ONE year after upwards of 210,000 students across Manitoba got an abrupt lesson in distance education, the province says online learning is “here to stay.”

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ONE year after upwards of 210,000 students across Manitoba got an abrupt lesson in distance education, the province says online learning is "here to stay."

Last week, among a stack of 500 pages that were made public, including the contents of the Education Modernization Act, K-12 review, and the province’s Better Education Starts Today (BEST) strategy, is a list of provincial takeaways from the last 12 months in COVID-19 pandemic learning.

"Despite the rocky start to remote learning in the spring of 2020, and persistent challenges related to access and connectivity, online learning has worked well in many ways for many students," states the BEST report.

"Expanding access and capacity for high-quality remote learning improves our resilience moving out of the pandemic and provides greater flexibility."

The document deems the creation of both a "provincial remote-learning strategy" and a bilingual online high school priorities for the government. A provincial K-8 virtual school that outlives the pandemic is also on the table.

"We’re keeping the doors open, in terms of what remote learning in the future will look like," Education Minister Cliff Cullen told the Free Press on Monday.

Cullen said "discussion is ongoing," when asked whether the province plans to take over InformNet, Manitoba’s online high school, which is currently operated by Pembina Trails and St. James-Assiniboia school divisions.

InformNet has expanded to accommodate a surge of interest in asynchronous grades 9-12 courses students can complete at home amid the pandemic. As for K-8 students, 701 pupils are connected to the Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre, which launched in early January.

Before the launch, the Winnipeg School Division, among others, created its own virtual schools to accommodate immunocompromised students and families who didn’t feel comfortable sending their children to school.

Principal Dino Di Fabrizio works with 32 teachers who are currently providing 704 students with real-time remote lessons at WSD’s Virtual School.

Di Fabrizio said the pandemic has "accelerated" remote learning knowhow and shown benefits to both asynchronous and synchronous models.

The former has given students who need to work the ability to support their families and do schoolwork whenever it fits into their schedules, he said, adding the latter allows for instantaneous "face-to-face" relationship-building while students are at home.

Meantime, at Collège Garden City Collegiate, teacher Meghan Rauch said the blended learning setup has shown her how valuable it is to have smaller class sizes — something she hopes will stick around post-pandemic.

"Having half of our students in class each day, a maximum of 15 to 18 kids, has been incredible. I feel like I know my kids way better. I have way more opportunities to offer them individualized learning," said Rauch, who teaches French immersion.

At the same time, she said it’s clear her students are increasingly struggling to stay motivated on their at-home days when they are cut-off from their social circles. Online education might be cost-effective, but it isn’t what’s best for meaningful learning for the majority, Rauch added.

The BEST strategy outlines eight key lessons from the pandemic, ranging from the logistical challenges of working with 37 schools divisions to inconsistent technology access within those entities.

The president of the Manitoba School Boards Association called the province using the pandemic to justify dismantling divisions "ludicrous," after a year in which officials relied heavily on them to implement the COVID-19 response.

Alan Campbell cited remote learning as an example: divisions created virtual programs long before the province launched its hub in early 2021 because they saw a need in their communities.

"The announcement last week was a complete missed opportunity by Minister Cullen to take the really strong working relationship that now exists as a result of this pandemic response," Campbell said. "Instead, he just blew up the system." Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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