During the first month of online learning when school resumed this fall, Afrooz Cianfrone’s older son, Jobim, was thriving. But since his school board changed direction and required teachers to teach both in-person and remote students at the same time, the seven-year-old has lost his enthusiasm.

Jobim now dreads sitting at the computer for class, suddenly aware of the social interaction and attention from his teacher that he’s missing out on by learning at home. The first time his teacher announced it was time for the in-person students to go to gym, he was taken aback, saying: “My friends are going together to the gym but I’m not?”

This is something her son didn’t have to think about before, said Ms. Cianfrone, a project analyst who lives in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. “And if you had seen that expression on his face and the confusion and the disappointment, it would just break your heart.”

In response to high demand for remote learning, several Ontario school boards have abandoned plans for separate in-person and virtual systems, instead requiring teachers to teach both groups of students simultaneously. While boards say this approach minimizes disruption and staffing shortages, parents, teachers and experts are concerned it is failing students.

“The problem is that the model, in and of itself, is a bad one,” said Michael Barbour, a professor of instructional design at Touro University California and an expert in distance education. “I don’t think that you can do both at the same time.”

Prof. Barbour said streaming teaching risks providing online students with a second-class education because teachers have more skills and experience with in-person instruction and tend to focus more on the pupils who are in the same room.

However, school boards that are using the simultaneous hybrid teaching model say higher-than-expected enrolment in online learning – including last-minute requests to switch – made offering dual systems unworkable because of staffing and logistical challenges. The Ontario government required boards to provide both in-person and remote learning this academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB), which covers part of eastern Ontario, became one of the province’s first boards to adopt the model before classes began after interest in remote learning surged to 20 per cent from an anticipated 6 per cent. The board didn’t have enough additional teachers to staff a large virtual track while also avoiding crowding in-person classes, said Stephen Sliwa, director of education.

“That fluidity, that dynamic nature really could not allow us to have two parallel systems run with that type of extreme uncertainty that was starting to surface in the school system,” he said.

Mr. Sliwa said the current instructional format provides consistency while accommodating parental choice for switching between bricks-and-mortar classes and remote learning. The UCDSB has been contacted about the model by a half-dozen other Ontario boards.

“We really wanted to eliminate the disruptions that come with reorganizing schools, freeing up resources, having to reorganize again,” he said. “It’s already a really confusing time for families and for children. And so we’ve really wanted to hold this steady and to make sure that there was, in this time of great uncertainty, some predictability that was found at school and in the local classroom.”

However, teachers say the hybrid learning model is not serving students well and has created unmanageable workloads. In addition to teaching in-person and online students simultaneously, UCDSB teachers are also responsible for preparing and marking materials for children doing asynchronous independent learning, both online and paper-based.

“It’s really not a job that one teacher can do to meet the needs of all of those different children in all the different platforms,” said Lisa Jennings, who teaches Grade 2 in Vankleek Hill. “We’re all really struggling.”

Mrs. Jennings, who has been teaching for 32 years, said it is extremely challenging to balance her face-to-face and online students. To work with her live digital learners, she must stay in front of the webcam on her laptop, but that prevents her from circulating in her classroom to monitor the others. As well, she said a lot of time gets wasted dealing with technical issues.

Mrs. Jennings has been working 12-hour days plus much of her weekends and said the extra demands have taken a toll. She is not sleeping well, feels discouraged and is “upset a lot.”

“I love the kids … and the idea that they may not be developing and reading the way they should be because I can’t get to them or I can’t listen to them read is very hard for me,” she said.

Erin Blair, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario union local, said representatives are fielding more inquiries about stress leave and retirement as a result of the new instructional format.

“It’s an impossible task for teachers,” he said.

For her part, Ms. Cianfrone has gathered more than 4,400 signatures on a petition since her sons’ school board, the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB), announced it was switching from separate in-person and virtual classes to the hybrid model for elementary students in early October.

The YCDSB says it adopted the approach because of “operational and staffing challenges,” including 550 remote students who didn’t yet have teachers and additional requests to move to online learning. “The hybrid model addresses this situation and provides a more stable and sustainable structure moving forward,” spokeswoman Veronica Pang said in an e-mail. (The board has been using the model in high schools since the academic year started.)

Ms. Cianfrone said while teachers are doing their best in trying circumstances, Jobim’s Grade 2 teacher is teaching her in-person and remote groups separately, muting herself when she talks to her face-to-face students, leaving her son feeling excluded and that he’s the slowest one in the class. Her other son, Dante, who is in Senior Kindergarten, gets upset when he can’t hear his teacher because she has stepped away from her computer.

“Kids are way smarter than us, right? They see everything, they hear everything, they feel everything,” said Ms. Cianfrone, who chose online learning because her husband is at high risk for COVID-19 complications. “All I can do as a mom is to just go into my closet and cry a few times a day and just come out and look strong. But really, I don’t know how it’s sustainable.”

The Globe and Mail, November 1, 2020