Grade 3 teacher Bob Ellis admits he's no tech-savvy genius when it comes to utilizing online teaching tools and connecting with his students using virtual classrooms.
Like all teachers in Canada who woke up to a new reality when the COVID-19 crisis wiped out face-to-face instruction and closed schools, Ellis has been forced to adopt entirely new methods to present his lessons to students and there's no playbook because it's never been done before on such a mass scale.
Ellis works at Turner Valley School south of Calgary and is entering his third week of online teaching. Alberta schools were closed on March 16 and it's been left up to each individual teacher to find what works best for students who face the real possibility they might not be going back to their classrooms for the rest of the school year.
In B.C. schools, the coronavirus shutdown happened during the first week of spring break when the province announced March 17 it was closing all kindergarten-Grade 12 schools, a move that affects 550,000 students, including nearly 13,000 in the Prince George school district. After from the two-week break, B.C.'s nearly 45,000 grade school teachers will be back on the job on Monday, working either from home or at school.
Just as Ellis did, they will be expected to connect with all their students by phone and/or email by the end of the week to unveil their teaching plans and follow the provincial mandate to provide continuous learning.
"I work from school and it's busy," said Ellis. "I'm not teaching 20 kids at the same time, it's kind of like crisis management, you're dealing with one at a time. It's a scramble."
To better simulate what normally goes on in school, Ellis has started using Google Classroom, a free web-based program developed for schools which allows teachers and students to share files. It gives teachers the ability to send out assignments which the students can fill out online, then send back for grading. To get the kids integrated into what for them is also a new platform he recorded a 22-minute introductory video using his guitar and singing voice to grab their attention.
Using Google Meet, Ellis can create a virtual classroom that allows students to join in and participate in live interactive lectures. While it does have its limitations (the audio mic allows only one voice at one time), students can get into a queue which allows them to have their voices heard when it's their turn to speak.
"With Google Meet you can get up to 200 people involved and you all come up in little bubbles," said Ellis. "The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed a beautiful concerto last week and all of them were at home, all on Google Meet.
"Last week I did one at a time and that was OK and on Friday I called in two students and that was lovely. They can see each other and see me and they can hear each other. It will be a good medium when I'm introducing a new concept to the kids. (This) week I'm introducing how to work a times table chart."
Ellis admits each teacher is at a different stage of familiarity with online teaching tools and some who teach older students have a better grasp because they've been making use of them since the school year began. Like the teachers, students had no warning about the school closures and the Foothills School District where Ellis teaches set up a plan for each student to come to school that week with a parent or guardian, arriving on designated days based on the first initial of their surnames to pick up their personal school supplies.
Ellis attaches the week's textbook reading and handout assignments in weekly emails to parents on Mondays which each student has to complete by the end of the week. Depending on the age of students, that might require some help from the parents. For teens used to working with computers, it's mostly been a smooth adjustment. The challenge for some families is there might be four school-aged kids trying to use one computer and the parents also need that computer to work from home. In a case like that, or if the family has no way to print off the assignments, Ellis knows which students need their learning plan printed out for them and makes them available for pickup on Mondays at the school.
Because the coronavirus can live on surfaces for as long as three days, teachers are not allowed to hand out printed material for students to receive the same day. Student assignments dropped off at the school on Fridays are placed into lock boxes which are sealed until after each weekend.
Ellis sent parents a suggested schedule which emulates his school schedule, showing when to have breaks for play time, meals and phys-ed. He scheduled an hour of numeracy/math and an hour of language/literacy each day, which is double the provincial minimum. He also advised his students to spend an hour on social studies and an hour on science twice a week on alternating days. He provided a breakdown by subject of how much time should be spent on each activity for parents to use as a gauge.
Ellis works at the school but that choice is left up to the teachers. They've been told to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days if they have any cold or flu-like symptoms. By last week half the teachers in his school of 300 students were working from home.
Ellis worries about special needs students with mental, emotional and social deficiencies who won't be receiving the support of educational assistants, child care workers, tutors and other teaching specialists available to them in the schools.
"What do we do for these kids who fall between the cracks at school?" he said. "Now that they're not at school they're really going to fall through the cracks, and I don't know what we can do about it."
Ellis says his students are for the most part saddened that all their school work now happens at home and because of the virus they are being kept separate from their classmates. They can't go to playgrounds, their sports and recreation activities have been postponed or canceled and their school, the hub of their social lives, is now off-limits.
"Most of the kids in my class are just devastated, I have parents telling me their kids are crying, the vast majority in Grade 3 would much rather be in school," he said.
"What the kids miss the most is playing together, singing songs, chasing each other in the playground, eating lunch together. This is a Band-Aid to do it this way. It won't ever replace being together in a classroom full of 20 kids. The social factor of education can never be replaced by online schooling.
"This will help us and it's good to be prepared for it because when we hit another pandemic and we'll have to do this again. If anything, it will strengthen the school system as a public place where kids gather."