At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the term ‘emergency remote teaching’ emerged to describe what was occurring in education at all levels as schools shuttered their doors to in-person learning. Hodges et al. (2020) described emergency remote teaching as:
a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated. The primary objective in these circumstances is not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis. (para. 13)
This was contrasted with online learning, which was based on purposeful instructional planning, and a systematic model of administrative procedures and course development. Online learning also requires the careful consideration of various pedagogical strategies combined with the purposeful selection of technology tools, and the determination of which are best suited to the specific affordances and challenges of local delivery mediums, typically lacking in the pandemic’s remote teaching. Finally, careful planning for online learning also requires that teachers be appropriately trained to use the tools available and apply them effectively to facilitate student learning.
Emergency remote teaching is the first of four phases of educator’s response to the pandemic as described by Barbour et al. (2020c) (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Four phases of educational response to COVID-19 in terms of remote and online learning adoption.
Phase 1: Rapid Transition to Remote Teaching and Learning. Schools making an all hands on deck movement to remote delivery, often relying on synchronous video, with massive changes in just four weeks. Educators do whatever they can to have some educational presence for all classes online.
Phase 2: (Re) Adding Basics. Schools must (re)add basics into emergency course transitions: course navigation, equitable access addressing lack of reliable computer and broadband, support for students with disabilities, academic integrity. Schools must start to more fully address the question of quality of emergency online delivery of courses, as well as true contingency planning.
Phase 3: Extended Transition During Continued Turmoil. Schools must be prepared to support students for a full school year, and be prepared for online delivery – even if starting as face-to-face. During this phase, districts put plans in place to determine the mode of instruction based on the current realities of the pandemic. These plans should include adequate professional learning for teachers to ensure they have the skills and pedagogical knowledge to be able to implement the different instructional plans effectively.
Phase 4: Emerging New Normal. This phase will have unknown levels of online learning adoption, but it is likely that it will be higher than pre-COVID-19 days. Schools must have new levels of online learning infrastructure to reliably support students. Additionally, as teachers and students become more comfortable with learning using these tools, the chance that they will continue to use them post-pandemic increases significantly.
During the second phase, schools and teachers begin to shift focus to prescribed curriculum, incorporate suitable resources, and address equity issues (as the immediate sense of urgency has passed), but the type of distance education being provided may still be in the “emergency remote teaching” stage. Although Phase 2 may have also settled somewhat into more of a temporary ‘remote learning’ stage, because it is still assumed that remote learning would be abandoned once the crisis is over. Phase 3 is a period where schools ‘toggle’ between in person learning to remote learning as “states of lockdown and openness, depending on their sense of epidemiological data and practical feasibility” persist (Alexander, 2020, para. 32). Once again, it is remote learning – and not online learning – because it is still viewed as temporary in nature. At some point, once the crisis has passed, schools will emerge into Phase 4 where there we will be a ‘new normal’ proportion of online learning that exists within the K-12 system.
Closure in Spring 2020
Spring 2020 was the first time in modern history that all schools across any province or territory were closed for an indefinite amount of time. As Nagle et al. (2020a) reported, emergency remote teaching flourished as jurisdictions all across Canada scrambled to provide online tools, course content, and devices to all teachers to provide some modicum of continuity of learning for students when schools suddenly closed in March (see Table 1).
Table 1. Key emergency remote teaching dates
|Jurisdiction||School closed||Remote teaching began||Year-end-status|
|NL||March 17||April 2||Ended early on June 5|
|NS||March 15||April 8|
|PE||March 23||April 6|
|NB||March 13||April 2|
|QC||March 16||March 30||Re-opened May 11 outside Montreal|
|ON||March 23||April 6|
|MB||March 20||March 30|
|SK||March 20||March 30|
|AB||March 16||March 20|
|BC||March 17||March 27||Re-opened June 1|
|YT||March 18||April 16|
|NT||March 16||April 14|
|NU||March 17||April 21|
The remote teaching that began during Spring 2020 was emergency remote teaching (or consistent with Phase 1 as described in Figure 1). It was an attempt to connect with students remotely to create some type of educational presence. As improvements to the learning experience were made (e.g., digital devices distributed to students, resources published on websites, digital tools employed, and some training offered to teachers), equity of access and the quality of practice improved somewhat, this ‘remote learning’ could be described as transitioning to Phase 2 – although this transition was not consistent across all jurisdictions.
