Teaching kindergarten online is still a relatively new concept, and one that has come with both challenges and unexpected delights for Sudbury French Immersion kindergarten teacher Kelly Beaton.
There are technological difficulties — although not as many as she expected — and working with 25 three-to-five-year-olds online means having to partner closely with the child’s parents or caregivers in providing instruction and documenting kids’ work.
Those parents at times are juggling their child’s online kindergarten with working at home or caring for babies and toddlers, or maybe an older child who’s also studying online.
There’s the need to talk to kids about internet safety such as making sure that everyone is fully dressed before they log onto online school. Little kids also can’t use tools like scissors for a school activity if their mom or dad isn’t in the room.
But there have also been moments of delight, such as kids getting to show off their baby brother or sister or their favourite toys, or making new friends among their online peers.
“Today was actually really beautiful,” said Beaton, a Sudbury Catholic District School Board teacher with 20 years of experience, who normally teaches at Holy Trinity Catholic Elementary School, in a recent Zoom interview.
“It’s Orange Shirt Day. We’re remembering residential schools and making a commitment toward reconciliation. One of our students shared that she self-identifies as First Nations, and that she’s Cree.
“This afternoon, she was invited to share a Cree and English story that she had at home. She and her mom read it for the class, which was so beautiful because she was able to share a piece of her family’s culture and help us to understand about Orange Shirt Day.
“That really added something personal, and I wouldn’t have had her mom there to tell me they had that book had we just had that discussion at school.
“Sometimes being able to go into somebody’s home and have them trust us with that kind of intimacy and that kind of relationship that we have, it creates opportunities we wouldn’t have at school.”
The teacher said she is also grateful for the help of her wonderful teaching partner, early childhood educator Jeanne Laforest-Turgeon.
Beaton said she opted to teach online this semester amid COVID-19 because of a respiratory condition that puts her at greater risk, but said it’s actually an opportunity to keep things fresh, given her lengthy teaching career.
All things considered, online teaching has gone relatively smoothly, she said.
Unlike the emergency distance learning that took place in the spring, parents are much more invested this time, as they opted to keep their kids home. Beaton said teaching online this spring was also a great practice for her.
While no COVID-19 outbreaks have so far been reported in Greater Sudbury schools, thousands of local children have opted for online learning amid the pandemic.
At the elementary level, online learning is delivered by dedicated online teachers, while at the secondary level, students who have opted for distance learning tune into livestreamed classes at their regular high school.
The Sudbury Catholic District School Board reports around 18 per cent of its students have gone online — around 920 at the elementary level, and 300 at the secondary level.
The Rainbow District School Board said about 20 per cent of its elementary students, or about 1,800, are taking classes online. At the secondary level, the Rainbow board has around 750 online learners, although did not provide a percentage.
The French Catholic board, Conseil scolaire catholique Nouvelon, said it has 489 virtual elementary learners (around 10 per cent) and 88 virtual secondary learners (around five per cent) — overall, the JK-12 average is nine per cent.
The French public board, Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario, said around 13 per cent of its students are studying online so far this school year.
Several boards have assigned principals to take care of the needs of their online learners this semester.
Megan Murphy is the principal of the Sudbury Catholic District School Board’s remote learning elementary school, in charge of approximately 920 students.
She said classes started a little later on Sept. 14 to ensure the board had time to put enough teachers in place — like Beaton, most of those teachers were regular classroom teachers when the board migrated to online learning, although 12 additional teachers had to be hired.
“This morning I was in a classroom of Grade 2-3s,” Murphy said. “It was lovely. It was wonderful, and everybody was able to see each other, and they shared the O Canada together and a prayer, and we were doing a good morning exercise.
“They’re learning to mute their mics and give each other turns to speak. It’s a great learning curve, but they're really getting onto it.
“It’s been great learning, too, with a lot of the caregivers. We have some students who are with their grandparents for this, or aunts or uncles, or guardians. It’s a great learning curve, community wide, on some of these platforms.
“We’re enjoying working as a team with everybody, and helping them navigate the technology, and learn a little bit more.”
Emily Caruso-Parnell serves a similar function as Murphy for the Rainbow District School Board, where she’s the principal of elementary remote learning, responsible for overseeing the educational needs of about 1,800 children.
By chance, in 2019, she started working on her doctorate in education, focusing on distance learning.
“And this just happens,” said Caruso-Parnell, who was previously vice-principal of R.L. Beattie Public School. “It makes me look like a prophet, but I’m not. I’m really pleased to be able to be helpful to the board in general at this moment.”
Although she is familiar with the research and literature surrounding distance learning, it has generally been done at the secondary and post-secondary level in the past, and there is a “certain uncharted waters aspect to this,” she said.
Teaching online kindergarten “is a whole other ball game,” Caruso-Parnell added.
The administrator said she and her staff are trying to make online schooling as enjoyable as possible for the kids, building in things like movement and brain breaks, and encouraging socialization.
“Certainly for a lot of kids, talking to other kids and sharing learning, and building understanding together is part of what makes school enjoyable,” Caruso-Parnell said.
Technologically, there have been some “hiccups,” she said. “But I think we’re getting them resolved. We’ve been troubleshooting and problem-solving this whole time, and our technical staff has been extraordinary.”
Caruso-Parnell said she asks for parents’ patience as staff get into a rhythm of this very new style of teaching.
“The parents have been extraordinary in terms of their patience, but as well their support and their willingness to learn and support their kids’ learning,” she said.
“We really are very blessed to have parents who are on board and are prepared to go the extra mile for kids, because this is learning for everybody.”