Frustrated parents in Ontario pivot from official distance-learning program amid COVID-19

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Monica Belyea knew that paying attention and focusing while at school were challenging for her eight-year-old son.

But since schools have been closed, and after weeks of juggling working from home with helping her kids continue school assignments, Belyea has joined an increasingly vocal group of parents saying Ontario’s official distance-learning framework is not working for them.

“It was like pulling teeth trying to get him to do even small parts of the assigned work, and I was just frustrated beyond belief,” said Belyea, a yoga teacher in Toronto.

Belyea said the province’s education ministry was saying an hour was the right amount of time to spend with his age group.

“And that hour just felt like it was a complete waste of time,” she said, describing her son Ben slumped in his chair, zoned out or fiddling with things, not even looking at the tablet with his school work.

“I would be completely drained afterwards…. It had just sapped everything from me,” said Belyea, who shared her experiences in an online opinion piece for Today’s Parent magazine. 

“Not only did it feel like a waste of time, but then I had no energy just to move through the rest of my day.”

Belyea, seen teaching a yoga class via video conferencing from her Toronto-area home, said trying to get her son to continue with school assignments left her ‘completely drained afterwards.’ (Submitted by Monica Belyea)

Although she struggled with the decision to opt out and continues to worry about her son falling behind in the school curriculum, Belyea ultimately calls the move “sanity-saving” for her household. 

“Just knowing that it wasn’t going to be another day of fighting and struggling and dreading that home-school portion of the day was a huge relief.” 

Home ‘a much more fraught environment’

Writer and editor Russell Smith has faced a similar challenge with inspiring his 10-year-old son — usually a strong student with no issues paying attention in class — to continue school assignments during the past month at home.

“We’ve had temper tantrums,” he said. “We’ve had meltdowns. We’ve had slammed doors and sulking in the room. And that never happens in school. Family is just a much more fraught environment. Also, let’s face it, I’m not a trained teacher of Grade 5, so I don’t really know how to deal with it the way a Grade 5 teacher does,” Smith said.

Writer and editor Russell Smith posted on social media about his challenges getting his son to complete school assignments sent by teachers. (CBC)

While Smith says his son has been otherwise quite happy during this time, “having the attention of one parent or the other 24 hours a day,” completing his home school work became a sore point. 

“There’s something about being away from the classroom, away from his friends and something about pressure from parents, I think, that makes it much more stressful,” he said.

‘Extremely frustrated’

Smith posted on Facebook about the challenges he’s experienced and received a wave of comments with similar tales. 

“I know that a lot of parents … are extremely frustrated and many are simply giving up.”

Messages from teachers, principals and school boards about relaxed expectations during the pandemic are meant to take the pressure of parents and students, Smith said.

But he feels this leeway removes “any kind of leverage we have to get our pupils to do the work…. Without any possibility of failure, there’s very little incentive to do anything.”

What he’s come up with in the interim — with the blessing of his son’s teacher — is to create assignments more aligned with the youngster’s interests: researching and writing a report about alien abductions, for instance, or creating a pandemic-inspired board game set in their Toronto neighbourhood.

“He loves that because it’s play and because it’s something that he’s proud of,” Smith said, adding that he is supplementing those self-assigned projects with “one page of math problems a day.”

‘Come together as a family to figure this out’

That approach — following a child’s own interests and ideas — is perfect for engaging students during this unprecedented time, according to Tina Rapke, an associate professor in York University’s faculty of education.

For instance, she said her son’s current obsession with the Titanic has seen him research and report on the ill-fated ship and build a model of it in Lego, all with just a little prompting from Rapke, who has been working from home with her seven- and nine-year-olds.

“The most important thing is to be thinking about balancing what parents need to do for work and how they can support their kids — and really thinking about how we can be most effective in our support of our children.”

York University education Prof. Tina Rapke has been working from home alongside her two children. (CBC)

Lessons can be found in everyday life, outside of the context of school, and some only require a few minutes at a time, as in the case with learning mental math, she said.  

“We’re cooking hash browns for breakfast…. Well, if everyone gets four hash browns, how many should we put on the sheet?” Rapke, who specializes in mathematics teaching strategies, gave as an example.

“If we look at studies that have been done, mental math occurs gradually over time, which means that we just do a little bit every day or every other day…. I’m talking like five, seven, 10 minutes at the most.”

Rapke also feels it important for parents to slow down and be honest with their children when they themselves don’t know the answers.

“Admit to your kids ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know if this is working, but what else could we do?’ And admit that you’re not the expert. Do they have suggestions so that you can really all come together as a family to figure this out? Because it’s such unusual circumstances [we’re in].”

‘We’re all in the same boat’

The notion of slowing down and letting her kids lead has been the guiding principle these last six weeks for Lesley Huffman, a mother of two who worked from home even before the pandemic.

Knowing that her children are hands-on learners and that they consider mobile devices and laptops as tools for fun, not school work, she was concerned early on what remote learning would entail.

Lesley Huffman’s eight-year-old son, left, and four-year-old daughter paint a design on windows of their home in Stayner, Ont., during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted by Lesley Huffman)

After discussions with her children’s teachers and having home-schooled her eight-year-old son last year, Huffman and her husband felt confident paving their own path. They’re forging ahead with a mix of some home-schooling techniques, the occasional suggested activity or worksheet from school and learning through everyday activities, such as baking or washing dishes.

That decision has “just taken off a lot of stress,” she said.

“We’re not trying to make the kids sit down and force them to do an hour or two hours of school work a day…  I don’t want to be fighting with them.”

Though she thinks that parents may need to become a bit more creative in how they’re helping inspire their kids while schools are closed, Huffman believes any positive attempts are beneficial.

“We’re all in the same boat: nobody’s really going to fall behind or everybody’s gonna fall behind — it depends on how you look at it. Nobody is really learning the way they should be right now,” she said.

“Teaching however you can, in whatever way fits your lifestyle without stressing, that’s going to benefit your kids, no matter what.”

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