Less wealthy, non-white students over-represented in TDSB’s COVID-19 virtual classrooms

Lower-income and non-white families are opting for the Toronto District School Board’s online-only classes during the COVID-19 pandemic at a greater rate than white and wealthier families, according to fresh data presented to trustees.

Students of South Asian and East Asian background, those with lower socio-economic status, and those whose parents don’t have a university education make up a disproportionate number of the 70,000 students enrolled in the TDSB’s virtual school system this fall, the data shows. 

Education advocates say the demographic breakdown underlines the importance of ensuring that students enrolled in online classes are not left to flounder.

“There’s a huge need for extra support for students who are trying to deal with virtual learning,” said Anna Katyn Chmielewski, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

She says some of the most disadvantaged students in Toronto are enrolled in the online-only model, while teachers are facing challenges in quickly adapting their methods to the new virtual classrooms.  

TDSB students from high-income households were more than twice as likely to choose in-person instruction over virtual learning, according to this chart presented to trustees during a school board meeting on Thursday. (TDSB)

“It’s hard for teachers to keep their eye on students who are struggling and might get left behind, even more so when those students are virtual,”  Chmielewski said in an interview with CBC News.

“This is the most urgent situation that we have in education right now and we have to make sure that we do something about it,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of the group People for Education.

“The kids who are more likely to be experiencing challenges are also more likely to be in online learning,” said Kidder in an interview.

“It’s vital that there are more supports in place for these kids so that they’re not just left on their own. Otherwise, some kids are really going to lose and this is going to have an impact on their lives.”

Kidder says it is crucial that the province ensures enough funding is provided to hire specialized staff who can help disadvantaged students cope with the challenges of learning online. 

“The kids who were already struggling are much more likely to struggle now when they’re being asked to work completely independently,” Kidder said. 

“It’s not sustainable or equitable to just assume we can rely on families to [support them academically]. These are families that are also struggling to put food on the table along with everything else.” 

Anna Katyn Chmielewski, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says there’s a ‘huge need for extra support for students who are trying to deal with virtual learning.’ (Lisa Sakulensky Photography)

According to the TDSB statistics, students from families with high socio-economic status were more than twice as likely to opt for in-person instruction than virtual learning. 

Proportionally more South Asian and East Asian students chose to attend school virtually, while more white students chose to attend school in person.

The enrolment statistics seem to suggest that Toronto’s poorer families of colour feel their kids face greater risk of catching the novel coronavirus at school than wealthier, white families.

That falls in line with data analysis by Chmielewski and her colleague Omar Khan, who found that in Toronto neighbourhoods with an above-average rate of COVID-19 infections, parents were generally more likely to opt for the learning-from-home model.

“I think a lot of parents were deciding that school was potentially more risky for their kids, and for their kids bringing home the virus,” said Khan, a refugee advocate and computer scientist. 

He says parents likely are also worried about the potential risks to their own health and to their ability to work. 

The proportion of Black students enrolled in the TDSB’s virtual learning system is the same as the proportion who’ve chosen in-person instruction. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

The findings raise questions about whether the province and school boards have done enough to reduce the risk of infections at schools in neighbourhoods most hard-hit by COVID-19. 

“You have a ton of kids who are disadvantaged staying home,” said Khan. “How do you get them back in the classroom where we know they learn best? What can we do in those schools to make parents feel safe to send their kids back?”

Other highlights from the TDSB data presented to trustees:

  • 65 per cent of students who chose in-class instruction have a parent with a university education, compared with 49 per cent of students who chose virtual learning.
  • 37 per cent of students who chose in-class instruction come from families with high socio-economic status, compared with 15 per cent of students who chose virtual learning.
  • White students make up 36 per cent of in-person instruction enrolment, compared with 14 per cent of virtual learning enrolment.  

The statistics do not show any significant difference in the proportion of Black students choosing virtual learning over in-person instruction.

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