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COVID-19 reshapes the school year for students and teachers

Remote learning part of this year’s challenges
WCDSB Spotlight4 title image
WCDSB student, Alicia Higgins working away at her studies from home

Living in a time of COVID-19 has required all Canadians to make adjustments to some aspect of their lives. For students, teachers and school board officials, the 2019-2020 school year has been a whirlwind of unprecedented change, transition and uncertainty, as restrictions have required schools to pivot to distance learning and implement remote learning protocols to protect student populations and ensure the continuity of learning. 

“It’s certainly been a different year for us,” said Stephen Gulyas, principal of Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph. “It’s been a challenging transition, but most in our school community are adjusting really well. We are proud of the adaptability demonstrated by staff and students. The transferable skills being developed during this time will serve the students well in the future.”

In order to facilitate remote learning curriculums, Gulyas says teachers had to move quickly. That meant prioritizing content in their lesson planning to meet the minimum provincial guidelines of three hours of remote learning per high school course, as well as familiarizing themselves with online learning platforms like the Desire2Learn (D2L) software being used at Bishop Macdonell. 

“Although some teachers were well-versed with D2L already, the learning curve was steep for others, and we applaud them for learning and implementing new skills quickly,” said Gulyas. “Next it was a matter of how we identify and deliver key curriculum expectations for the remainder of the school year.” 

As important as teacher preparedness was to ensure a smooth transition to remote learning, Gulyas said the big priority was helping students adjust to the changes, with the mental well-being of students at top of mind during a time of social distancing from their teachers and friends.  

“School is so much more than a place where you simply accumulate credits,” he said. “For a lot of students, it really is their social circle and their wellness support. It’s the primary touchstone in their lives outside of their families. Reaching out to students and offering support was our very first step. The health and well being of our students is always our top priority, and perhaps never more important than during this difficult time.”

While their absence from a physical classroom has presented some students with challenges, business teacher Caitlin Koehler says many students are enjoying the new structure and independent learning. 

“I know for a lot of students, they’re liking the flexibility,” said Koehler, who teaches Grade 11 and 12 at Macdonell. “Some of their personal schedules have changed, where they can sleep in and have that flexibility to do the work when they want. I know it’s challenging to not always have that face to face interaction, to not see peers or to ask questions. I have a lot of students who connect with me over email to clarify questions when working through a task. I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed with my students and their willingness to adapt to the situation.” 

For Grade 12 student Alicia Higgins, who had already been exposed to a blended classroom that incorporated online learning, the transition was a little easier. 

“For me, I’ve had lots of time to adjust to the D2L learning, since some teachers were already using the online component in a blended class,” she said. “I feel making room for my scheduling is certainly a little better, given there are no extracurricular activities like sports or anything. It gives me more time to do the work online.” 

A lot of learning is social.  Like most students, being with friends is something they miss most. “It’s really hard to think that I can’t be with the people I’ve spent the past four years with. The fact that we got through all this together and we can’t see each other at the end of the year is difficult,” said Alicia.

In the meantime, students are staying connected with one another through technology and demonstrating great resilience as they approach the end of the 2020 school year.  

Plans are in progress to recognize the achievements of students in creative ways, including a Class of 2020 Recognition event, a special video for all graduates and the rescheduling of graduation ceremonies to the fall.  The 2019/2020 school year will leave a lasting impression in the minds of students and staff. So too will the many lasting life lessons of perseverance, sacrifice, grit, and care for each other. Rather extraordinary when you think about it!