, and prepare for another year in a virtual classroom, just as she has done since kindergarten started.
While many caregivers have welcomed the end of distance learning with open arms, Ambrose is among those clinging to virtual school options. For some, the ongoing spread of COVID-19 and the potential risk of long-term COVID illness are motivating factors. Others found that their children learn better outside of a traditional classroom.
For Ambrose it was a combination of both, although the decision was not without compromises. She had enrolled her granddaughter in the French immersion program for first grade, but the Waterloo Region District School Board stopped offering the program to distance learners this year due to lack of demand.
“It is more important to her and to us that she is safe – as safe as possible – than that she continues to be immersed in the French language,” Ambrose said.
If the school board stops offering a distance learning option, Ambrose said she would start homeschooling her granddaughter instead of sending her back to a physical classroom.
“I never thought I would teach one day. It's not one of the things that was at the top of my to-do list. However, I'm organized and we have access to the resources, so I would switch to homeschooling,” said Ambrose, who is partially retired but still runs business operations for her husband's construction company from home.
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According to Waterloo Public Authority, 248 primary school students and 143 secondary school students are currently learning remotely, compared with 501 and 308 respectively last year.
Although distance learning is no longer mandatory, it is still offered as an option in many jurisdictions.
In British Columbia, for example, 18 counties offer online schools, as do 16 independent school boards. Saskatchewan offers distance learning for kindergarten through 12th grade, while Manitoba offers virtual classes for high school seniors.
In Ontario, each board had the option to offer distance learning.
The province's largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, said about 1,250 elementary school students and 950 high school students were enrolled in virtual learning for the upcoming school year, up from 2,300 and 1,375 last year.
While popularity has waned significantly as the spread of COVID-19 slowed and closed spaces became less scary for many, the pandemic-driven era of online learning has spurred the field, said Roopa Reddy, associate professor of social enterprise at the University of Waterloo in the course design.
“There's a big difference between emergency distance teaching and learning, like we saw a few years ago at the beginning of the pandemic, and courses designed for online classes,” Reddy said.
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Over the past three years, she said, teachers have learned when to use synchronous — or simultaneous — learning and when to let students do things at their own pace is most effective.
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For example, Reddy said she's been lucky enough to create “mini lecture videos.”
“Duration is important,” she said. “You can hardly expect someone to watch an hour or two video of a lecture.”
But a five-, 10-, or 20-minute video is much more accessible to students, Reddy said.
“My approach generally depends on the context of my students – things like the size of the class, the subject area and the goals of the course all play a role in deciding what makes more sense, synchronous online or synchronous person or asynchronous” , she said. “It all depends on the context.”
Dave Cormier, a specialist in digital learning at the University of Windsor, said context should not be minimized.
“It's easy to forget that there are a lot of people who still don't have a good connection to the internet,” he said.
The challenge of distance learning in remote locations
This is of particular concern for students in remote or rural areas, who he says benefit most from distance learning as it gives them access to more specialized courses that may not be available nearby.
Statistics Canada found in 2021 that 1.2 percent of households with children did not have access to the internet, and that proportion rose to 4.2 percent in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution.
“If you come from a family where there's a laptop and four kids, you're going to struggle to find the time to work,” Cormier added.
According to StatCan, 58.4 percent of households with internet had less than one device per person.
Ambrose said she is very aware that not everyone can follow the path she has taken when it comes to her granddaughter's education, whether it's because of internet access, technology or even the need to work from an office.
“Not everyone is able to take advantage of these opportunities,” she said. “We come from a very privileged position. I can't stress that enough.”