With a very different school year looming, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents are choosing to either keep their children at home or enrol them in smaller private schools as an alternative to the public school system.
At a special meeting of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board on August 18, Wes Hahn, TLDSB’s director of education, noted that parents have opted for remote learning for about 15 per cent of enrolled students. Across all TLDSB schools, that translates to 1,600 elementary students and 530 secondary students that will be taught via a new remote school.
The board’s at-home learning option will be considered its own school with a principal, vice principal, and staff for full days of synchronous learning that coincide with what is being taught in classrooms.
“When we look at creating a remote learning environment, it’s different than the situation we were in prior from March to June. This is going to be a virtual school,” said Hahn. “The amount of time that students will be engaged in synchronous learning, which means teacher-directed learning online, will be a full day’s work. Students will be expected to complete course load and course material and subject areas just like they would if they were in a regular school setting.”
Other than hands-on courses, like construction and other technical options, online students will be able to access most of what’s available in schools, Hahn added.
Those going to class are expected to be in school all day, five days a week, for 300 minutes a day.
There have been unfounded rumours circulating about a spike of hundreds of new students enrolling in the board’s schools, but Hahn said those rumours are not true. While they’ve had some inquiries, very few have moved forward to registration.
Hahn also said that few students have been unenrolled from the board completely in favour of home schooling, “which is a real compliment to our board…eighty-five per cent of our students are choosing to come back to school and that’s very good. That’s much higher than other parts of the province and shows that people have confidence in us as a system.”
Yet there has been strong interest in a new private outdoor school—The Muskoka Academy—launching this fall, and the Muskoka Montessori School, which was established in 1999, has a record number of students on its waiting list for this fall.
The Muskoka Academy arose following an announcement earlier this year by Tawingo College that it would be closing, although the idea for the new school had been on the mind of founder Sheena Repath, whose son attended Tawingo, for some time.
“I’m very passionate about community,” said Repath. “We all have the same potential. It doesn’t matter where you came from or where you live.”
Repath is an entrepreneur and had already been investigating an affordable housing project, which would have included a school, when she learned about Tawingo’s closure. “It was always in the back of my mind. It’s not my background at all—I’m in innovation, I’m in manufacturing and products, I’ve just always been super passionate about people and community.”
The Muskoka Academy will follow a forest school model. “What if every kid got to go outside and play?” said Repath. “What if every kid didn’t have to be told, ‘sit down, be quiet, don’t move, don’t run’—you know, sitting in those boxes. I didn’t thrive in that environment. With Tawingo, we really got a taste of what could happen for kids when they are outside learning for the majority of the day.”
Repath said she saw a tremendous change in her son, Jacob, when he attended Tawingo’s kindergarten program which was primarily held outdoors. “He was so confident and had his own ideas. It was mind-blowing and I thought, ‘maybe we could do that for all kids in K to 8 and create this outdoor school where all the kids are outdoors’…we built [The Muskoka Academy] on the premise of giving all kids the opportunity to get outside, explore, and find a learning model that works for them.”
The Muskoka Academy will include three pods for students—still to be determined based on final registration numbers but will likely be divided into junior and senior kindergarten, grades 1-4, and grades 5-8—taught by former Tawingo teachers Alberta Robinet, Jeff Laughton, and Fraser McTurk under the guidance of principal Paula White.
“[Students] are going to do the majority of their learning outside in the forest,” said Repath. “It’s still the same curriculum the province provides for our public schools, just delivered in a slightly different way…in nature in a way that they can move their bodies, they can touch and feel things.”
Although The Muskoka Academy is currently a private school, Repath’s goal is that it will one day be available to all.
The Muskoka Academy’s location is still being finalized, but registration is well underway. For more information, contact Sheena Repath at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Muskoka Montessori School has seen interest in enrollment surge this year as well, said its co-principal, Jennifer Daynard.
“We’ve had a phenomenal amount of calls and emails from people interested [in Montessori]this year,” said Daynard. “We would love to be able to help every child.” There is a waiting list for the not-for-profit school’s grades 1 through 8, but a few spots remain for the casa (preschool) program for ages three to five.
This year, Montessori students will be spending more time outside on the school’s Chub Lake Road property, while continuing to follow Montessori principles which emphasize individual, self-directed learning. Students spend their time in a mixed-age setting and choose how to spend their days except when they are periodically called to small group sessions. Older students are leaders, with the teacher acting as a guide. Within the Montessori method, students progress at their own pace.
“We seek to inspire them with big concepts,” said Daynard. Montessori education is “designed to bring peace in the world through education. We strive for community rather than competition. It’s a place where each child can be themselves and be comfortable here with who they are. We find that when people see what we do and how well Montessori works for children, they stay.”
For more information about the Muskoka Montessori School, visit muskokamontessori.ca.
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