The pandemic grinds on
I’ve entered 2022 with a sense of déjà vu. After nearly two years of Covid, it’s like going back to the same day every day, despite vaccines and booster shots and school closures and even curfews in Québec. Here we are again with schools and at least some colleges and universities going back to online learning. Gyms are closed, as are restaurant and bars in many parts of Canada. I can’t even play golf now (which I was able to right through Covid), but this time it’s because of three unusual weeks of frost and snow in Vancouver.
When will it end, if ever? But on reflection, it’s not quite the same, at least with respect to virtual learning.
What has changed since January 2021
Most universities and colleges are in fact returning to campus-based in-person teaching (see Moody, 2022), with some exceptions, such as large lecture classes. Others are starting a week or two later. ‘Vaccines, mitigation strategies and the benefit of hindsight’ helped drive universities’ decisions.
The biggest change perhaps is in the use of lectures. Many instructors are now, even with classes back on campus, looking at possibly pre-recording lectures or thinking of other ways to deliver such courses. This is a result of a great deal of learning through experience of using Zoom by instructors over the last two years, and intensive efforts at professional development to improve the design of virtual learning.
Most universities and colleges in Canada now have or are developing an e-learning or digital learning strategy (Johnson, 2020), which in most cases are likely to include plans for both regular and emergency teaching. Although there is still a lot to do, especially in terms of training faculty for effective online learning, changes are happening and the future is not going to look like the the days pre-Covid, at least in Canadian post-secondary education.
Here the picture is much more messy. In provinces such as Québec and Ontario, with rapidly rising case numbers and hospitalisations from the Omicron variant, schools are closed and courses are being moved online. This is not being well received by many parents. Some are threatening to ‘strike’, in that they will not force their children to follow the virtual lessons, but will provide alternative learning routines (Dunn, 2022). One school district reported only 50-60% ‘attendance’ for virtual learning classes on the first day this semester (CBC Windsor, 2022).
Here in British Columbia, most schools will start in-person classes a week late on January 10, although schools were open on January 4 for children of essential workers and students with special needs. This is the kind of flexibility that is required at this stage of the pandemic.
However, in BC, as elsewhere, there are concerns that some schools may have to close or move to online learning because so many teachers will be off sick as they get infected with the Omicron variant (Weisgarber, 2022). I hope the same policy regarding children of essential workers and with special needs still being able to attend school will continue in such a situation.
Nevertheless, given most people under 65 recover quickly from Omicron, closures due to staff shortages as a result of Covid are likely to be an unfortunate but temporary blip until Omicron works its way through the population. What is more concerning is the permanent loss of teachers due to burn-out, early retirement or a move to less stressful occupations. This needs to be considered by school boards and provincial governments if they start to plan longer-term solutions for emergencies, as they should be doing.
Many school boards have now put in place schemes to provide appropriate equipment such as tablets or computers for students who do not have such equipment at home, although this does not address the problem of no, inadequate, or expensive internet access. I was interested to see that as many as 20% of families did not return loaned equipment at the end of the school semester last year, but maybe this is just one way to provide more equitable access. Government action regarding improving Internet access though is still terribly slow here in Canada. Much more urgency is required.
Even more concerning appears to be the lack of learning in the k-12 system, especially by administrators, about the best way to provide online learning for school children. Apparently some are still requiring students to spend up to six hours a day on Zoom calls. This is resulting in considerable ‘absenteeism’.
Curricula are clearly not being adequately redesigned for effective virtual learning. This requires students being given work to do independently, or in small on-line groups or offline, and with teachers spending more time dealing with individual students one-on-one online. Also more thought needs to be given to the role of parents, especially working parents. How can they best support virtual learning? Not by teaching, but by providing the framework to support kids learning on their own and at home.
After nearly two years, this failure to adapt teaching methods to what is appropriate for online learning in school systems is becoming inexcusable. Adapting the curriculum is particularly important for the younger age groups in the school system. Where are school boards or provinces digital learning strategic plans? Where are those with long experience in online learning when decisions about online learning in schools are being made?
There is hope
You need to talk to epidemiologists about this, but I think the Omicron variant unfortunately will burn through the whole population very quickly. Fortunately, most people also seem to recover quickly. Governments and institutions will continue to rely on vaccinations, booster shots, masks, increased testing and isolation where necessary to enable us to live with the pandemic. Employment levels, especially in the education system, are also likely to return to normal, maybe even by groundhog day on February 2.
Virtual learning will remain an option, if the virus mutates or flares up again. Lessons have been learned, but clearly a lot more still needs to be done, especially in the k-12 system, if virtual learning is to be effectively used in emergencies such as a pandemic.
In the meantime, I don’t envy teachers, parents and kids as the pandemic grinds on. Resilience I think will be the buzz word for 2022, but the year will get better.
CBC Windsor (2022) Technical challenges mark return to online learning Windsor-Essex, CBC News, January 5
Dunn, T. (2022) Fed up parents call for boycott of online classes as province shifts to virtual learning to fight COVID-19, CBC News, January 5
Mood, J. (2022) Most colleges resume in-person classes, Inside Higher Education, January 6
Weisgarber, M. (2022) B.C. schools prepare for possible Omicron-related staff shortages, could trigger move to online learning, CTV News Vancouver, January 4