April 16 is the one-month anniversary of Ontario’s elementary school closures due to March Break and the COVID-19 pandemic, creating high anxiety for parents trying to teach their kids at home while juggling work and childcare.
Vidya Shah, an assistant professor in York University’s Faculty of Education, says many parents and educators are struggling with the shift to teacher-led online learning, and while we can’t expect parents to take on the role of teachers, we also have to change our expectations of teachers.
Some parents are helping their kids adjust to online learning, which began last week, plus managing their household and the stress from working at home, she says. That stress is multiplied for parents who are essential workers, who are living in poverty, who have been laid off from their jobs and are worrying about food insecurity and paying their mounting bills.
“We are asking too much of parents and teachers and we need to pull back on what the expectations are for children learning at home,” said Shah, a former Toronto District School Board teacher who used to teach primary, junior and intermediate classes.
“This is a time of tremendous fear and trauma,” she says. “As best as they can, parents are encouraged to connect with their children, focus on their social and emotional well-being and ask them how they’re doing.”
COVID-19 has changed life as we know it, with self-isolation being the new reality, so our approach to education has to adapt too, she says.
“Learning doesn’t happen because of a perfect, pre-packaged lesson,” says Shah. “Learning is happening everywhere and all the time – in the kitchen when you’re cooking, when you’re going for a walk and in conversation with your children about what’s happening on TV.
“We as educators need to take the pressure off of parents who feel like they have to teach their children,” says Shah, who now leads classes for prospective teachers. “We also need to recognize the tremendous work that teachers are doing in this time while navigating their own families, challenges and realities.”
With the new online learning at home, parents need to assess whether it’s supporting or hurting their children. For elementary students who need routines to feel safe and connected to the larger world, formal learning tasks make sense, explains Shah. But if schoolwork becomes overwhelming for kids and is damaging to their social, emotional or academic well-being, parents should feel empowered to let their teachers know, and ask for adjustments to deadlines and workload, she says.
Shah, an education expert on issues of equity and justice, says families living in poverty, many of which are racialized, are especially vulnerable in an environment of online learning.
“The current approach to online learning will exacerbate the inequities that have always existed in schooling systems and will inevitably create new inequities for children,” she says, citing the examples of varying access to a quiet work space, family stress and lack of WiFi and technology access.
Shah is encouraging educators to focus on relationships (continuing to build deep connections with their students), student-led inquiry (encouraging students to ask questions based on their interests and engage in critical thinking to seek thoughtful answers to their questions), self-reflection (inviting students to reflect on their thoughts and feelings during these times) and structure (creating routines that help make students feel safe).
Do you have a story to share about how you are coping, or what you are doing differently, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.