EMSB Virtual Learning fills crucial education gap for students who need to stay at home

Secondary I student Mia Amaral-Sgouromitis
Secondary I student Mia Amaral-Sgouromitis.
Montreal - Monday, February 8, 2021

With a stable enrollment of 545, the English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) very own virtual school, named EMSB Virtual Learning, has been going very well, according to Principal Christy Tannous. And it might even continue to play a crucial role when the pandemic is over.

Virtual learning at the EMSB has been an innovative experiment in teaching and learning outside of the traditional bricks-and-mortar school building. It continues to evolve under the leadership of Vice Principal Réal Heppelle and Ms. Tannous, who as a bilingual educator was previously a French teacher, vice principal at Pierre de Coubertin Elementary School in St. Leonard and vice principal at Royal West Academy in Montreal West.

Though this was not how she imagined her first position of principal would be when she started in early October, Ms. Tannous said “I would never say no to this position!” She said it is a challenging opportunity and calls upon her professional experience at both school levels as well as ease in both languages for working with teachers and parents.

From her “principal’s office” based out of the EMSB’s administrative building, Ms. Tannous shared how it’s been going so far.

With a current enrollment of 310 elementary school students from Pre-K to Grade 6, and 235 high school students, Virtual Learning offers the same gamut of French programs as the board’s regular offerings. For those students who normally attend French immersion elementary school and have been re-assigned to Virtual Learning, they are provided the same quality of instruction and coursework. In addition to the regular French options, students at the high school level can continue in their advanced placement courses in subjects such as chemistry, physics and calculus.

EMSB Virtual Learning also has a “closed classroom” for students requiring special environments, such as those with autism spectrum disorder or in Strengthening Educational & Emotional Development System (SEEDS) classes. And for students who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), there continues to be support outside of the classroom. The EMSB provides students with computers and videoconferencing equipment if they need it.

Who attends EMSB Virtual Learning?

These are EMSB students who normally attend EMSB schools but who have obtained an official medical exemption for in-person school because of health risks associated with COVID-19 for themselves or family members at home. EMSB students who must quarantine due to COVID-19 remain associated with their regular, in-person school and stay connected with classwork and their teacher via different online classroom platforms. So, transience is not an issue for EMSB Virtual Learning. Students enrol and stay for the duration of the school year.

For young people with autism or who suffer from severe asthma, for example, where mask-wearing proves impossible, this becomes “their school away from school.” Other members of the Virtual Learning setting are students who live with a family member with immunity concerns, such a pregnant mother with gestational diabetes. The school community also has staff with compromised medical issues who, while they can’t currently be teaching in a general school setting, can teach from a distance, such as a pregnant teacher.

Ms. Tannous said they do accept new students during the school year, but enrolment has remained steady after the initial surge of incoming students early in the fall. There was also a spike in applications when masks became mandatory in the classroom for certain grade levels later in the fall.

How well has it been working?

“I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished and how far we’ve come,” Ms. Tannous said. Some students who have trouble focusing may learn and perform much better in virtual settings where there are less distractions, she explained. Students can play a part in designing their classroom setting by selecting the tiled option to see classmates or “spotlighting” the teacher.

“Parents have shared with us how happy they are to have been given this option to learn virtually, to keep their families safe,” she said. She knew of several immunocompromised parents were ready to move out of the house if it meant keeping their children in school.

Like anything unprecedented, the EMSB Virtual Learning setting is a “work in progress, and we are constantly learning and adjusting based on the needs of our staff and students.”

Jacqueline Levesque, mother of Secondary V student Joshua Tam, says it works well to have all classes on one platform, which makes it easier to keep track of the required work and information, and to switch from class to class. Also, she said, “Virtual school is also a quieter environment, which helps him focus. Classes finish at 1 pm, which permits him to get some exercise after class and then complete his homework. The staff of the EMSB is doing their best in a very difficult situation. We want to thank them for all their support.”

Both Ms. Levesque and her husband face a high health risks in a case of a Covid19 infection. “Virtual Learning has meant a lot to us and has reduced a considerable amount of stress and worry,” she said. “Like most parents, we were primarily concerned with our son's health when it was time to go back to school. Having access to Virtual Learning has allowed Joshua to continue his education so he can graduate this year with less risk to our health.”

Is there a future for virtual school post-pandemic?

Hopefully,” said Ms. Tannous. “This a great opportunity. We can offer students with different learning styles the ability to not ever miss out on school. During a regular school year and in a regular school setting, there are untold numbers of students who suffer from an illness which prevents them from getting to the school building and sitting in a classroom. We can keep these students engaged and educated while they attend to their medical issues.”

Differences between EMSB Virtual Learning and in-person learning

With EMSB Virtual Learning, the teacher typically provides instruction for a total of four periods, each 45 minutes, separated by 15-minute breaks. A lunch break separates the morning from the afternoon session, which includes a remediation period and one-on help when needed.

During the academic year, Ms. Tannous found that her team has been consulted for their experience throughout the year by colleagues who wanted to be prepared in case school buildings closed. One area that interested some schools was the design of Virtual Learning’s weekly schedule. This is based on the Quebec ministry of education’s required teaching hours in a distance-learning setting.

Virtual Learning teachers take professional development workshops and meet with their colleagues two afternoons each week.