Preparation to Re-open for Fall 2020
During the summer of 2020 little public consideration was given to planning for a return to remote learning in many of the provinces and territories. The spread of COVID-19 had ‘flattened’ or begun diminishing in most jurisdictions and Ministry plans shifted to focusing on a ‘safe’ return to school buildings. This included efforts and planning focused on designing school building entries, student flow through buildings, cleaning protocols for all surfaces, setting requirements for student social distancing as well as the organization of students into cohort groups and timetables for their classes and courses. In short, little planning or preparation (e.g., teacher training, creation or expansion of digital learning spaces, investment in expansion of robust online learning programs, etc.) was provided with the focus clearly on a return to classrooms despite epidemiological modelling that pointed to continuing school closures.
As full-time distance/online learning has been available to K-12 students in most jurisdictions for some time, many education authorities provided parents/guardians the option to enroll their students in existing full-time distance, online learning opportunities (see Table 2).
Table 2. Learning Options Planned for Fall 2020 by Jurisdiction (Nagle et al, 2020b)
|BC||Fully in-person learning with distance learning an option|
|AB||Fully in-person with distance learning an option|
|SK||Fully in-person; remote learning for elementary and asynchronous and for secondary, synchronous blended learning through the Online Learning Center|
|MB||Fully in-person; blended options for any student sick with COVID-19 or secondary students|
|ON||Fully in-person for grades K-8; remote for grades K-12 with either offline packages or online synchronous and asynchronous learning for grades 9-12 with asynchronous and synchronous learning|
|QC||Fully in-person for elementary; fully in-person or blended for secondary|
|NB||Fully in-person; remote paper-based for grades K-2; similar with some online technology for grades 3-5; technology-based asynchronous and synchronous for grades 6-8; blended with asynchronous and synchronous for grades 9-12|
|NL||Fully in-person instruction; remote learning for students home due to COVID-19|
|YT||Fully in-person for grades K-9; Fully in-person in rural areas for grades 10-12; Whitehorse area offers a blended asynchronous and synchronous approach|
|NT||Fully in-person for K-9; grades 10-12 can choose fully in-person or blended|
In most cases, these distance/online learning opportunities were provided by existing providers – some of whom had a history of providing supplemental and full-time learning opportunities for over two decades. There were also instances where school boards and districts established their own distance education programs over the summer of 2020 – sometimes in partnership with an existing K-12 distance/online learning program and sometimes on their own. However, for a variety of reasons (e.g., presence of immune-compromised family members in the household, general public health concerns about the community or region, concerns about the disruption from sudden school lock-downs and/or the back and forth between in-person and remote learning, etc.), many parents/guardians decided their children would complete all of their learning at a distance online. This parental choice often overwhelmed existing distance/online learning programs who were unprepared for the level of growth that was experienced, and, for newly created district-programs, it was crushing. In both instances, the unexpected growth often resulted in a poorer quality of distance/online learning compared to previous years (e.g., larger class sizes, last minute hiring of teachers, lack of time to properly train new teachers, etc.).
While most jurisdictions allowed parents to choose between full-time distance/online learning and full-time classroom-based learning, few jurisdictions announced school opening plans for Fall 2020 that included options for hybrid forms of learning, where some students learned in school while others remained at home. Those jurisdictions that did announce plans for remote learning generally only included a description of the conditions under which schools would transition to it. In terms of how remote learning was to be operationalized, it was generally expected to be a continuation of how the 2019-20 school year ended. Further, in most cases school districts and boards were left to determine their own hybrid learning plans, including what form hybrid learning might be used. In reality, little attention was paid to Phase 3 in the model which envisioned a ‘toggle’ year shifting between in person and remote learning.
