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Students, staff, parents share “thoughts” on distance learning

ThoughtExchange consultation informs HWCDSB September school reopening plans

Distance learning proved not only to be a learning experience for students whose learning moved online during the school closure, but for educators who found new and creative ways to deliver the course curriculum, and parents and family members who adopted home teacher roles.

On May 19, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board launched a ThoughtExchange consultation to glean from those directly impacted by distance learning what worked well, what didn’t and what needed to improve. The results from the exchange, which closed on May 27, will be used by the board to inform its school reopening plans for September.

A total of 2,099 participants took part in the consultation, sharing 2,864 thoughts and rating 50,798 others. A little more than half of the respondents were parents/guardians while staff accounted for 28% of the respondents and students the remaining 20%. Together their input provided what Director of Education David Hansen called “a good snapshot of how our community was feeling.”

What the community felt was “challenged” by the move to online learning. Asked to describe their experiences, one-third of respondents identified “challenging” while another third called it “stressful.”

“Being almost completely out of routine, as well as missing the social aspect of learning has been the most difficult for me,” shared one student. “My teachers teach differently now that we transitioned online. I personally enjoyed the classroom environment more than learning via YouTube videos.”

Asked about the course workload, 47% of respondents felt that students received the right amount of work. Sixteen percent felt there was too much, while 13% felt there was too little.

One area where the respondents were agreed was on the question of faith. Three quarters of participants felt that the students’ faith formation was supported during the school closure through online activities, religious-focused learning tasks and opportunities for prayer and reflection. Other support was provided by the parishes.

“So happy that our parish priest is prerecording school masses and uploading to YouTube for the school to watch on the day mass was to occur,” wrote one parent. “It is important because our faith is what makes us different from the public schools.”

That “thought” received a 3.6 (out of five) star rating.

Through a rating process, the 2,864 comments were organized into eight top themes:
• Lesson delivery/online learning
• Connection/communication
• Assessment, evaluation & reporting
• Learning at Home digital supports
• Equity in Learning
• Religious Education & Faith Formation
• Mental Health & Well-Being
• Special Education

While parents/guardians expressed appreciation to teachers for their efforts to adapt to an online learning platform, they also stressed the need for more synchronous learning and more consistency between classes.

“There is a realization that there is a learning curve as students and teachers/educators adapted to distance learning,” noted Hansen. “There was a consistent message that interaction by video with the teacher was important for parents and students.”

Parents and students also shared the importance of receiving instruction from teachers prior to assigning learning tasks.

“More continuity, more online platforms where the teachers actually come on screen and present a lesson,” offered one parent as an area for improvement. That enhancement would not only ensure that “all students are understanding the curriculum but receiving the supports they may need if having difficulties.”

The “teaching element” linked closely to theme #2, connection and communication, said Hansen.

“I think we heard widely and broadly that what was missing was connection – student to student, but the biggest missing piece of distance learning was the personal connection of teacher to student.”

Also missing, in some cases, was feedback on student work.

More feedback and appealing to different levels of abilities, suggested a student. “Providing more than ‘nice’ or ‘well done’ as feedback would encourage student growth and appeal to different abilities” – a thought that received a 4.3-star rating.

Acknowledging the “real challenge teachers experience as they evaluate work without fully seeing the process the student has gone through to create the wok,” Hansen added that the ongoing daily feedback is lost in the distance learning model.

The Ministry’s announcement that the March 13 mark would be the lowest mark a student could achieve was also thought to have a negative impact on student motivation.

Distance Learning – Digital supports was raised as another area of concern. “Thoughts” identified the challenge experienced by some teachers who weren’t practised in the myClass environment and the need for ongoing professional development, both in real time and on demand. Students and parents also reported the challenges of accessing help with the online platform.

Other concerns were raised around equity in learning and mental health & well-being. “The ability for parents/guardians to support their children is impacted by so many different factors,” said Hansen, identifying language barriers, understanding of the curriculum, full-time working parents, and access to technology and broadband internet as some of the challenges that families faced during the school closure.

Others cited the emotional toll of the pandemic and the need to focus on the mental health and well-being of staff, students and families. There was also the challenge of supporting students with special education needs, many of whom require direct support, and English Language Learners who struggle with online learning.

“The need to focus on the mental health and well-being of students and staff will likely increase as we return to a school year that will have many uncertainties as the year starts,” noted Director Hansen. “Recognizing the loss of three and a half months of school will create some real anxiety and stress for members of our school communities.”

He also acknowledged that students with special needs will need much more than 1:1 support, both in the classroom and online.

“Support and training for educational assistants on digital tools will be an important consideration.”

These findings were shared with trustees at the June 23 meeting of the board.

The detailed responses from the consultation will be used by the board’s instructional services teams to support teachers as they prepare for learning in the fall.

“Board staff will continue to examine the consultation information carefully to inform the work that is happening to be ready in September,” said Hansen.


On July 1, the HWCDSB launched a second ThoughtExchange seeking input into its school reopening plan.

The platform invites stakeholders to share their thoughts on the Ministry of Education’s plan for the reopening of schools which included three possible scenarios for September 2020:
• a return to conventional, regular classroom instruction, with enhanced health and safety requirements;
• an adapted return that limits the number of students in a given classroom to 15 students at any given time and also includes some blended virtual learning;
• a continuation of enhanced remote learning, with some synchronous online instruction.

A decision about which scenario will be chosen will be made by the Ministry of Education in early August and will be informed by the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario.

The Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board is currently preparing for each of the scenarios. A reopening plan will be shared with parents/guardians in mid-August.

Students, staff, parents share “thoughts” on distance learning