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E-learning begins for students across Ontario as COVID-19 closures continue


TORONTO — Students across Ontario began online learning Monday as Premier Doug Ford's government pledged that financial support for parents would arrive as soon as this week.

Three weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools, teachers began leading the new effort with both live and pre-recorded lessons. But some parents said the move was already posing challenges.

Ford said the major shift comes as the province plans to provide financial support to parents, promising that previously announced payments of $200 per child will be flowing by the end of the week to some.

"I know many parents are adjusting to these changes," he said. "It is critical that during this time, kids keep learning. Education must continue."

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said e-learning cannot fully replace the in-class experience, so the goal is to help students continue their education as much as possible.

The one-time funding from the government is available to parents regardless of whether their child is in school or child care, he said Monday. 

"This global outbreak has disrupted family life a great deal," Lecce said. "Our government will spare no expense supporting them in any way we can."

The ministry is recommending elementary students spend between five and 10 hours on learning per week, depending on their age.

High school students, it says, should spend three hours per course per week if they're on a semestered system, or half of that if their schedule isn't split into semesters.

But some parents said they had concerns about the province's plans for distance learning during the pandemic.

Crystal Bevens-LeBlanc, a parent of two in Kingston, Ont., praised teachers from her local school board, but said there are still children who won't succeed in this format, like her son in Grade 9.

"He is a special needs student who already struggles in a typical classroom," she said. "To be expected to do things independently at home with no support, it's just not going to happen."

Bevens-LeBlanc said teachers have posted online assignments, responded quickly to questions from her children and also promised to support students through online meetings.

But parents, too, are struggling to learn the online tools, she said.

"It's Day 1, so a lot of parents are trying to figure out how to navigate Google Classroom," she said. "Right now, we're in the learning stage."

Anna Galati, a single parent of two in Toronto, said she is also concerned with the government's distance learning plan.

Galati said she continues to work in a job that's considered an essential service and her mother cares for the children, one of whom has special needs, during the day.

"For me, I've just had to say to the school, this isn't working for my family," she said. "I can't put added stress on my kids right now. They're already going through this emotional trauma."

The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said many parents are feeling the way Galati is, and the government needs to stress that extra effort will be made to catch kids up when they eventually return to the classroom.

"Where you have parents who are doing their best just to keep things running, which is a reasonable goal under these circumstances, we can't have them stressing out over the fact that they're not able to conduct some kind of distance learning," Harvey Bischof said.

The president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association said teachers recognize students will need support.

"This form of learning is far from ideal, and everyone will need to have patience and realistic expectations as we work together to make the most of a challenging situation," Liz Stuart said in a statement. 

In a letter to parents, the union representing Ontario's elementary school teachers urged patience as everyone adapts to the new reality.

"Keep in mind that we are learning about how to do this right along with you," the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said.

A spokesman for Canada's largest school board said Monday its staff were in the process of gathering and distributing approximately 28,000 iPads or Chromebooks to help students connect to online materials.

Ryan Bird said Toronto District School Board staff members were entering schools to retrieve the devices and will be sending them to students over the next several days.

Schools will remain closed to students until at least May 4, the government has said. Schools were initially shuttered for just the two weeks following March break, but the continued spread of the novel coronavirus forced an extension.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government must have realistic expectations of students, families or their teachers in this unprecedented situation.

"We are not going to replicate the school environment in this emergency," she said. "I'm not saying lower expectations, but we should go easy on ourselves here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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