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How’s Home Schooling Going? We Asked Four Parents

Balancing school, work and sanity in a pandemic during self-isolation.

Katie Hyslop 20 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Parents in British Columbia are now in week nine without in-class instruction for their school-aged kids. Many are still trying to hold down a job or look for work if they’ve been laid off.

The government aims to open elementary and secondary schools by June 1 to let some students return to part-time in-class instruction. But for many families, home schooling is the new normal.

So what’s life like when you’re trying to parent and educate your children, on top of work and other responsibilities, during a global pandemic? The Tyee spoke to four B.C. parents about what their home and work lives look like now, how their kids are learning and how the whole family is coping. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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'It’s very challenging to be responsible for two children's education and lead in health care during COVID.'

Angela Wignall lives with her husband and two children, Henry, 10, and Lucas, 15, in Victoria. Both parents are nurses. Both children have complex needs diagnoses, with the eldest enrolled in a private school and the youngest in the public education system.

When did you first hear from your children’s school after the suspension of in-class instruction in public schools was announced March 17, the second day of spring break?

I received an email from the private school on March 13 saying preventative measures were going into place. And then on March 20 I got the update about how they were going to handle the approach to continuing learning.

My eldest logged into classes March 30, the Monday after spring break. That was also the day when we were given access to mental health supports. So there were online counselling bookings available through the school as well.

On March 17 I received an update from my youngest son’s public school with a letter from the minister of education, and then a letter from the superintendent the next day. The first time I received anything in terms of a plan or activities from the public school teacher was April 4.

One of the things that I will say the public school was on right away was around childcare for essential workers. The first week of April they offered me childcare. It was at a different school, a maximum of four children in the room and an education assistant present. Henry could bring his work to the school, work through any activities he wanted while he was there, and the education assistant would keep everyone safe, make sure everyone was being fed, help them have some outside time.

Ultimately we were able to rework our schedule, so we gave our spot up because we didn't need it as much as another nurse might have.

What does a typical “school” day/week look like now?

Lucas [15] logs into Google Classroom and Google Hangouts at 8:30 a.m., and he has full classes until 3 o'clock. He has a schedule, assignments. Everyone in the classroom is on the screen, and the teacher's actively teaching: there are slides, presentations, they put on a play last week. It’s very much like school, it just happens to be in his bedroom.

Lucas’s school is specifically for children with learning disabilities. There’s two teachers in a classroom and the classes are about nine to 10 children. It’s very small, and lots of one-on-one and an individualized approach. That's continued — no difference there.

For Henry, my youngest, we now have a weekly schedule from his teacher. There’s about two hours a day of work he is meant to do — reading, a book report, mathematics. Some days he has a physical education challenge — this week they're learning bhangra dancing. And just last week they started having a half hour Zoom meeting once a week, so we actually will get to see his teacher, some friends and have a conversation.

Henry has a diagnosis of OCD, so he requires prompting, just a little more intensive management. And for him, there’s not been anything that looks the same. Previously he had access to a counsellor and an individualized education plan. He’d be pulled out a lot for individual reading support or working through mathematics, spelling. He's not really getting an education right now. It’s not at all the same. I’m optimistic that because he's young it won't have big impacts.

The sad thing is every single person at that school, I adore them. He’s been there for five years. They’re wonderful humans. There’s obviously some systemic challenges that don’t allow them to work quickly. I'm familiar with that working in health care.

How is this impacting your work?

It’s so intense and crazy. My husband’s a nurse caring for patients, so he has to go to work. I work in leadership, so I have more flexibility, and I've been able to work from home a lot. But I generally work nine to 12 hours a day and my work is quite difficult. We live in a three-bedroom apartment, and my dining room table is now high school, grade school and nurse leader. I get up early to try and get some things done before we have to start school. Stress in our house is certainly up.

How is this impacting your family?

