An easy upload to distance learning has been all but impossible for teachers and students across the province as digital divides, technical glitches and inappropriate video conference interruptions started to sideline school during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Hutterite country, however, lessons have carried on as usual.
On a recent school day, formal call-outs for attendance are replaced with pings as students join Grade 10 essential mathematics from their respective colony schools in southwest Manitoba.
Real-time videos of teacher Larissa Collins and small groups of her students share the screen with a digital whiteboard. The Grade 10s are framed by their remote classrooms, each one equipped with desks, bookshelves and projectors that display the virtual set-up in their physical one.
The students may be hours apart by road, but they share a teacher and a dress-code imposed by their Hutterian beliefs: head kerchiefs, black suspenders and ankle-length dresses.
With a selection of colourful digital pens, Collins starts to draw diagrams of triangular prisms and formulas to teach the teenagers how to calculate surface areas and volume. Voices call out answers throughout the afternoon lesson.
Pre- and mid-pandemic, Collins has taught her students online.
Distance teaching and learning — or “blended learning” as it’s become known in rural Manitoba — comes easy to her now, she says, five years after she started teaching in the south central Prairie Spirit School Division.
Rural divisions dabbled in distance learning long before it became mainstream in mid-March; in part, because they simply could not afford to hire specialized teachers to host every in-person elective in all schools. In any given year, there may only be a single student who wants to take a specific elective in a school.
Despite spanning a significant geographic section, Prairie Spirit has a fraction of the number of students in its community and colony schools (2,143 K-12 students as of September 2019) compared to city divisions. Some of its 29 schools have fewer than 100 students, who hail from everywhere between Cartwright and Haywood.
“Considering the vastness of our school division, putting a student on a bus for a very long period of time to get to a class isn’t necessarily a viable solution,” superintendent Cheryl Mangin told the Free Press. “It’s challenging in rural Manitoba, and as a result of those challenges, we got into blended learning.”
The structure allows teachers to give simultaneous lessons to students scattered across the division. Typically, the teacher is stationed in one school and offers instruction in front of a select few students, while most tune in from other classrooms. Educational assistants offer support to the satellite locations. (Prairie Rose and Southwest Horizon divisions have similar set-ups.)
Troy Sigvaldason, Prairie Spirit information technology supervisor, compares it to “a glorified surveillance system,” since schools have microphones, cameras and projectors.
The blended-learning program was first created in the division 20 years ago, using microwave networks and chunky TVs; that’s how Sigvaldason took some of his high school courses.
The model has evolved dramatically since to rely on internet connections, but he said it’s purpose remains the same: connecting students with the courses they want to take. The progress, he added, is thanks to a progressive school board that has embraced distance education.
Each course is connected to the Google Classroom platform, which serves as the hub where teachers post learning materials and sometimes, recorded sessions. During live lessons, teachers can also share their screens or view student screens. In addition to their faces on video, although students may choose to disable their screens for personal or cultural reasons.
“It’s as close to the actual classroom environment that you can kind of get. When the bell rings, classes are a-go,” Sigvaldason said.
While blended courses are still mainly for electives in community schools, Hutterian students can now access core subjects — math, science and English language arts — via livestream from their colonies.
“With a little bit of design and luck, we’ve built a pandemic-proof pedagogical system,” said James Wollman, principal at Whistling Wind School in the Millshof Colony, located in Glenboro.
Both the lockdown of colonies and small class sizes — oftentimes, under double digits — have allowed for safe, continuous in-person classes despite the fact most Manitoba schools emptied two months ago. And since many students are used to connecting with teachers online, little has changed.
Wollman said his students have, however, halted violin lessons, owing to COVID-19. Their Brandon-based instructor has temporarily stopped doing the trek to teach the 56 students in the K-12 school because of a travel ban.
Public community school students in such courses have also experienced little disruption, except for the fact they are temporarily using Chromebooks to access the blended classes at home. According to Sigvaldason, that’s where the system’s one key weakness is exposed: “We’re only as good as the internet connections around us” — and connections may not be reliable for students outside their schools.
When teacher Betty Mateychuk asked her Grade 9 English language arts class to provide feedback on the pandemic transition during a recent virtual class, not a single student expressed any real change.
They echoed each others’ comments in the virtual chatbox. Among their thoughts was: “It’s pretty much the same, only we sit further apart.”
The evidence was visible in both Collins and Mateychuk’s classes; the screens showed tiny images of students practicing social distancing at their desks.