What really differentiates the virtual learning school day from the typical in-person school day is all the “down time” minutes of non-educational time that punctuate a school day, she said, for example, the time spent walking down hallways between classes, getting dressed to go outside for recess, getting clothing and bags ready after coming in the morning and at the end of the day. Time spent in the Virtual Learning setting is exclusively on instruction and tutoring.  “There’s no extra time. It’s a condensed and compressed schedule,” she explained.

And time is something many of the families appreciate. Nancy Amaral, mother of Secondary I student Mia Amaral-Sgouromitis, said what she most appreciates about the system is that the scheduling is “well-thought out,” allowing for her kids to prepare for their upcoming classes. She also likes being able to easily communicate with teachers and staff. “What this experience has meant to my family is that the time and stress that otherwise would have been devoted to travel, not to mention the risks to health, is instead permitting my kids the extra time needed to complete their homework in a timely manner, and allow for dinner and valuable family time before bed.” Her son, in grade 6, also attends the virtual school.

In terms of teaching materials, both systems use ministry-approved workbooks, and like their counterparts in in-person school, Virtual Learning teachers have the freedom to hand-pick some of their own materials.

While class sizes at Virtual Learning’s elementary school average between 15 and 20 students, numbers in the high school classes can go as high as 34 students. For staffing, she must choose from the same pool of available teachers as do other principals. Some teachers have come out of retirement to be a virtual teacher, she said, but they tend to be specialists, such as music teachers.

Lisa Vigderhous, parent to Charlie Brookman in Secondary I, reported that her son’s teachers “have been exceptional. They are all heavily invested in the well-being of the students and have all freely given of their time for extra tutorials or even one on one sessions.” She said there was an adjustment period at the beginning. On top of getting used to class online and at first without textbooks, it was also the start of Charlie’s first year of high school. But, she said, teachers have been responsive, and her son is comfortable with the technology, likes to have his camera on and “is thriving.”

“Virtual school has been a god-send,” said Ms. Vigderhous. “We feel for those families who do not have an option, a right to choose. While we wish he could attend school in person – especially his first year in high school – we feel he will not be behind psychologically or emotionally. He has kept up friendships with friends from elementary school, and even made a study friend in virtual school.”

Social opportunities exist in virtual learning settings

Some special educators at the elementary level have created lunch groups. Students will sign off from their teacher and join their peers back online to eat lunch together and chat.

“The extra-curricular activities really help with the socialization aspect,” explained Ms. Tannous. “It helps alleviate the isolation and provides ways to be more physical together.” Book clubs are one way, or activities for the younger students that have them venturing outside to find something natural to bring back for a show-and-tell. “We try to make it a bit less of a ‘sitting-in-front of the screen’ experience,” Ms. Tannous said.

Some of the activities involve going outdoors, such as animal tracking, crafts with plants, using tarps and knots, simple survival skills, forest ecology, understanding bird language and leadership development. Other extra-curriculars include digital coding, Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit, yoga, boxing, break dancing, book club and watercolours.

What are the challenges?

Besides the now familiar technology hiccups that can plague some online sessions, there are a few challenges that Ms. Tannous and her team are working to improve.

“Our staff has had to revisit the way they were taught to teach as most of it cannot apply virtually. Teachers evaluate differently in the sense that more emphasis is placed on multiple small evaluations rather than one big evaluation,” she explained. Teachers have to navigate the fact that students have access to many tools normally not available to them in a physical classroom, for example online translation tools, “tutors on call” and adults in the house who can become a much called upon resource.

One of the biggest challenges cited by teachers is too much parent involvement in the classroom. Especially at the elementary level, parents are often around more and “feel they can jump in, interject – or they are helping too much,” she said. They forget that kids are on their own at school in regular times, and that too much involvement now can make it hard for the child when it’s time to go back to in-person school, she explained.

Another area that continues to be explored is how to assess participation in a virtual learning setting, especially at the high school level where cameras tend to be turned off. Some students have shared they feel too anxious to have their cameras on. However, what the team at Virtual Learning has found is that this age group likes to use the chat function during a videoconference. Ways of assessing can then shift from oral to written participation. “The way to evaluate is being evaluated!” said Ms. Tannous.

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“My time so far with EMSB Virtual Learning has been great! While there have occasionally been technical complications that we can't control, such as teachers' or students' power and internet going out, I find that I'm able to learn more easily from home. The classes retain some of the same energy that physical classes normally offer, and I find that I can interact with students and teachers very comfortably this way. I miss my friends and the ability to see them each day a lot, but we still interact online.” - Joshua Tam, Secondary V

“I really like virtual school! I love of the fact that there are less distractions, in the sense that in physical school there would usually be interruptions or people making a lot of noise (we have the mute mic button :)) Another reason I like it is that I don’t need to get up early in the morning to travel to school. In virtual school, I can just get up, eat a little something and go to school in my pyjamas in around 20 minutes! I am also fond of Google Classroom, the online homework system. You can’t forget your books since you have all of it online, which relieves a lot of stress for a lot of us. - Mia Amaral-Sgouromitis, Secondary I

“Things are going really well at Virtual Learning school. It works the way a school should normally work. I have really amazing teachers. They all make time to meet after class to help me with anything I need.  They are super helpful and supportive. I feel like there should be more classes, and classes should be longer than 45 minutes. A ‘plus’ of virtual school is not having to get up as early. ;-) Technology has been good. The occasional glitch can be frustrating, but overall it has been fine! - Charlie Brookman, Secondary I

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