Why remote learning won’t be ‘one size fits all’
Countless Canadians got a rough introduction to online education when the pandemic closed classrooms this spring and forced educators into rapid implementation of “emergency learning at home.” Now, as Canadian school districts grapple with a physical return to class in September, thousands of families across the country have opted to continue with distance schooling — but questions remain about what that will entail.
In different regions, districts are centralizing their virtual offerings. The Calgary Catholic School District, for example, created a whole new virtual elementary school named Saint Isidore, after the seventh-century scholar and bishop whom the late Pope John Paul II dubbed “the patron saint of the internet.” Students won’t be allowed to bounce between online and in-class learning. Generally, school divisions, districts and boards are saying that families who register for the remote option can change to in-person only at set times, for instance, at the end of a reporting term.
But are schools ready? E-learning specialist Marina Milner-Bolotin foresees several challenges, beginning with technological concerns for both students and teachers — everything from familiarity with online tools to reliable internet connections and access to devices. Educators will need to not only learn how to teach students online but also how to engage and assess them online, and evaluate the availability of at-home support. “Online education requires parental involvement at a very different level than face-to-face,” said Milner-Bolotin, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in STEM education and technology in teaching.
Inconsistency in direct communication between teachers and students this spring sparked talk about the need for “live, synchronous delivery.” In general, e-learning can be synchronous or asynchronous: everyone logs in at the same time or lessons are accessed on demand, writes CBC’s Jessica Wong. One benefit of synchronous classes is that students can ask teachers questions right away — but Milner-Bolotin said there can be challenges such as internet outages. Asynchronous delivery, on the other hand, allows students to access lessons at a time suited to them, which can be helpful in a household juggling devices between siblings or between parents and kids. Milner-Bolotin prefers a blend of the two delivery methods.
However, not all teachers have prior expertise in online learning. Sarah Barrett, an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, surveyed more than 760 K-12 educators in Ontario and interviewed more than four dozen. Barrett said she learned teachers aren’t as concerned about training on specific platforms; rather, they want e-learning coaches and facilitators to be available to support them. “They need those teachers that do have the knowledge, that are certified and have knowledge of e-learning, understanding of subject-specific requirements and age-group requirements,” Barrett said.
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Hong Kong team reports first documented coronavirus reinfection in patient
A Hong Kong man who recovered from COVID-19 was infected again 4½ months later in the first documented instance of human reinfection, researchers at the University of Hong Kong said on Monday. The findings indicate the disease, which has killed more than 800,000 people worldwide, may continue to spread amongst the global population despite herd immunity, they said. The 33-year-old man was cleared of COVID-19 and discharged from a hospital in April but tested positive again after returning from Spain via Britain on Aug. 15.
The patient had appeared to be previously healthy, researchers said in the paper, which was accepted by the international medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, which hasn’t yet been published. He was found to have contracted a different coronavirus strain from the one he had previously contracted and remained asymptomatic for the second infection. “The finding does not mean taking vaccines will be useless,” Dr. Kai-Wang To, one of the leading authors of the paper, told Reuters. “Immunity induced by vaccination can be different from those induced by natural infection.” Researchers will need to wait for the results of vaccine trials to see how well they work, he said.
Instances of people discharged from hospitals and testing positive again for COVID-19 infection have been reported in mainland China. However, in those cases it was not clear whether they had contracted the virus again after full recovery — as happened to the Hong Kong patient — or still had the virus in their body from the initial infection. World Health Organization epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said on Monday that there was no need to jump to any conclusions in response to the Hong Kong case. “There’s been more than 24 million cases reported to date,” Van Kerkhove told a news conference in Geneva when asked about the matter. “We need to look at something like this on a population level.”
Made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine effort slowed by manufacturing delay
Despite long workdays and promising early results, researchers in Saskatoon say a lack of manufacturing capacity is slowing down their efforts at a made-in-Canada vaccine — something that matters given concerns over “vaccine nationalism,” which could prevent access to a product that’s not made at home. Researchers at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) were always at the mercy of external factors like global politics and manufacturing capacity. Now, director Volker Gerdts said the timeline of a VIDO-InterVac vaccine being ready to manufacture, if it’s successful, has been delayed by both.
Before it can proceed to human clinical trials, the facility needs to complete more studies using higher-grade materials than what they needed for their early animal studies. But waiting for busy manufacturers to provide them is holding up the process. Had the federal government invested more in a proposed manufacturing facility at VIDO-InterVac before the pandemic, Gerdts said, a Canadian vaccine would be at the front of the race. “We’ve been telling the government, and I don’t want to use this as a blaming, but we have raised the issue of Canada’s unpreparedness for pandemic diseases for quite a while,” Gerdts said. “You need to have manufacturing capacity. You need to have the ability to quickly respond.”
