Original Published on Aug 25, 2022 at 22:22

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Manitoba’s virtual elementary school is scaling back operations as droves of students return to traditional classrooms this fall, but the principal says its early success proves the centre has potential beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre, which was launched in early 2021 in response to surges in online schooling and homeschooling, is a one-stop shop for e-learning materials.

While the hub’s real-time virtual instruction component was initially reserved for families with immunocompromised members, eligibility has since expanded so any student can sign up. Adult supervision is required for students under 12.

“There’s so many needs out there right now and there’s still lots of anxiety out there, COVID or not,” said principal Andrew Mead. “Because kids are home and they’re with their caregiver, a lot of the anxiety can go away (via virtual school), but they’re still in a setting where they’re still being taught by a teacher.”

A roster of 45 staff members taught roughly 700 learners between September 2021 and June 2022.

In 2022-23, the hub is anticipated to employ 20 staff, including a guidance counsellor, social worker, outreach teacher and fitness instructor, and serve as many as 250 students. It has eliminated full-time kindergarten and French immersion programming.

Kelly Saltel said her family initially decided to enrol her two children in year-long remote learning owing to health concerns. Their decision to continue with the centre for a second year, however, is primarily due to the quality of education, the Winnipeg mother said.

“I can’t say enough about the education. The education they’re getting is fantastic,” said Saltel, noting her children, who are entering grades 6 and 8 next month, have access to smaller class sizes and significantly more one-on-one time with their teachers.

Students are encouraged to use their cameras during class and as a result, she said there are surprisingly few distractions. Saltel said her children have also disclosed the format has eased their fears around bullying, peer pressure and fitting in at school.

“The self-monitoring and the self-drive that they’re learning is invaluable,” she added. “If you’re hand-held all your life, you’re never going to know how to go and do it on your own.”

Contrary to its name, much of the daily learning at the virtual elementary school actually happens offline.

The province’s standards for remote learning require students in grades 1 to 4 only engage in five to six hours of real-time instruction, also known as synchronous learning, per week. For older elementary schoolers and middle years students, that expectation is seven to eight hours.

“The teachers aren’t always in control. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of time directed by the family or by the student,” according to the principal, who insists remote learning and traditional school need to be thought about differently.

“It’s a different style of learning… but it’s still learning.”

Mead said most children want to be in traditional school settings and succeed there. At the same time, the longtime education leader said there are “a million reasons” why Manitoba needs to continue operating a virtual school, in spite of e-learning earning a bad reputation when it went mainstream amid the arrival of a global health crisis in March 2020.

“There are lots of kids and families who need something different or want something different,” he said.

Community-building, efficacy and student autonomy are the school’s three key tenets. Employees run assemblies and virtual clubs to build camaraderie among students who live in every corner of the province and will likely never meet all of their peers in person.

The principal said the school is proud of what it does, from promoting internet use in a positive and educational way to teaching seven-year-olds how to become self-starters.

In the spring, Mead ran a mascot competition to instil pride in its learners. The “remote goat” was the winning creature, he said, noting goats often spend lots of time in the cloud — much like the unique school community.

In a prepared statement, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said the province will review e-learning supports when it launches a remote learning strategy in 2022-23.

Manitoba has earmarked nearly $3 million to support remote learning during the upcoming academic year.

This item reprinted with permission from the Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba