Virtual classes offer new ways to learn

From watching dog surgery to getting cooking tips, students in virtual schools in Chatham-Kent and Sarnia-Lambton are doing things they couldn’t in a traditional classroom.

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From watching dog surgery to getting cooking tips, students in virtual schools in Chatham-Kent and Sarnia-Lambton are doing things they couldn’t in a traditional classroom.

Those elementary and high school students opted to begin this school year taking online lessons at home rather than return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While teachers have tried to replicate their normal classrooms online, they’ve also found new ways to engage with kids.

For example, more than 220 Grade 8 students in the Lambton Kent district school board will make a virtual tour of a veterinarian’s office next week. They’ll get to ask questions and stay for an operation.

A similar number of Grade 7 students will visit a Red Seal chef who’ll teach them how to shop for dinner and cook for their families.

Hundreds of students could never squeeze into an operating room or a kitchen or a machine shop if not for their virtual schools.

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“Places that you couldn’t normally take kids to go and experience and see, all we need is a camera,” said Chris Moore, principal of the Lambton Kent district board’s virtual elementary school.

“It’s really a great opportunity to expose kids to all of the other professions and all of the things that are out there. … It’s a gateway to whatever the kids are interested in. If they want to see something or learn about something, we can connect them with it.”

Also new is the level of parental involvement. Moms and dads can attend lessons, and many do with their younger children.

“Parents have a direct pipeline with teachers that they’ve never had, to sit in the classroom and be part of the experience,” Moore said.

The Lambton Kent district board will soon have three campuses set up for teacher-led virtual classes. The elementary school classes will be taught out of Blenheim District and Petrolia’s Lambton Central high schools, while high school will be taught from Lambton-Kent composite school in Dresden. Most rooms will have six teachers, each with their own work station and noise-cancelling headphones with microphones.

Until then, many public school teachers are still guiding virtual classes from home or from other schools. That’s the setup used by the St. Clair Catholic district school board in order to give their teachers privacy.

“One of our teachers has set his virtual classroom up in a dance studio at Ursuline College (with) a green screen and, if you were on the receiving end of the classroom, it looks like it’s a Star Wars mission control,” said Deb Crawford, the St. Clair Catholic board’s director of education. “A lot of fun is happening in the classrooms as well. I think the kids are enjoying it.

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“I’ve visited the classrooms, spoke to the students. Many of them prefer the virtual environment. They like mixing with new friends and they like their ability to work more independently, whereas other students are saying that they miss the social interaction of their own face-to-face classroom. It’s overall been a good experience for students.”

Each 300-minute school day must include 225 minutes of live synchronous instruction with a teacher.

Students still need to do hands-on work, Crawford said, so the board is sending them packages that include markers, pencils and papers.

“Some parents have been wonderful in trying to make sure their students have the things they need at home, but this is going to supplement the supplies that they have,” she said.

The virtual plans had to be set up so quickly, it was like building a plane when you’re already in the air, Crawford said.

The St. Clair Catholic district board’s virtual school includes 30 classes of elementary students, plus high school classes led by 21 teachers. Rob Cicchelli is the principal and Mike Giroux is the vice-principal.

The Lambton Kent district board has almost 2,350 students in the virtual elementary system, with 65 teachers set to work at Blenheim and 60 in Petrolia. There are also 1,000 high school students taught by 54 teachers.

“Initially when we set this up we thought there’s certain courses we probably can’t offer,” said Paul Wiersma, principal of the Lambton Kent virtual secondary school. “How do we offer music, dance and visual arts? How do we offer welding and construction? We’re starting to realize that maybe those are some things we can offer to some degree.”

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Vocal music can be taught. So can visual arts, even if students have fewer supplies than in a classroom. The public board also found an online course that lets it offer construction technology for Grades 10 to 12, Wiersma said.

“We’ve learned that we’re not as limited as we think we are. … If you can do it in a physical school, we’re trying to do it in a virtual school,” he said.

And if teachers can’t do the same as in a physical school, they adapt. One environmental science teacher shot a video of himself talking about native plants and trees at a conservation area and then used it for a class discussion.

Virtual tours can be a time saver, too. Rather than go to Toronto, students can stay home to visit the Royal Ontario Museum online.

Students who have never travelled outside their county can now have virtual classmates from Wheatley to Grand Bend, Moore said. They’re holding virtual get-togethers after school and even during recess.

“They’re making connections and friendships with people from all over our district,” he said. “There’s all these pluses we didn’t even think about when we put it all together.”

The virtual public high school has a student parliament, clubs and a gay-straight alliance. The elementary school may run a spring golf league with kids playing on their home courses and comparing scores online.

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