According to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, COVID-19 outbreaks are probably here to stay (Patell & Ballingall, 2022). A survey of 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists working on the coronavirus published by Nature magazine in January 2021 supports her assertion. Approximately 89% of them think the virus will keep striking North America during seasonal outbreaks. More than 70% speculate that new mutations will enable it to evade immunity developed through infection and by vaccination (Phillips, 2021).
If school districts across Canada continue facing staff shortages and high teacher absenteeism due to seasonal COVID-19 as is the case in Ontario, Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) and Virtual Elementary Schools (VES) may also be here to stay even if only as a temporary solution. Ontario school boards were short 7,000 occasional teachers (substitutes) for the 2021-22 school year. By January 2022 almost 40% of Ontario school boards were reporting that up to 25% of teacher absences were unfilled by an occasional. School boards were scrambling to recruit retired teachers and teachers-in-training and to redeploy other school staff to classrooms. The provincial government authorized school districts to combine classes, assign students to different classrooms, and rotate classes through remote learning days (up to one day per week) to address staff shortages (Alphonso, 2022).
As ERT and VES seem to be emerging as preferred solutions to temporary crises, it is important for school systems to start considering how to improve them. ERT is a temporary shift from classroom teaching to another method during any crisis that forces schools to close. VES is in general a version of ERT that offers a year-long provincial instructional program to students who are at another physical setting (e.g., their homes) through electronic means (i.e., a computer and the internet). The program consists of structured learning under the supervision of a teacher. The instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous (Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., Bond, A., 2020).
Unfortunately, there is little research about teaching elementary students online. ERT and VES are new – innovations of 2020 (Hodges et al., 2020). One recent journal article, “Emergency Remote Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Parents Experiences and Perspectives,” reports that parents find remote teaching burdensome and taxing, believe it is unsuitable for young children and students with special needs, and that it requires too much screen time, lacks sufficient interactivity, and leads to excessive social isolation (Misirli, O., & Ergulec, F., 2021).
Given this finding, the limited data on the topic, and increased usage by school authorities, further research into improving emergency remote teaching seems prudent. The starting point should be consultation with the experts in the field – elementary teachers. They know the challenges of and can recommend improvements to this new pedagogy.
This article reports on an initial investigation into educator suggestions for improving emergency remote teaching and virtual elementary schools.
The purpose of the study was to gather suggestions for improving Emergency Remote Teaching and Virtual Elementary School instruction and/or to find alternatives to them. A detailed survey consisting of Likert Scale items, checkbox selections, and open-ended questions was posted in September 2021 in a dozen private Ontario elementary educator Facebook groups. All but one of the sites were grade specific. One was operated by a local teacher union affiliate. Only educators who taught ERT or VES during 2020-21 and who had one previous year of in-person teaching experience were allowed to participate in the project.
The study ultimately investigates data from 54 Ontario educators. The majority (45) are full-time contract teachers (83.33%). Three are Occasional (substitute) teachers (5.56%) and five (9.26%) are kindergarten Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECEs). Two thirds of the participants (64.81%) categorized their online experience as emergency remote teaching. The other third described themselves are primarily virtual school educators (35.19%). The majority (85.19%)
self-identified as female.
Most of the educators in the sample were 40 to 49 years old (46.30%), 30 to 39 (35.19%), or 50 to 59 years old (14.81%). In terms of teaching experience, the three largest groups were composed of those with 5 to 9 years of experience (31.0%), 10 to 14 years (24.1%), and 15 to 19 years (20.7%). A total of 59.26% of all participants in the study were the primary caregivers of their own children (40.74% elementary-aged and 18.52% newborns to preschoolers), meaning that during school closures they would be working at home while taking of their own children at the same time.
The sample included a balance of teaching assignments: 24 kindergarten teachers and early childhood educators, 10 primary teachers (Grades 1 to 3), eight junior teachers (Grades 4 to 6), six intermediate teachers (Grades 7 & 8), and six others (three special education teachers, two planning time teachers, and one Core French teacher). Each category included a few combined grade teachers. Two of the classroom educators taught French Immersion.
This study reveals that elementary school educators have many productive suggestions to improve elementary online learning through modifications or adding conditions. They were asked to write about changes that would improve ERT and VES. The most frequent recommendation (38.89%) was considerably reducing screen time, especially for students in kindergarten to Grade 3. Four other frequent suggestions are:
- focusing on a few core curriculum topics (e.g., math and language) or on a few big ideas in each subject (29.63%),
- increasing access to quality of technology and stable internet among students, families, and teachers, especially for families with absentee students (22.22%),
- providing more training for and learning materials to teachers, families, and students (14.81%), and,
- granting greater scheduling flexibility to online teachers as a way to support families and students, including the possibility of breaking classes into smaller groups (12.96%).
Changing the focus of ERT and VES to emphasize socio-emotional and mental and physical health considerations over academic skills is another general approach recommended by educators. They were asked to “redesign” the online learning process by considering 15 aspects of it. They were encouraged to add their own ideas and provided two. At least three quarters or more of them suggest the following four changes to remote and virtual learning:
- reduce the amount of time spent online (81.5%),
- teach mindfulness and mental health strategies to address issues arising from social isolation (79.6%),
- nurture peer and student-teacher relationships to prevent mental health issues (74.1%), and,
- encourage students to spend more time safely outdoors in fresh air and sunshine (74.1%).
- Approximately 50% or more of them recommend three other changes:
- Encourage students to maintain a healthy degree of physical fitness and health (63.0%),
- Focus on teaching mathematics and language (51.9%), and,
- Encourage students to maintain healthy nutritional habits (48.1%).
Improving remote teaching and virtual instruction by eliminating certain subjects from it is another option. Educators were asked to consider whether any of 20 subjects should be omitted from ERT and VES curriculum, either across all grades or in specific ones. They were invited to make their own suggestions and provided 24. There is noteworthy agreement among one quarter to two fifths of the educators about eliminating four subjects due to the difficulty of teaching and assessing them online. Those subjects are:
- Dance (44.4%)
- Physical education, but not health (40.7%)
- Drama (38.9%)
- Music (25.9%).
Seven educators (12.96%) advocated for amending or eliminating any subject or strand of subject that requires the use of hands-on learning. Three educators (5.56%), including two from kindergarten, believe that ERT should dispense with the entire curriculum for their grade. The kindergarten teachers report that it is not possible to teach kindergarten online. Wrote one: “Primary kids do not have the ability in general to navigate the tech requirements for virtual learning. Curriculum took a back seat to trying to teach them how to use and how to remember to use the technology.”
The results of the survey should be interpreted cautiously because of the small sample size, the fact that all the participants are from Ontario, there is a slight underrepresentation of Occasional teachers and overrepresentation of kindergarten teachers in the sample. That being said, it seems clear that if principals, school districts and governments pay attention to the advice of elementary teachers and RECEs about ERT and VES, they can leverage the information to make improvements and advocate for beneficial changes. Previous research has clearly demonstrated that regular cooperation, collaboration and communication between educators and government leads to a higher quality education system (Bascia, 2014).
Alphonso, C. (2022). “Ontario schools brace for staff shortages ahead of Monday reopening as Omicron spreads.” The Globe and Mail, January 10, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-schools-brace-for-staff-shortages-ahead-of-monday-reopening-as/
Bascia, N. (2014). “Optimal Conditions: Productive Teacher Union-Governmental Relations Lead to High Quality Education for Young People. Worlds of Education (43). https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21065:optimal-conditions
Government of Ontario. (2022). “Ontario Takes Action to Support Staffing Access in Schools: Expanded Access to Retired Teachers to Support In-person Learning.” January 10, 2022. Retrieved from https://news.ontario.ca/en/statement/1001408/ontario-takes-action-to-support-staffing-access-in-schools
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., Bond, A. (2020). “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.” EDUCAUSE Review, March 27, 2020. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning#fn7
Misirli, O., & Ergulec, F. (2021). “Emergency remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic: Parents experiences and perspectives.” Education and Information Technologies (26), 6699–6718. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10639-021-10520-4
Patell, R. & Ballingall, A. (2022). Canada’s top doctor says COVID-19 will likely become endemic. Toronto Star. January 18, 2022. https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2022/01/18/canadas-top-doctor-says-covid-19-will-likely-become-endemic.html
Phillips, N. (2021). “The Corona Virus is Here to Stay – Here’s What That Means,” Nature, February 16, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00396-2
By: Edward Schroeter