ORILLIA, ONT. -- Kitchen tables, bedrooms, and home offices across Simcoe-Muskoka became makeshift classrooms Monday as students logged on to start their school year.

There are 4,500 students with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) who are enrolled in a remote learning program. Virtual learning at the Simcoe County District School Board starts next week.

"It's going to be weird to wake up early again, but it's good to get back into a routine. I haven't had that the last couple months," says grade 12 student Sabrina Campoli after a morning math class over Zoom.

Remote students at the Catholic board have than five hours of instruction every day, with at least three hours of that in real-time or synchronous learning.

Campoli and 30 other students in a virtual advanced mathematics course will only ever interact with teacher Jeff Cole through a screen.

"We can do a lot of the same things we need to do in a math class, like reviewing functions, equations, and things of that nature," Cole says.

The longtime educator says he did some experimentation with the best ways to teach at a distance after Ontario schools closed in March.

"Strictly asynchronous learning did not really work for the kids. They were looking for that social interaction, even if it was remote and online. So incorporating some Google meets and Zoom meets into my teaching was key to keeping them engaged and keeping that relationship going."

Students also learned from the distanced education they received earlier this year.

"It gave me a new way of learning that ended up working a lot better for me than in-class did," says grade 12 student Evan MacKay.

Cole concedes that getting kids to pipe up if they're struggling may be difficult in a virtual class.

"What I'm going to try to do is break the class down and use some break out groups to try to reach the kids who might be struggling. But certainly, if they're reticent to communicating with me in the online format, that's something I'm going to have to work on to ensure that I do reach them."

Michelle Vinneau of Tottenham says she's pleased with how the first day of remote learning played out for her three children around the kitchen table.

Vinneau was initially concerned about a lack of social interaction for her kids, but she connected them with others learning from home.

"Maybe the kids can do their class together on a Wednesday or...after school they can do an assignment together," Vinneau says.

The SMCDSB says the next opportunity for parents to move their child in or out of the remote learning program is the end of October. Anyone who wants to make a change sooner will have to work with their child’s teacher to develop a learning plan.