It’s very challenging to be responsible for two children's education and lead in health care during COVID. There was a period a couple weeks ago where none of us could sleep because we were all escalated. It’s been very difficult. I have a privilege of having an incredibly supportive employer. But you simply can’t function at the level that you are expected to during this.

We settled into a bit of a rhythm, but particularly my youngest, who has more mental health challenges, his anxiety is up. They both feel pretty trapped. They miss their friends a lot. There’s a lot of crying. Not all the time, they’re pretty darn resilient. I think their biggest worry is that there is no end in sight. They’re trying to imagine a very different future, just like the rest of us are.

Would you like to see them return to class before the end of June?

I’m of two minds. From a practical perspective, absolutely, it would make everything easier to go back to that semblance of normal. We do know that children tend to be less impacted by this virus. They can have it and survive it to a degree that our elders can’t.

But I understand from a public health perspective that it would be a really foolish thing to do at this point. Because we’re at the beginning of the pandemic, we’re nowhere near the end.

My concern isn’t necessarily for the children; it’s definitely for the teachers, the education assistants, the janitorial staff, all the other folks who constitute the education system. They are at significantly higher risk than a child is.

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Maya Levykh: 'I think once the novelty of being able to sleep in a little and wear your pajamas all day wore off, then it hit her that yeah, traditional school is better than this.'

Anya Levykh is a Vancouver-based web editor and Vancouver Co-op Radio host. Her daughter, Maya, in Grade 8, is enrolled in the West Vancouver School District’s Premier Fencing Academy, where, prior to the pandemic, she would attend academic classes in the morning and fence in the afternoon.

When did you first hear from your children’s school after the suspension of in-class instruction was announced?

We heard from them during spring break: one time during the first week, another time during the second week where they laid out the plan about what was going to happen and when, and they let us know we would be hearing from the teachers and the school principal during the first week after spring break. And that by the end of the week each of the teachers would send us a learning plan, which they did.

What does a typical “school” day/week look like now?

Monday to Friday, she wakes up around eight and she has her breakfast. She normally spends about an hour and a half to two hours a day on her schoolwork. We go outside for a walk every day, take a break for lunch. She does fencing on her own in the backyard, and her fencing club does online classes three times a week.

For most of the classes, it does not involve actual group class time. It’s strictly through online software like Google Classroom. Assignments are given out weekly, with a due date usually by the end of the week, and students are able to contact the teacher one-on-one if they need any help or questions. The exception is her enriched math class: they meet every Wednesday for one hour on Zoom. And that is an actual class with the teacher and the other kids, and he explains the concepts and takes any questions.

How is this impacting your work?

Normally I’m at the office half the week and at home half the week, and now at home full-time. I can't complain too much. She’s been really good about being diligent about waking up on time, doing her schoolwork. I’m lucky that she doesn't need a lot of help with [it]. She does with math sometimes: she’s had some questions and it’s taken me a bit of racking my brain and then doing a little Google research to remember how to do something.

How is this impacting your family?

I think the hardest thing for her is not being with her friends, not being able to see people, not being in that class environment. She really does miss that. I think once the novelty of being able to sleep in a little and wear your pajamas all day wore off, then it hit her that yeah, traditional school is better than this.

I've had some friends complain their kids are not getting enough work. But honestly, I’ve certainly had to adjust my own mental processes quite a bit. I’m not feeling especially productive, but I’m forcing myself to be. And I find with her, too, it takes a toll — everything around us, this whole scenario, it’s wearing and it makes you mentally tired. I don't think she could handle six hours of schoolwork per day.

In a way it feels to me what they’re doing right now is probably very similar to what they had before. It’s just all that time in class chatting and discussing, the teacher explaining, breaks between classes and lunch, all the rest of it has been stripped away. I feel there is slightly less work than there would have been. But also, I’m glad there isn’t more.

Would you like to see them return to class before the end of June?

From a purely selfish point of view, absolutely. But honestly, it seems a little too soon. And I know B.C. is more cautious in terms of their plan to return to whatever normal looks like. But it feels like we’re not at the point where we’re not having any new cases. Putting a bunch of kids into a classroom together, how's that gonna work?