The VIDO-InterVac vaccine is made with the spike protein on the outside of SARS-CoV-2. If successful, it would work by using that protein to trick the immune system into thinking it has COVID-19 so it will generate the antibodies and T-cells that fight the virus. In June, Gerdts laid out his ideal timeline for progressing to human clinical trials and then manufacturing, if all went well: begin manufacturing in the new year to have 10-20 million doses by March or April 2021. But now, he expects manufacturing to begin in June 2021 at the earliest. Gerdts said he is not concerned about others getting to make a vaccine first, because the world needs multiple vaccines with different abilities. But losing momentum, he fears, could lead the government to invest in other vaccines that are progressing faster, potentially from international companies outside Canada.
Manitoba announces $52 million for back-to-school costs amid rising COVID-19 case numbers
Manitoba schools will have an extra $52 million to draw from to pay for masks, transportation and extra cleaning as students prepare to head back to class amid rising COVID-19 case numbers. The new money “will mean that there is significant resources available to meet the demands that the pandemic is putting on our schools,” Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said at a news conference Monday morning. Some of that money will be available to hire additional staff to cover an expected rise in absenteeism.
In addition to filling in gaps created by teacher and staff leave, the new money can be used to help cover additional costs associated with purchasing personal protective equipment, sanitization and transporting students to and from school. The province has purchased 4.7 million masks for schools to hand out to students who need them, although families are asked to provide their own masks for students to wear. Today’s announcement comes after a weekend of record-setting increases in the announced number of new COVID-19 cases. Goertzen didn’t say whether rising numbers in places like Brandon would require a return to at-home learning, but he said school divisions have already drawn up plans for that, just in case.
The union representing teachers in Manitoba, educators and parents has called on the province to provide funding to hire more staff in order to reduce class sizes and ensure there is an adequate supply of substitutes and educational assistants. Today’s announcement made no mention of hiring more staff to reduce class sizes. Public health officials recommend students stay at least two metres apart whenever possible, but current guidelines set a minimum distance of only one metre in classrooms. Goertzen would not commit to limiting the number of schools substitutes could work in, saying the interaction between teachers and students is not the same as in other settings, such as personal care homes, where physical distance between staff and clients can be hard to maintain.
WHO cautious on COVID-19 plasma treatment after U.S. issues emergency authorization
The World Health Organization was cautious on Monday about endorsing the use of recovered COVID-19 patients’ plasma to treat those who are ill, saying evidence it works remains “low quality” even as the United States issued emergency authorization for such therapies. So-called convalescent plasma, which has long been used to treat diseases, has emerged as the latest political flashpoint in the race to find therapies for COVID-19.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) on Sunday authorized its use after U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the agency for impeding the rollout of vaccines and therapeutics for political reasons. The technique involves taking antibody-rich plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and giving it to those who are suffering from severe active infections in hopes they will recover more quickly. The U.S. National Institutes of Health this month announced it was giving several million dollars toward a mid-stage convalescent plasma trial.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said only a few clinical trials of convalescent plasma have produced results, and the evidence, at least so far, has not been convincing enough to endorse it beyond use as an experimental therapy. While a few trials have shown some benefit, she said, they have been small and their data, so far, is inconclusive. WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward said that beyond plasma’s efficacy, there were also potential safety risks that must be vetted. “There are a number of side-effects,” Aylward said, ranging from mild fevers to severe lung injuries or circulatory overload. “For that reason, the clinical trial results are extremely important.”
Worried about not having enough back-to-school PPE? A group of Toronto teachers is trying to help
A Toronto high school teacher and a group of colleagues have launched Love Masks, an initiative that takes new, donated masks and distributes them to schools, community organizations or directly to families in need. “I know that we have lots of students whose families can’t afford to have enough masks to wear them safely,” said Rachel Thomas, who teaches history, geography and special education at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough.
People can donate handmade or store-bought masks at designated locations, which are listed on the initiative’s website. Families in need and school staff will then pick up masks at those spots, or reach out to organizers to have the masks delivered. Since Aug. 19, the day the initiative was officially launched, Thomas said she has been able to purchase 165 masks thanks to donations.
But what about free masks supplied by school boards? Public and Catholic schools boards in Toronto say they will be providing free ones, but Thomas said it likely won’t be enough. “Masks are going to be the new lost mitten or lost pencil this year,” she said, adding that she personally knows many families who are already struggling financially. “I don’t want the safety of children — with parents having to buy masks — [to] be another hurdle for lower-income families.”
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