The 2020-21 School Year
While the continuing pandemic and requirement for physical distancing put restrictions on how the return to school would occur, the predominant theme and planning for most provincial and territorial government leaders remained focused on keeping schools ‘safe’ and the continuation of in-person learning. Announced efforts were focused on designing entries, flow through buildings, cleaning protocols, social distancing, and rules regarding the wearing of masks while in school buildings. To manage this, in many jurisdictions students were organized into cohort groups to minimize the number of contacts (Nagle et al, 2020b). As well, timetables for classes (e.g., school entries, recesses, class and course transitions, etc.) were planned to limit class size which did have implications for remote learning. The focus throughout most of the school year was on meeting federal and provincial/territorial health regulations and re-establishing both social and economic balance, with keeping schools open being the lynchpin. While Saskatchewan and British Columbia delayed planned school opening dates by two to five days to better prepare school buildings and protocols, Ontario was the only jurisdiction that planned a differentiated start date based on the modality of instruction. The delay for those beginning the school year in a remote learning context was twice as long or more than compared to students who began their school year in the classroom (i.e., who also had a planned delay of one week). Part of this delay was due in part to the increase in the number of parents demanding online learning at the last minute and provided time for school boards to address that demand.
As the new school year launched, it became apparent that the increase in community and school COVID outbreaks were not thoroughly planned for, despite epidemiological modelling that suggested increasing transmission with children back in school and parents at work, not to mention the increase of indoor gatherings as the weather got colder (Gillis, 2021). Looking back, there certainly was limited teacher training in preparation for the hybrid and remote learning that was to come. It seemed the focus on getting students in school buildings took away attention to continuity of learning based on what might (or as epidemiologists warned was likely going to) happen. In retrospect, temporarily delaying school openings at the start of the school year, or after the return from planned closures (e.g., summer and/or winter holidays or spring break), to support planned teacher training might have helped improve continuity of learning during forced closures during the school year.
During the 2020-21 school year several new learning models were created that combined aspects of the different mediums to accommodate various public health measures (e.g., mask wearing, physical and social distancing, restricted class size, etc.). The measures related to physical distancing and restricted class size forced some schools to adopt learning models where students were only in the physical classroom a certain portion of time, or different groups of students were in the classroom while the rest of the students were at home and learning remotely. While in-person and distance/online learning existed before the pandemic and research had identified effective learning models, the remote learning models – as well as the hybrid learning and concurrent teaching – that emerged during the pandemic were not well known and had little or no research into their efficacy. Figure 2 provides a description of the five different learning models through which K-12 education was provided.
Figure 2. Various learning models available during the 2020-21 school year
In-person learning is the traditional model of learning where students are enrolled in a brick-and-mortar school and engage in their learning with teachers located at their school in a typical classroom setting.
Distance/online learning is also a traditional model of learning that has existed for the past two and a half decades where the student and teacher were geographically separated, often for one or two courses.
Hybrid learning was a model where one group of students, or a cohort, learned in-person in their classroom some of the time while another group of students were learning at home, both instructed by the same classroom-based teacher. In most instances the two cohort groups would alternate between in-person and at-home learning (e.g., one day in-person, the next day at a distance, etc.).
Concurrent teaching (a form of hybrid learning also called co-seating or co-locating) was a model where the classroom-based teacher taught some students who were in-person with the teacher in the physical classroom (i.e., ‘roomies’), and at the same time the teacher’s instruction was being streamed live through a web conferencing software to other students logged in at home (i.e., ‘zoomies’).
Remote learning was a model of distance/online learning designed to be temporary in nature, and was generally only used when in-person learning was not an option due to the local/regional epidemiology. (Nagle et al., 2021, pp. 5-7)
The five earlier CANeLearn reports were all designed to simply document public actions and pronouncements of various jurisdictions during these phases and were not designed to assess the educational response various governments have made during the pandemic (in fact much of the commentary about these responses in this report is provided as new perspectives on these actions and pronouncements). For example, there has not been a systematic examination of whether teachers reported to not being adequately trained to design, deliver, and support learning remotely (as there has been in the United States – see Diliberti & Kaufman, 2020 as one example). While Ministries of Health provided reports of community spread of the virus, there have been no systematic research studies into whether reopening schools increased the spread of COVID-19 (as there has been in both Europe and the United States – see Casini & Roccett, 2021; Courtemanche, 2021; Goldhaber et al., 2021; Harris et al., 2021; Riley et al., 2020 as example). Additionally, there has been no discussion of the spread of the disease in schools included in any of the previous CANeLearn reports. However, as was noted in the CANeLearn report on the 2020-21 school year (Nagle et al., 2021), that research from other jurisdictions did find that teachers were generally unprepared to engage in remote learning and that reopening of schools for in person learning did contribute to community transmission.
