Online Education

Virtual school takes the lead in Quebec

School attendance may be compulsory by law, but more than 3,500 primary and secondary school students are taking classes remotely, even though they have no medical conditions that would put them at risk of COVID-19.

According to what Obligation learned, a three-year pilot project set up by Quebec is opening the door to online education for these thousands of select students. To qualify, parents must demonstrate that a virtual school is the best choice for their child due to a range of circumstances: bullying at school, severe anxiety, behavioral or learning difficulties, autism, giftedness, distance from major centers or participation in sports studies or artistic study programs requiring regular absence from classes.

This is a shift from distance education, which since the beginning of the pandemic has only been offered for health reasons – and with a medical certificate. With this new pilot project, Quebec is now offering a virtual school to “other” children who don’t fit the school mold in the present. But under strict conditions.

The program allows distance learning for “students who cannot attend school because they must receive specialized health care or social services,” explains a letter from the Deputy Minister of Education, Alain Sans Cartier, sent to the virtual school established under Law no. three-year pilot project.

“The choice to use such remote services in these situations must be based on an analysis of the individual needs of each of the students concerned,” he adds.

The Ministry of Education specifies that approximately 3,500 primary and secondary school pupils are studying remotely within 56 pilot projects. This initiative (from September 2021 to June 2024) is part of the Digital Plan, which aims to “support the deployment of distance education (FAD) in primary and secondary education. […] The conclusions of this project will contribute to defining the future direction of the Ministry. »

Académie Juillet, a private primary school in Candiac, Montérégie, is one of the facilities authorized to expand its online course offering as part of a pilot project. The Academy has created a formal virtual school that can accommodate 16 students in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They are grouped into one class. The teacher lives in La Baie, in Saguenay. Students live in 16 different cities.

“It works really well. We see a significant improvement in the motivation and success of our virtual school students,” says Julie Gagné, Deputy Director of Académie Juillet.

“We are realists, we know that face to face is good. Our goal is to connect the students we have been missing in the educational network. If we can give them a positive experience for a year or two and then go back to school in the present, so much the better,” he adds.

Students under supervision

Parents of virtual school students are excited. Vanessa Munoz notes that distance learning is tailored “for the moment” to her 10-year-old daughter’s needs. This mildly autistic student experienced harassment at her neighborhood school in the Laurentians, north of Montreal.

The girl is independent, but needs support in the classroom. However, professional services were sorely lacking in his public school. Vanessa Munoz believes her daughter is better supervised with a virtual school. He appreciates the availability and friendliness of the home teacher, who has time to devote himself to each of the students.

“My daughter can concentrate on the material she is supposed to learn. Regular schools are not suitable for children who are a little different. If you don’t “fit” the mold, you don’t have an education that meets your needs,” laments the mother of the family.

Hugo Vézina has also noticed an improvement in his 9-year-old son’s morale since taking all his courses online. The boy was bullied at school, but “my phone calls were never taken seriously,” he says. The virtual school also offers better supervision for a boy who needs close monitoring to succeed, notes the father, who lives in Chaudière-Appalaches, south of Quebec.

Although they are pleased, both parents point out that July Academy’s $6,795-a-year fees are a significant amount compared to a free state school. They want the public network to be more open to tailor-made solutions for students with special needs. Virtual school is one of these innovative ideas.

“I see it as a rescue. We have students who have not done well in school and for whom distance learning is a springboard to get back to face-to-face,” says Maryline Dallaire, teacher of 16 students at the July Academy virtual school.

You can hear the emotion when she says that one of her students, who had great difficulty reading, can now read the instructions that all the children in the class have been given. Or by evoking this little girl who confided in the school context “for the first time in her life she feels in her place”.

“I have time to clearly identify the interests of my students. We discuss, we share. I am very happy when I manage to capture their attention,” says the thirty-year-old teacher, mother of three children.

The blind spot of the virtual school is the lack of socialization with real people, and not through the screen, Maryline Dallaire believes. “Kids can play with their neighbors, but it’s not like school,” he says.

Temporary solution

Far from being anecdotal, this lack of socialization represents a major shortcoming in distance learning, says Steve Bissonnette, a professor in TELUQ’s Department of Education. Without breaks, extracurricular activities and limited virtual interaction, children do not have access to one of the main missions of education – to learn about life in society.

The professor is in a good position to talk about the virtual school: he teaches at a university created specifically to offer distance learning courses. “This model is for autonomous and responsible adults, not elementary school children,” says Mr. Bissonnette.

He dares to believe that Quebec will avoid the pitfalls of large virtual schools, which are a “monumental failure” in the United States. “Researchers have recommended a moratorium to stop the development of these types of schools in the United States, the results are so bad,” he said.

In an ideal world, a virtual school is a “last resort” in a crisis situation, for example during the subsequent waves of a pandemic. “Distance education is better than none. If used well and temporarily, I think it has its place. But it shouldn’t become the whim of parents who think it’s better for their child in the long run,” says Steve Bissonnette.

Even bullied students are at risk of being pulled out of school for an extended period of time, he said. “Isolating a child does not allow him to develop the means to solve his problems. If we take him out of school [en lui enseignant à distance] or if we change schools, the bullying will likely start again when he returns to society. You have to teach him ways to respond so he doesn’t fall back into the same thing pattern. »

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