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A ‘really weird new normal’: Parents, students grapple with learning at home amid pandemic

As Canadian parents and guardians face the stark reality of ongoing school closures this spring because of COVID-19, an uneven patchwork of provincial plans has developed to try to implement remote learning for a vast range of students.

When Alberta announced that its schools would close indefinitely in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, Danielle Fortin admits she considered the decision “pretty drastic.”

Now, with Canada’s coronavirus cases having risen dramatically, the Red Deer, Alta.-based mother of two appreciates that decision — along with the speed with which her province enacted a “learning at home” framework.

“Now that we’re in it” and seeing that physical isolation measures are likely to continue further into the spring, “it makes a lot of sense,” said Fortin, whose kids, ages eight and 11, are tapping into online resources and connecting with others via video chat.

“It’s going to take a lot of time for families and kids and parents to adjust to this really weird new normal we have going on,” said Fortin, who added that “it wouldn’t make sense to rush back.”

Scarlett Fortin, 11, studies at home in Red Deer, Alta. (Submitted by Danielle Fortin)

Just a few provinces over, however, Janet Chisholm has been frustrated with what she sees as Ontario’s slow progress at implementing its own plan for at-home learning.

Ontario, which includes the largest school board in Canada (the Toronto District School Board), broke down details of its learning-at-home plan on Tuesday — “but I think it’s a bit late,” said Chisholm.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce “used the phrase ‘lightning speed’ twice and I would say we’ve been off school for awhile now. I wouldn’t describe the response as lightning speed…. We’ve been having to teach our kids or manage on our own for the last week and a half already.”

An earlier learning portal Ontario set up was not what the mom of two, whose kids are eight and 10, had expected. Chisholm called it “a non-plan” that simply listed online links and “didn’t do a very good job of giving us guidance on how to be teachers.

“We’re not educators and we shouldn’t be expected to earn a degree in teaching overnight and try to develop curriculum on our own.”

Janet Chisholm helps her two sons with schoolwork at their home in Toronto. (Submitted by Janet Chisholm)

While the downtown Toronto resident acknowledges the prudence of Ontario extending its public school closures for at least another month, “we’d love to see our kids back to school May 4,” she said.

“I know other provinces have already pulled the plug on the year and I think I’d be disappointed if they did that.”

While some provincial governments have cancelled in-class learning indefinitely, others are taking more of a wait-and-see approach and thus far keeping school doors shuttered into May. 

Some provinces have issued specific objectives (including delivering age-specific hours of work on targeted subject matter), directed teachers to reach out to students and families (online or by phone) or released learn-at-home resources. Others say they’re still working out exactly how to continue delivering their curriculum to students.

The challenge of equity

One major challenge is ensuring that any at-home resources or curriculum that’s being shared is available to all students, some of whom may not have access to the internet, digital devices or adult support at home.

It’s vital for educators to consider equity and make sure students across the socioeconomic divide have access to what they need — especially now, said Matt Fabbri, a public high school teacher in Winnipeg.

“A lot of our kids are dealing with mental health issues and even that point of just having regular interaction with their teachers — sometimes that’s the only regular thing that they have every day,” said Fabbri, a teacher at Nelson McIntyre Collegiate who says getting in touch with and staying in communication with students has been a priority.

“It’s this time to really check in with our kids and not ask ‘Hey, how’s your homework going?’ but just ask ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you functioning? Are you talking to people or are you holed up in your house with nobody to talk to?’ “

WATCH | Talking to kids about the coronavirus pandemic:

How to talk to your kids about the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:01

‘We are teachers and we can manage’

Rather than dwelling on grades, his immediate concern is for his students to be able to learn and demonstrate what they’ve learned. He and his colleagues broke their process down to three concepts: encourage students to work on existing skills, check out new material they will eventually learn when school returns and explore for themselves.

“As a teacher, I’m not concerned about all students reaching a common percentage point, but more concerned with their own personal growth curves. Are they moving up and to the right?”

For instance, for younger students up to Grade 8, “any type of engaged learning is going to be great for them,” Fabbri said.

Winnipeg public school teacher Matt Fabbri is connecting with students in a variety of ways, including via online video, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted by Matt Fabbri)

Meanwhile, for high schoolers, he said, parents and guardians should “engage them in what they’re learning right now. ‘Hey, what documentary did you watch today? What article did you read today? What new thing did you learn today?’ And don’t accept the monosyllabic answers.”

Fabbri and his colleagues are also trying to take advantage of technology. One is streaming an hour-long phys ed class on Instagram daily, while another streams a chemistry class live from his home office. Others have switched things up to offer classes and Monday-to-Friday “office hours” via apps like Zoom.

As Fabbri juggles teaching with “trying to prepare emails and learn Zoom and [make] phone calls touching base with kids and parents,” he’s also overseeing three children of his own (ages four, eight and 10) learning at home.

“We are teachers and we can manage,” he said. “We’re going to figure out ways to help our students manage through this. That’s our job.”

‘Things are changing in front of our eyes’

Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced this unprecedented moment of change, it could lead to higher-quality e-learning in Canada, said Marina Milner-Bolotin, an associate professor of education at the University of British Columbia.

“Education is such a huge field and it has a huge inertia. Now we can see things are changing in front of our eyes,” said Milner-Bolotin, who has taught online for more than 10 years.

“I see one silver lining here: That people will start taking technology much more seriously after this crisis.”

Noting that she’s had pushback from colleagues who call online learning impersonal, she foresees that in the coming weeks, “amazing teachers who know how to teach online … will support the teachers who are hesitant.”

Marina Milner-Bolotin, associate professor in education at the University of British Columbia, believes this period could lead to a blossoming for online education in Canada. (CBC)

The Vancouver-based educator underlines, however, that effective e-learning doesn’t mean links, websites and “dumping a lot of resources on parents.” It requires real support, with provincial education ministers giving teachers specific online education training and bringing in experts for further development.

“It’s going to be a boom for online education,” Milner-Bolotin said, pointing out that e-learning can connect far-flung students with specialized teachers and extend more courses to a wider swath of kids.

“A lot of people will realize the power of online education.”

Shannon Rogers, a mom of four in Calgary, has some concerns about the decisions school officials have made in recent weeks. Her oldest, for instance, is bound for high school and he worries about being prepared. She also wonders about “running out of steam” herself. She’s reduced her own workload to focus on her children’s education.

“It’s a lot trying to homeschool your kids. I am obviously not a teacher, so this is not a skill set that I have,” she said, questioning whether she can keep her kids on task and “progressing confidently.”

What she has been happy with is how teachers, principals and Alberta education officials have adapted amid the pandemic.

“One of the kid’s teachers sent a video, for example, saying hi to the kids and sort of encouraging them to keep up with the work that they had already going on…. They’re doing their best. I think it’s been quite remarkable really.”

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