Challenges exist in delivery of new education models: NDP

Saskatchewan Rivers School Board director of education Robert Bratvold answers a question at the 2016 AGM.

In a news conference on Tuesday morning opposition NDP Education Critic Carla Beck addressed concerns around delivery of education technology in the wake of schools closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beck addressed gaps that might exist either due to socioecenomic or urban and rural issue around technology. Students may not have access to internet in rural and remote communities or have access to devices. Beck would like to know the numbers of students affected by this.

“We know that teachers, before the Easter break, spent time checking in on their students. How many students it is that indicated that they don’t have access and how many students we weren’t able to connect to — I think that is the first piece we need in coordination from the Province,” Beck said.

Locally, Saskatchewan Rivers School Division director of education Robert Bratvold explained that the division was aware that challenges would exist in reaching students and families through online platforms.

“We knew that was going to be a large portion of our students would be able to experience their learning in that way but a significant portion wouldn’t,” he said.

“We knew that from the beginning. That is not a surprise but it is a challenge.”

He explained that a significant portion of it is related to socioeconomic status but a large part of the division is rural and has challenges with bandwidth and reliability of service for online delivery.

“Staff and students in Christopher Lake struggle with reliable internet connection and even cell phone is spotty. If you don’t have good WiFi in your house sometimes you can tether your phone if you have got some kind of data package but even that is a challenge,” he said.

Bratvold explained that the division has done some work delivering hard copy materials.

The ministry is aware that some divisions have entered into partnership agreements in order to be able to provide devices to students in order to supplement online learning.

The Ministry added that individual divisions will determine what supplemental learning opportunities may be used to meet the needs of students in their division.

According to the Ministry of Education, The Response Planning Team continues to be in regular communication with school divisions in order to support divisions as they provide learning opportunities to their students.

The Response Planning Team began work on Monday, March 17 and consists of individuals from the Ministry of Education, Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation, Saskatchewan School Boards Association, the Saskatchewan Association of School Business Officials and the Saskatchewan League of Educationl Administrators, Directors and Superintendents.

It was put in place to to ensure students continue to have supplementary learning through distance opportunities and take-home resource kits; as well as logistics to ensure backroom functions such as staff assignments and payroll.

They added that School divisions are responsible for developing supplemental learning plans to provide alternative instructional learning opportunities to students and for developing communication plans for students and families to inform them about those opportunities.

Beck noted that divisions are doing an excellent using their resources to ensure technology is in the hands of students. She noted that different divisions have different assets at their disposal. The Saskatoon Teachers Association and SaskTel partnered for delivery. As well some divisions are providing every Grade 10 to 12 student with Chromebooks. She explained that other divisions may not have that capacity to lend out.

“I have heard concerns from other division that they are worried about what will happen if they are audited if they are giving our devices and those devices don’t come back in September, what that means for their assets. There could be assurances that the province puts in place around those audits,” Beck said.

She gave a local example of the wide variance that exists with one discussion with a Prince Albert teacher.

“I know I was talking to a teacher yesterday that was indicating that the number was more like four out of 25 in a class and it varies within divisions and in between divisions,” Beck said.

Bratvold gave an example of the program that Beck mentioned in Saskatoon as a positive.

“There are some things that can be done but that doesn’t work in all circumstances either. It is also of no use if you don’t have reliable cell phone connections,” he explained.

Another concept Beck put forward was collection of donated devices and having expertise to wipe data and make the devices ready for students. She added that it can be done voluntarily but the province can augment it.

“I guess that the major thing that we are asking for is that the Ministry provides more oversight to make sure there isn’t a huge gap within divisions in those students who have access to technology and those who don’t and also that there isn’t a huge gap between divisions in the province. And I think that is the role we would like to see the provincial government play,” Beck said.

Bratvold explained that addressing challenges is responsibility of the divisions.

“The delivery of education is in the hands of local school boards after they hire. I think provincially if they get SaskTel and maybe the provincial government can do some things to increase the capacity and obviously you don’t have those spotty internet connections,” Bratvold said.

Beck explained that students have been out of school a month and the divisions have done an admirable job but a gap still exists.

“I think that is a role for the provincial government to be coordinating with divisions for where they still have gaps. Be that with accessing donated access laptops from the ministries, from Central Services or using our Crown Corporations to help to insure those students who perhaps don’t have a digital plan at home have access to one free of cost so that they can continue in their learning and again connect with their teachers and their peers which plays an academic role which is very important and it also plays a social and a mental health role during this pandemic,” Beck said.

Also on the call was Shannon, a mother from Saskatoon with some challenges in her home because of special needs and only a single cell phone to facilitate learning.

“Ideally I would like if there was some sort of a grant that would allow for a device that we could take advantage of and get everybody caught up.” she said.

Bratvold explained that there has been discussions about developing supplemental learning models for various grade levels. But he believes that the divisions have the expertise.

“It is just a matter of making that transition and not overwhelming ourselves and saying that I have to be able to do what I did last month with my Grade 3 classroom tomorrow with my 20 kids spread across the division,” Bratvold said.

“When they ask what the province can do more of I think it is continue to support school divisions in delivering those programs, providing clarity about what is expected in terms of messaging and clarity with requirements around medical and health precautions to be taken,” he added.

He explained that the province funds the school divisions but each school division knows their situations. He added that the province has behaved admirably to sustain funding during the pandemic and make sure staff continue employment.

“We are finding really meaningful ways to engage students and families. It has been good — the province has done that and continues to support school divisions and issues. If any more challenges come up, continued support is a good thing,” Bratvold said.

According to the Ministry school divisions may opt to use variety of modes of delivering instruction to students. Delivery modes may include everything from paper to phone calls to sophisticated online environments. School and school division staff are in the best position to understand their local context, the interest and capacity of their students and families.

Bratvold also wants to be sure that expectations are managed when it comes to delivering education in this new world.

“Ensuring that students and parents and families and teachers know that as a province we are going to keep working hard so that kids have opportunities to learn. But please don’t expect to recreate what your child experiences every day in school in your own home. Teachers can’t expect to do that, parents can’t expect to do that,” he said.

Bratvold added that managing expectations also means keeping support for learning, curiosity and exploration high but not so high that mental health is affected.

Lorel Trumier of the Prince Albert Catholic School Division was not available for comment as of press time.

-with files from Peter Lozinski