By Kristin McNeill
Montreal , June 29, 2021- For many students this pandemic school year, EMSB Virtual Learning was a resounding success. Some were enrolled because of their own health considerations, others to minimize risks to a vulnerable family member at home. Complete with its own principal, vice principal, teachers and helpers, the virtual school finished the year with 575 registered students.
Each student would have experienced learning from home in different ways, from different standpoints: physical, emotional and mental. Some come out of it with a preference to in-person school; others thrived in the online school setting and wish it could always be an option.
|Virtual Learning student Allesia.
“[It was a] dream come true,” said one mother. “Her true self came out,” said another. The experience was “amazing,” said another. “We were grateful for the opportunity,” said a dad.
In this article, families share their reflections about a year with EMSB Virtual Learning.
A year of positive experiences
For Hannah, this has been a fantastic year, according to her mother Ilana Keeb-Rich. Hannah, who is in Secondary I, attended EMSB Virtual Learning for the 2020-2021 academic year to protect a senior family member during the pandemic. Hannah’s sister also attended the online school, and despite enjoying in-person school, also enjoyed learning from home.
“I have been able to watch my children learning from afar,” said their mother.
But it was Hannah who really benefitted from the option, she said. Her daughter has special needs, and this year proved to be one full of surprising benefits and positive experiences. She said Hannah had been able to reconnect with some elementary school friends and became outgoing and happy, and participated during class.
“Her true self is coming out,” she said.
Ms. Keeb-Rich described a very different school experience for her daughter this year. Mornings were less of a rush; she ate a better breakfast, and there was less pressure to get out the door. “Hannah gets herself up an hour early; she looks forward to her day everyday, and gets her projects done,” she said.
She also said Hannah has benefitted from fewer distractions via online learning, a quieter environment in which to concentrate and a shorter, more concentrated school day. But what she is most proud of is that Hannah participates much more in class. She “is not embarrassed to find her voice.”
Thriving at home with mom
Stavros, 8, lives with autism spectrum disorder and is considered non-verbal. He can repeat most sounds and small words mostly unclearly, his mother Nickie Athanasopoulos explained. In the previous school year, Stavros was in a self-contained class. At the time, his fellow classmates were autistic and about the same age but not at the same developmental level.
When he was enrolled in EMSB Virtual Learning, he went from a small classroom to having one-on-one learning with his main teacher. This year, there was less time with the teacher, but it was more one-on-one time, his mother explained.
“EMSB Virtual Learning was a dream come true,” said Ms. Athanasopoulos.
Stavros also attended Phys. Ed and Music classes several times a week, where he would join others. “His teachers are amazing. They try to make him feel included. They know he is non-verbal, and they know what he can and cannot do. They ask him to do the things he can do. For example, my son loves music. He becomes very engaged,” she said.
His mom recounted an exciting development where Stavros learned how to vocalize the word “up” through working with his physical education teacher.
But the aspect that was most meaningful was the emotional impact for Stavros and his family. He likes being at home, so mornings are much easier, explained Ms. Athanasopoulos. He’s more relaxed in the way he learns and benefits from having her by his side, where she can help him. She recalled certain months, the school year before, being called to the school about once a week to pick him up because he would not stop crying – and all the sleepless nights wondering how to help him. This year, they didn’t go through that, she said.
The one-on-one with the teacher made his virtual learning experience a total success, she said. “The option of virtual learning would be a dream come true for me.”
Also, the learning is going faster, said Ms. Athanasopoulos. When Stavros started at Virtual Learning, he had trouble assembling a four-piece puzzle. Now he can put together a 24-piece with little help.
She said her son has surprised her by picking up on computer skills just by watching her use the mouse. He can now choose his own games to play on the computer, and move from screen to screen - something he couldn’t do before.
“This has really worked out for him. Overall, this has been such a positive experience,” she said. Missing out on the social interaction was not a problem for him and not as important, she explained. “It’s more important that I get him to improve cognitively.”
Proficient at managing time
For the parents of Grade 2 student Moli, online school had many blessings. For dad Don Coletti and mom Yang Zhang, the experience of EMSB Virtual Learning was “very, very good. It was not viable for her to go to school due to health reasons, and we were really grateful for that opportunity.”
Though it was challenging when school first started in the fall, once 7-year-old Moli settled into the schedule and her class, she took off from there. She became proficient at telling and managing the time, explained Mr. Coletti. In physical school, elementary-age children are dependent on the cues of teachers and bells to follow the day’s schedule. “She has a greater level of independence now,” he said, and was able to stick to her schedule by herself.
Using technology was not something Moli was proficient at before, according to her parents. This year, she succeeded in sharpening her tech skills. Besides learning how to attend classes online, she was also able to set up virtual social meetings with her classmates. And, it didn’t take her long to learn, said her mom, Yang Zhang. “It was really impressive to see her initiate a social connection using technology.” This past year has created “a total change of her perspective of technology. We’re very proud of all the things she has been managing.”
Her parents found it useful to have an online platform, where they could check the homework and message with the teacher – and were able to figure out when to offer support. They said they would love to have these modern tools moving forward even after the pandemic.
After the first few months, after schedules settled in, Moli’s parents’ level of involvement declined. She had learned how to manage her time. “She’s doing a lot more on her own now,” said Ms. Zhang.
Though she said Moli did miss physically being with her classmates in school, she learned how to reach out in the virtual world and stay connected with peers. For example, classmates could remain in the meeting room during recess – use Jamboard, send emojis and chat.
Through it all, Moli has become much more confident and happy learning new things every day. An ongoing online schooling option “would be a huge thing for kids like her,” who have health challenges bringing them in and out of medical visits, he said.
Didn’t have to miss many classes while hospitalized
Twin sisters Vita and Mara both attended EMSB Virtual Learning as Secondary I students. In writing about their experience at EMSB Virtual Learning, their mother Antoinette Perrotta said, “Virtual learning turned out to be better than I expected! It has been a challenging time with Covid-19, and I find that it was very well organized. The teachers are amazing and very understanding towards these students learning virtually.”
She also described it being difficult, at first, not having a teacher physically present and also having to concentrate on a screen. But with time they adapted, she said, and found it easy to navigate the internet and their books on-line. “If they had questions, they emailed their teachers and always got feedback from them. If they had been in [physical] school, maybe they wouldn’t have taken that extra step in contacting the teacher.”
What were the best aspects for this family? “As a parent of two kids learning virtually, it was difficult to grasp, but as time went by, I realized how happy my girls were and how interested they were in learning. The best aspects were the teachers; they are so patient. When my girls were hospitalized, it made it easy not to miss any classes. They were able to remotely connect to their classes. That was fantastic!”
The school year 2020/2021 was challenging for Grade 6 student Alessia, who not only lives with dyslexia, but also underwent surgery in 2021. In a single word, parent Tania Youssef described her daughter’s year in EMSB Virtual Learning: Amazing.
Describing Alessia as shy, her year this year “really made her explode with imagination. It gave her so much confidence, and she became so independent,” said her mom. For one assignment, Alessia even created a haunted house in her basement, and then made a video montage.
The family’s other daughter, Sienna, who was in Grade 3, also took to it. Both girls followed their schedules and logged on independently, said their mom. While the hours are less than in physical school, “They learn a lot in those three hours!” Ms. Youssef said.
One downside was the lack of physical interaction with other children, but the educational experience of virtual school made for a feel of “one-on-one” with the teacher, plus more time with her, she said. The “mute” function of an online classroom made it easier for some to speak up, reducing background noise and distractions.
Alessia is dyslexic, and her mom was especially proud of her increased confidence. “She went from not knowing how to read to raising her hand and wanting to read in front of her class.”
In terms of managing the technology, both students learned new skills. For Alessia, it was the competence she gained in designing presentation slides.
Reflections from EMSB Virtual Learning students themselves
“I think online school is much more safe and secure because nothing the students do can harm you physically. Online school prevents a large amount of bullying from happening since the teachers are almost always aware of the class. Online education helps me focus more on class because it is more straightforward. I feel much more safe and comfortable in online school than physical school because I feel as if I can trust the adults at the virtual school more than the ones at physical school.”
– Hannah, Secondary I
“I am happy with my virtual school because I got to participate in school even during COVID. I am better at using my laptop now, and I can even set up a Zoom meeting with my friend. I know how to check my schedule and learned to read time to go back to the class. I am good at my quiz, and I am proud that I got through the year.” – Moli, Grade 2
“I am so happy I was part of this experience. E-learning really taught me how to think outside the box and use my imagination when presenting projects. E-learning made me learn how to be more independent.” – Alessia, Grade 6
“What I miss the most is being in a classroom with my friends and a teacher. I find that learning virtual I was more attentive to the teacher. What I like also we have a lot less books and everything is done by computer. Studying for a test is better because all that we learned we just go back to our on-line books to study!” – Vita, Secondary I
“I also miss my friends and a teacher physically. I learned a lot I never thought I would like art, and I enjoy drawing now! My teachers are very nice, and if I don't understand something they always take the time to explain at tutorial classes. I like the idea of having all my notes on the computer; it makes studying a lot easier.” – Mara, Secondary I