As was also noted in the CANeLearn report on the 2020-21 school year, jurisdictions that enacted quick, stringent, and sustained restrictions had lower case counts and death rates than jurisdictions that were slower to bring in restrictions or brought in looser restrictions (Ismail et al., 2021; Kochańczyk & Lipniacki, 2021; Larosa et al., 2020), and also had fewer restricted days overall (e.g., fewer school closures). Figure 3 provides a calculation completed by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table of the number of weeks schools were closed during the 2020-21 school year (Gallagher-Mackay et al., 2021), which is worth considering as readers reflect on the descriptions provided in Toggling between Lockdowns: Canadian Responses for Continuity of Learning in the 2020-21 School Year (Nagle et al., 2021).
Figure 3. Time lost to provincewide school closures for each province or territory across Canada for the 2020-21 school year
As noted in the figure, school closures varied among provinces and territories, but the local impact to students varied more widely than what is summarized above. For example, in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Quebec schools remained mostly open with only local school closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks (Subramanian, 2021). However, in Ontario province-wide lockdowns were announced January 2021 and on April 12, 2021 all provincial schools returned to remote learning and schools remained closed for the rest of the school year (Nagle et al, 2021). As COVID transmission varied in the provinces and territories, so did health regulations. This ultimately led to, and more importantly directly influenced, decisions for school lockdowns and a return to remote learning.
Toggling Toward a ‘New Normal’
As the 2020-21 school year progressed, it was evident lessons that could, or should, have been learned during the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching in Spring 2020 had not been heeded in all provinces and territories. The reality was that some jurisdictions simply did not put in place the necessary planning or preparation to allow the 2020-21 school year to proceed in the expected ‘toggle term’ fashion – as envisioned by Phase 3 of the educational response to COVID-19 (see Figure 1 above). While some schools remained open throughout the entire 2020-21 school year and others offered robust online learning instruction, some jurisdictions experienced province-wide school closures for up to 19 weeks with limited success with remote learning due to a lack of planning and teacher training. Even those schools that remained open, often used a model of hybrid learning that boards/districts and teachers were unprepared to implement with the level of fidelity needed to ensure that students had an equitable learning experience to the in person, classroom-based context (Stewart, 2021; Wong, 2021b).
While it may be safe to say that in many jurisdictions teachers lacked the training and were unprepared to transition to remote learning, this was not the case in other jurisdictions. Some provinces and territories were potentially much better positioned to provide continuity of learning than others. For example, Nova Scotia extended their December 2020 holiday break for students by one week, and set province-wide teacher professional development during the first week of January 2021 that covered a variety of topics (including social emotional learning and technology). Further, guidelines were announced for the 2020-21 school year that established minimum hours for synchronous remote learning and asynchronous learning. The Ministry of Education also provided all teachers access to their eLearning site and distributed assistive technologies for students requiring them.
Similarly, British Columbia delayed implementing changes to its online learning programs (Government of British Columbia, 2021a) which enabled many of the 69 public and independent online schools to enroll students whose parents/guardians preferred them to learn from home (Barbour et al., 2020a). British Columbia also continued with student cohorts or ‘learning groups’ for in-school learning and for secondary students a hybrid learning model was implemented with cohort groups alternating in-school attendance and remote learning. Teachers were required to transition learning materials to a learning management system (such as Moodle, Google Classroom, or Microsoft Teams). As such, teachers were able to track student progress whether they were attending at school or while they were learning remotely. It is also worth noting that there were no province-wide school closures in the 2020-21 school year.
Arguably, both British Columbia’s and Nova Scotia’s provincial models could support ‘toggling’ between in-school and online/remote learning options as described in Phase 4 of Figure 1. However, it is not entirely clear to what degree that might have occurred or how effective the practices were. Some of the initial information indicated that British Columbia saw a slight increase in classroom attendance (Montreuil et al., 2021), as well as the number of students traditionally learning online (i.e., approximately 10 percent of the student population), but also found large gaps and decreases in both attendance and achievement for Indigenous students.
 See also Appendix A in Nagle et al. (2021) for the Health Canada data from the 2020-21 school year.