I would want to know they’re not just sitting there to sit there. I was reading about how schools are opening up in Quebec and the kids are supposed to literally sit in their desks the entire day: it’s where they eat their lunch, it’s where they do their work. They’re not allowed, obviously, to touch anyone else or touch anyone else's things. Bathroom visits have to be scheduled and staggered for cleaning to happen. Nothing is happening outdoors apart from regulated marching outside if the weather is good. So I’m not sure about the benefit of sending a child into that environment.

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It’s not the normal classroom, but Chris Taylor’s eight-year-old is still doing school work.

Chris Taylor, who owns a construction business, lives in Victoria with his wife, a nurse, and their two children: a three-and-a-half year old starting junior koindergarten in the fall, and an eight-year-old in Grade 3.

When did you first hear from your children’s school after the suspension of in-class instruction was announced?

I believe we were getting emails even through spring break. We’ve been pretty much in steady contact with his teacher and with the principal of the school the whole time.

I think the first week back from spring break there wasn’t a whole lot. And then the week after that is when his teacher actually sent out what you should be doing throughout the week and every day.

What does a typical “school” day/week look like now?

He has a large workbook of papers, and every day he’s supposed to finish two pages of math and spelling. His teacher will make a YouTube video going through the spelling lesson as the kids fill out the worksheet with her at home. Then on top of that, every day they have a journal to do: draw a picture and write a little bit about something going on that day.

And then they have a creative writing assignment that she gives out every Monday. They have the rest of the week to complete it. Every day there's another video or two, like maybe a math video to help with the math work that they’re doing. And then the odd poem or riddle to figure out, as well.

How is this impacting your work?

My wife's a nurse, so she has just carried on working. Her work has been a bit more stressful than it usually is.

My company shut down for about three weeks, and because it was important that my wife still go to work, I became the main stay-at-home parent. I’m still spending a lot of time at home right now. My work is starting to really pile up and I'm getting pretty far behind in some things, but it’s not the end of the world.

How is this impacting your family?

My daughter is fine because she’s three-and-a-half and doesn't really know. For her, it’s been great because dad’s around a lot more and we get bike rides and stuff. But my son definitely misses school, misses his friends quite a bit. He’s had a few moments where he’s had a bit of a breakdown or he’s gotten frustrated with something. I think it’s more to do with the fact we’re at home all the time, or maybe going for a walk or a bike ride and that’s it. At times, I get a little frustrated, like, "Oh my God, I just want to see my friends."

But I’ve often thought to myself I’ll look back at this time and be like, "Wow, I was able to take the kids out on these long bike rides a couple of times a week, and we made these crafts," and I’ll appreciate the fact I actually had that time. I definitely appreciate the fact I have a family to spend this with. A lot of people out there are doing this alone. If I’m stuck with people, at least I’m stuck with people that I love.

Would you like to see your son return to class before the end of June?

No, I don’t think so. It’s so hard to say, because I think B.C., and especially Vancouver Island, we’re doing so well that I feel like the risk is extremely low. But the fact there is any risk at all is not when it comes to public health and safety.

We’re so close to the end of the school year, too: what benefit are they going to get from going back to school, other than to see their friends again? I’ve been thinking maybe they open it up in June and July to finish out the school year, everyone takes August off, and then we restart again in September.

But my kid’s also only eight, so it’s not that detrimental to him. Someone in high school, they’re going to want to go back to school because there’s a lot of hard learning for them to do before they move on.

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Andréa Coutu: Special needs parents have already faced the kinds of challenges brought on by COVID-19. Photo by Galen Hutcheson.

Andréa Coutu is a business coach and a marketing and business consultant. She lives in Vancouver with her two children, ages 12 and 15, both of whom have complex needs diagnoses. Coutu’s children are enrolled in a distributed learning program, where students study on their own schedule and correspond with their teachers primarily online, through an independent school in Victoria. Prior to the pandemic, they did their classroom work at a private learning centre in Vancouver.

