Education comes home during the pandemic

Communities like Markham, all across our province and the country, are currently engaged in the largest coordinated effort for public good since the Second World War. This might sound like colourful exaggeration, but it is the reality of life in the age of COVID-19.

Among the many sacrifices being made is the near shuttering of Ontario’s education system. For the first time since its inception, The Ontario Ministry of Education has closed every public school, for months on end with no real end in sight.

These thousands of empty classrooms are not us giving up the fight however, it’s just what winning it looks like in 2020.

Of course, winning also means continuing the education of our children. This is a responsibility that has fallen largely on parents and their ability to negotiate technology as lessons, assignments and evaluation has moved online in the meantime.

“I do find it hard seeing them on their computers all day,” said Janis Castle Jones, a local parent of three between the ages of 11 and 17. “The first week was toughest with my 17-year-old, as she was really missing her friends and couldn’t see the benefits of being at home all of the time.”

“We are all in this together so I assume adjustments and allowances will have to be made next year to account for the parts of the curriculum they are missing,” said Krystyna McNulty, another Markham mother of three between the ages of 9-13.

Adjustments and allowances will certainly be needed, to say the least, but for now, there seems to be little else planned beyond having parents narrow the learning gap as much as possible. This is in addition to many parents working from home as well.

“Balancing work and trying to make sure they take breaks or even have lunch has been a bit challenging,” Jones said. “Being a single parent, of course, means that ensuring everyone is keeping up with their online learning and dealing with all three children’s stress levels all falls on me.”

One thing that has come into focus for students and their families is the stark difference between the notion of online education and the reality. Instruction is now limited not only by the technical proficiency of administrators and teachers with software and hardware largely untested for the task at hand but also by lesser expected roadblocks like the legality around student privacy as well as access to devices and WiFi.

One might think that accessibility is simply a problem of socioeconomics, but it’s turning out to be more complicated than this. Schools and school boards spent the two weeks after March Break distributing technology to families in need and they’ve only managed to scratch the surface. Meanwhile, families with plenty of devices and WiFi are discovering accessibility problems of their own.

“The toughest thing is everyone being in each other’s space all the time,” McNulty said. “It’s been an adjustment getting used to spending so much time on top of each other. We are trying to be deliberate about taking breaks, separating for a while.”

“My 14-year-old is worried he will not really know or have absorbed the information well,” Jones said. “While my 17-year-old has noticed a decrease in her anxiety from working at her own pace, but she misses help from friends and her teachers.”

The Ministry of Education and school boards have been careful to indicate that neither established grades or graduation will be jeopardized by the switch to online learning. Instead, student performance will only be “enhanced”. Of course, for some, this raises the question of legitimacy for the entire endeavour.

Others are left wondering if they are doing the best thing for their kids. This is to say nothing of having to somehow recall, long-forgotten, curriculum from their own school days. By the way, it’s okay, no one remembers grade 9 Geography and long division isn’t even much of a thing anymore.

The Ministry of Education has said, for high school, three hours per course, per week. Many parents are wondering if that’s enough or too much? Can I get them an advantage by having them do more? Are my kids even doing the assigned work correctly?

Ultimately, there is no way to look at Ontario’s online distance Ed program that doesn’t lead to more questions for parents.

Offering a path to answers is what Vanessa Vakharia does for a living. She’s the founder and director of The Math Guru, a boutique Math and Science tutoring studio, the author of Math Hacks, a book designed to help students and parents understand math with little stress, and is the host of a podcast called Math Therapy.

“Okay, so first step, do not panic,” suggested Vakharia as advice for parents and teachers. “Start by remembering that none of us have parented or educated during a pandemic before.”

She goes on to explain simply that it is not reasonable to try and replace a child’s complete school experience during this. Parents shouldn’t expect themselves to be teachers.

“Just because your friends are posting all over Instagram about how rigorous and to-the-minute their child’s newly-invented homeschool schedule is, doesn’t mean you need to compare yourselves to them,” Vakharia said. “Seriously, we all have different lives and stories and home situations, so just remember that you’ve got your own thing going on and that’s okay.”

She continued, “One of the tricky things about teacher-led learning is that every teacher is approaching this differently, and that’s okay. Start by taking inventory.”

By inventory, she means a list of everything that’s expected of your child for the week. On one hand, the advice of simply writing it down, in one place, seems obvious; on the other hand, it’s the step most likely to be skipped. Both parent and child can then refer to this list throughout the week.

“Most kids (and parents) are feeling a great deal of anxiety about the lack of structure and schedule,” Vakharia said. “Create some sort of semblance of a routine and you will find that the stress surrounding education starts to dissolve a little bit.”

Other potential pitfalls Vakharia warns of are making sure that both parents and kids agree on what each teacher’s expectations are, separating recreational screen time from educational screen time, and dedicating separate spaces to school work and other activities.

“Make sure you create a distinct divide between when kids are learning and in the zone, and when kids are playing games or watching Netflix,” Vakharia said. “They’ll actually feel a sense of relaxation and reward.”

If Vakharia has an overall theory of education, it’s that successful students are motivated by the intrinsic value of learning and understanding rather than by grades, awards or accolades. It’s the main recipe for her successes at The Math Guru and the wisdom behind her book.

“I encourage parents to take this time to really help their kids understand the beauty of learning and the value of hard work,” she said. “Now is the chance to help kids learn math and science on their own terms and in their own time; without the fear of failure, without the added pressure of achieving a certain mark.”

The Math Guru has moved their entire tutoring program online and is there to help students and parents via their website. Booking a tutoring session once a week can be a good way to just build some sort of routine in a student’s schedule or to create a sense of accountability, but there are also educational resources available online at less or no cost.

“I think it’s important for parents to realize that there are a ton of resources out there for different budgets and that when in doubt, outsource,” Vakharia said. “Again, you are not expected to be teachers.”

Here’s a link to a good list of resources, www.amazingeducationalresources.com.

“As a parent, I am loving having more time with the kids,” Jones said about her overall takeaway from the first week. “I’ll be honest, I want them to learn but it is not my focus right now. I’m more worried about their mental and physical health.”

“My biggest concern is what they are missing socially,” McNulty said. “But we do have some down time, the kids are playing in the yard a lot, and we’re able to watch movies together. We’re slowing down a bit.”

The Math Guru is available at www.themathguru.ca

Photo: Some of Vanessa Vakharia’s students, learning at home.

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