By 2020, most private schools were already taking advantage of certain technologies to keep classrooms running smoothly and efficiently. But when physical-distancing measures were abruptly put in place in March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students were largely unprepared to rely solely on online tools, such as Zoom, and had little time to adapt to this new way of learning.
For many schools, the sudden switch to completely virtual learning has been a challenging adjustment. Some education professionals say online classrooms fall short in facilitating engagement when compared to in-person class environments. Virtual learning can also be isolating for students — especially those with special needs or mental health issues.
Physical-distancing measures have also become a hindrance to extracurricular activities, especially artistic endeavours such as music. This is why Sandi Chasson, a teacher at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, developed ePrograms: a new online learning platform designed to support youth through online group master classes. Hosted by seasoned professionals in each subject, the classes cover everything from clarinet playing to cartooning.
“We were already seeing the need for students to become more engaged in the arts, specifically music, but then as COVID happened and students were locked in their houses trying to learn online, we saw an even greater need for the kids to be engaged in something creative,” Chasson says. “We opened up the program to include visual arts, culinary arts, athletics, finance, photography and more, so we just expanded into all the areas we think the students will find fascinating with the premise that all the teachers are pros.”
The platform ePrograms (which is unaffiliated with St. Andrew’s College) is just one example of the ways educational professionals are getting creative to facilitate student learning. Chasson notes that in addition to the use of Zoom and Edsby, an online learning portal that the college had already implemented before the pandemic, she has been using a software called SmartMusic. It allows students to practise their instrument at different speeds and tempos and receive feedback on their performance in real time. She notes that, come September, the school will be returning to a hybrid learning program (part in class, part online), but she believes students and teachers will still have to rely heavily on technology. Although software such as SmartMusic is helpful, Chasson says there’s no true substitute for the engagement that comes with an in-person music lesson.
“I’ll be able to meet my students in class and then assign them their performance component to do at home. We’re lucky to have the SmartMusic program because it’s very interactive,” Chasson says. “The problem with not being in person is that there’s a connection, an intimacy when you’re teaching a creative art, especially music. You get feedback and kids play off each other. It’s that engagement with each other that is so necessary for these kids.”
Some schools with a focus on hands-on, kinesthetic learning and physical activity, such as Robert Land Academy, a military academy in Wellandport, are already scrapping the virtual learning programs they established at the end of the 2019–2020 school year. In March, Robert Land Academy quickly adapted to physical-distancing protocols through the use of Google Classroom.
According to the school’s headmaster, Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Smid, students and staff will be returning to a traditional in-person learning environment this September with new precautions in place, including regular COVID testing, social distancing and mandatory mask wearing. “Virtual learning is just our fallback plan. Our classrooms are open. We’ve taken the steps necessary to meet the standards provided by the Ministry of Education. It will be back to normal for us,” Smid says. “Our program is really based on the students being here. There are probably other private schools that would do just fine doing online learning, but with our program, the boys’ days are filled with activities to keep them busy, so it just wouldn’t work as well.”
Technology has been an effective stopgap for schools amid the pandemic. However, many argue that without the human element provided by an in-person classroom, virtual learning may lead to negative mental health effects for children.
“There are positives to virtual learning, but it takes a lot more time to create stimulating, exciting programs,” Chasson says.
“I think ePrograms will provide the kids with a way of staying human. The arts allow us to be human. They give us so much. The kids will not be able to do any of this at school, so we’re hoping the program will be able to fill that void.”