Peering through a virtual lens: How teaching and learning adapted during the pandemic
The pandemic introduced many drastic changes to education delivery, by far the greatest of scope being the creation of separate, dedicated virtual schools. Beginning September 2020, for the first time in Ontario history, elementary and secondary school students could pursue entirely online learning to avoid the uncertainties of COVID-19 outside their homes.
As of February 2021, there were 1,380 Kindergarten to Grade 12 students enrolled in the elementary and secondary virtual schools, the students coming from every school in the district. The students were supported by 73 teaching staff, six educational support staff, three full-time office staff, two vice-principals and one principal. In the fall of 2021, the elementary and secondary virtual school evolved into one K-10 Virtual School.
From the onset, the school administration and staff set out to create a separate and unique school culture for their virtual students, with daily morning announcements, spirit days, assemblies, school trips, homeroom challenges, and more, all shared by students spread across the district through the portal of their computer screens.
A school-wide contest was held for students to design a logo and slogan for Virtual School. More than 100 entries were submitted for students to vote on, and the results were an orca whale logo with the slogan “We DIVE into learning and have a WHALE of a time”. This logo was used to create school T-shirts and other Virtual School branding.
As an extension of the robust school culture created by staff and students in the Virtual School, the relationship between the students’ caregivers and their schools was also enhanced through this unique learning model. Both teachers and families quickly learned that, in Virtual School, someone is always watching and listening. Adjustments were required on both sides of the screen as classes learned to navigate this unfamiliar learning medium together; however, the increased interactions between the entire family and the classroom developed more familiarity for those at home with the teachers, peers, concepts, challenges and successes of their children, and how best to support their progress.
Samantha, whose daughter attended Grade 1 Virtual School, chose that learning option because her daughter had a lot of anxiety about attending in-person learning during the early months of the pandemic. When asked how she felt about the virtual school learning model for a young Grade 1 class she shared, “The teacher was really good with all the kids. It was challenging, particularly at first, but he did amazing.”
Many students with social anxieties and self-regulation challenges thrived in the virtual setting. Through virtual school, all students developed their technical computer skills, while connecting with classmates from across the region with whom they would not normally have the opportunity to interact and share learning.