When did you first hear from your children’s school after the suspension of in-class instruction was announced?

They were in contact and very supportive even during spring break, having meetings and discussions, which certainly is beyond what you would usually expect from a school. By the first day after spring break, the learning centre had actually converted to deliver services online, faster than you would get from a public school.

The school worked with the learning centre to make sure the tutors there would be set up to do Zoom sessions. There were some hiccups; everyone’s trying to figure out the technology.

The school, because we were already in a home learning format, there was already communication. But no one checked in to see if we had computers. No one checked in to see if we had food.

We have food, and other providers in our life did check in about these things. But I think because of our location, and because it's an independent school, there may be an assumption people have more resources than they do. I found that hard to swallow. I felt they should have been immediately checking with people, because people probably get missed.

What does a typical “school” day/week look like now?

My older son starts with tutoring and online classes at around 10 a.m. He has some breaks because before he had some supported homework time at the learning centre, which I didn’t find necessary given I’m at home and can be available to support some of that. So we’ve pulled back a bit. He's still got cooking class, role playing game class, academic classes and so on.

My younger son is generally taking some tutoring, usually an hour every morning, and then a supported homework or personal project time. He’s very passionate about computer programming.

How is this impacting your work?

Because I am so concerned about my business, getting through the pandemic and what recovery is going to look like, I am pretty much working whenever I can. As [the CBC’s] Rosemary Barton said, "There are no days of the week anymore really."

One of the things I have been doing is drawing in a lot of the knowledge I already have because my kids, having diverse abilities, have had a non-standard journey through the education system. I’ve already been through the trauma of having to work from home or having your whole life changed, because suddenly the expectations on me as a parent are much higher than for typical parents.

And I don’t want in any way to minimize or sound like I’m downplaying the concerns of typical parents. But when I hear other people say, "Wow, I can't get my kids to sit or do this homework. And I’m not a teacher," I think "Wow, the expectation on the special needs community is you should have had that skill from the time your children were small."

It really shows the expectations we put on the special needs parenting community and how ridiculous it is to expect parents to be able to fill every part of a child’s life in terms of their supports.

Because of that experience, I think in many ways my business was in a better position to keep working as the pandemic hit.

How is this impacting your family?

For my older son, going online was a much easier and appropriate transition. For my younger son, it has been a very complicated process, and I ended up having to scale back dramatically what he’s doing, and find ways to keep him busy and engaged during the day.

I think, too, that we’re doing a real disservice, especially when children have special needs, to think that a video tutoring session is going to meet the needs of every learner. Some kids really depend on eye contact and nuances, maybe a gentle redirection if they’ve drifted off task, or having enough sensory breaks to get up and walk around. One of the things I’ve done for both my kids is to get them doing steps in the house to keep up their exercise. If you get up during the school day, even if you just walk down to the cafeteria, you’re getting a sensory break.

My own fear is all children are going to have to go through a big transition, and not just the next year or two or in education. An entry level job at the supermarket is now a high-risk position that is under-compensated. That’s not something I would encourage my kids into right now. But then what do we do about the loss of life experience and work experience?

Would you like to see your kids return to class before the end of June?

While I think that social engagement and supports are really important, we need more practice with physical distancing and reintegrating. June is still some time away, but my guess is we wouldn’t be looking at anything like that until the fall, and I honestly think this reopening we’re going through right now will probably be short term because I think once we get back into the fall, there will probably be a second wave.

I would like to see us out and re-engaging and reintegrating with the rest of society, but I don’t know that we’re ready for that to include the education environment yet. As someone who’s running a business, do I wish my kids were back and covered for the whole day? Yes. But I'm having to balance everyone’s needs.

Also kids have been out for two months, and going back just for a few weeks, and then to be out again, some kids might find that healing, other kids might find that very disruptive and destabilizing.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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