‘The irony was not lost on me’: Technical problems plague session aimed at helping York teachers overcome challenges of hybrid learning

A hastily planned emergency training day intended to give York Region District School Board teachers additional support to cope with the challenges of hybrid teaching was bogged down by technical difficulties and network delays, leaving some educators troubleshooting for hours or booted out of sessions altogether.

All elementary and high school teachers who attended — or tried to attend — the daylong training on Friday said the constant technology issues only highlighted the impossible nature of what teachers are being asked to do every day in their classrooms — deal with technology issues while they teach students online and in-person at the same time.

“The training failed,” said Grade 4 teacher Emily Leon. “There were major technical problems to even log in. It took me over 20 minutes, trying on two other devices. Many other teachers had the same experience or couldn’t get in at all.”

“The irony was not lost on me as my hybrid students have technical issues every day and I take time away from instruction to help,” she added.

YRDSB is not the only board to implement hybrid training in the province, but it is the only one to do so at the elementary level. Most other boards have implemented hybrid in high school — as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to help give students more flexibility to go from face-to-face to online. YRDSB’s decision to implement it in elementary schools — where about 12,600 students are learning online — was made against the advice of its own internal staff .

The decision to go hybrid has caused anger and burnout among 8,000 teachers in the province’s third largest board and has upset parents who say the teaching method is difficult to sustain and that their children learning remotely will ultimately be left behind.

On Tuesday, elementary and high school union members together with dozens of educators protested outside the board offices in Aurora about ongoing problems around the hybrid model.

To appease concerns from teachers, the public and trustees, the board quickly put together a training program within a few weeks (normal planning for an event can take from six months to a year), but both teachers and internal staff criticized the training, saying it “fell short” and that it was merely a “bandage solution” to a problem that can’t be fixed.

“We feel that the board is trying to bandage over something that requires a more drastic measure,” said elementary teacher Raymond Leung.

“I feel like the board is trying to say to parents that teachers are some sort of experts now, with this one day of training. But the reality is that teachers feel more abandoned by the board,” he said.

“I feel like the board didn’t put much thinking in terms of the day. They threw some consultants into the situation and didn’t acknowledge that the hybrid situation is causing this stress,” he said.

The day’s sessions began with a six-minute video of school board director Louise Sirisko defending the board’s decision to opt for hybrid, staff told the Star.

“I know the move to hybrid learning has been another new challenge,” she said, in the video obtained by the Star. “The most important principles … are the continuation of learning for students and their connection to their home school. This allows students to stay connected to teachers and peers.”

In an interview, YRDSB’s associate director Steven Reid said the training was arranged quickly because “our educators were asking for this professional learning now, and we wanted to provide it as quickly as possible,” he said.

Reid said there were more than “20,000 streams” that logged on over the course of the day, which he said meant that at some point the 10,000 educators, including teachers and principals, were likely tuned in. “Based on those numbers, we feel that we have a large number of people who participated,” he said.

But a number of teachers and staff who spoke with the Star said the problems with the training day began even before the event started:

And a report obtained by the Star that included feedback from central staff — including those who were tasked with setting up and organizing the daylong program — said there were concerns about how the plans came together.

“We worked under unreasonable timelines to create content that would be meaningful for our colleagues. We were forced to deliver this learning in a way that made no pedagogical sense,” wrote one staff member.

Another said: “Short notice was overwhelming for the facilitators. Not enough time to digest the amount of information that was communicated. We rose to the occasion, but at what cost?”

Reid said much of the overall feedback he received was positive and useful, giving the board ideas of what they can work on in future professional learning sessions.

He said despite some of the challenges that came with planning and executing the day, it was important for the sessions to take place: “We know that there are challenges, this is a pandemic response. We aren’t expecting teachers to be experts right now. This is a learning journey. What we want to do is to continue to provide training for them to slowly and incrementally develop their practices.”

One Grade 9 high school science teacher, who asked for anonymity to speak freely, said while there is no good way to “teach hybrid,” the way the board has gone about it has come across as disrespectful to teachers and staff.

“If they had put some thought into the training, it would have made staff feel more appreciated, instead of right now, where all we are told is: we know staff are stressed out; it’s a learning curve; they will figure it out,” she said. “But you are not willing to listen to staff feedback, or include us in the discussion and ask our opinions.”

Grade 4 teacher Leon says the way the board has gone about its decision-making process around both hybrid and the most recent training has left her and her peers even more frustrated.

“I feel like we are drowning and now someone is asking if they can, maybe, help us learn to swim, when what we need is to be pulled from the water,” said Leon. “Hybrid is something that, I feel, our system will pay for, for years to come.”
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