Hamilton’s public board facing virtual school delays due to growth in student demand

Elsa Hayes has waited a week, but on Tuesday, the three-year-old junior kindergarten student finally had her first class.

Her mother, Christina, told CBC it was a relief given how many delays came their way.

“I’m very frustrated … the lack of information, constantly pushing things further back … we don’t want her to fall behind,” her mother, Christina, told CBC on Monday.

“I just want her to start learning.”

Other families are still waiting as the end of September approaches.

Some of the virtual classes in Hamilton’s public school board still haven’t started because of more students enrolling into the online alternative as COVID-19 cases pop up in local schools. High school students don’t have a virtual school.

Here’s more back-to-school coverage:

In a letter to parents on Monday, the board said it would have all classes set up by Friday. That means a first point of contact with teachers — and in the best case scenario, a first class.

“Because of the tremendous demand for remote learning, it is taking longer than anticipated to build the Remote Day School’s classes, hire and prepare teachers, and begin the teaching and learning process,” reads the letter from principals of the virtual school at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

“This has required us to revise our timelines of when all students will be learning. We have made strides over the weekend to solve some of the staffing challenges and students will begin their class once a teacher is available and ready to start.”

On Sept. 18, another letter to families noted more than 2,000 students switched to online learning (from 6,300 students at the end of August to roughly 8,700 students on Monday). To accommodate, the board had to hire and train more teachers.

The board had previously said classes would be ready by last Wednesday.

INTERACTIVE | Use this map to find COVID-19 cases in local schools

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers’ Local union, told CBC on Tuesday morning he has heard about the challenges in the virtual school as well.

“Here we are three-and-a-half weeks into the month and we’re still concerned there’s little learning going on,” he said.

“Some classes have managed to get off the ground, others not so much.”

Bill Torrens, HWDSB’s superintendent of student achievement and programs, told CBC they’ve had to create the virtual school in about three weeks, all while more students enrol and amp up the demand for new educators and classes.

“In putting that all together, the work has simply gone slower than we expected,” he explained on Tuesday afternoon.

“More than half of teachers that have reported in for the day are teaching but we’re short some staff, there is some hiring going on right now.”

Ashley St John speaks to Dianne Buckner about the postponement and what this means for her blended family.  6:58

Each staff member needs two or three days of training in addition to going through the technology and human resources processes. Still, Torrens was apologetic and virtual school students will be catch up to in-person learners.

“We apologize for the delays and certainly, the scope and demand for the remote school was larger than we had anticipated … we ask for their patience and understanding,” he said.

“I want to reassure parents we’re going to support our educators in delivering learning. Our direction has been to focus on literacy and numeracy to make sure those fundamental pieces are being addressed and we’ll add other subject areas as the semester progresses. 

Despite the challenges, Hayes said Elsa’s first day of school wasn’t perfect but seemed to be going OK.

“Trying to get everyone coordinated with having when to have your microphone on and off and video took some time. Then one of the teachers, her microphone wasn’t working for some reason,” she explained.

“Overall, it’s been going well.”

Attention parents, students and teachers: We want to hear from you!

We hope you’ll use this form to tell us about school conditions, how classes are going or whatever other pressing issues are on your mind this September in Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines and Burlington.

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