February 16, 2022

‘The struggle is real’: Parents and experts reflect on a tumultuous school year

TORONTO —
Students spent more time at home remote learning than in the class during the 2020-2021 school year, and some parents say they’re worried about what will happen in September.

Since the outset of the pandemic, students of all ages have been back and forth between online learning and in-person learning through varying states of lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions, and while some children thrived in a remote learning environment, some parents and experts worry about those who didn’t.

“There’s a recognition that everyone is going to be behind. So, what will be needed will be curricular changes in the fall to scaffold that missing learning and provide differentiated instruction for the students in the fall,” Alana Butler, assistant professor in the department of education at Queen’s University told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Thursday.

After a year of back and forth learning, kids’ education levels may be all over the place, as each student will have fared differently with remote schooling, and with the inconsistencies of the school year.

“It exists on a spectrum,” said Butler.

School curriculums should be altered to reflect the needs of students, she added.

“Making changes to the curriculum to refresh students’ memories from what they may have missed prior to March 2020,” she said.

And whether a child thrived or didn’t at home could ultimately depend on socio-economic status, Butler added. If parents have time to dedicate and focus on their child’s online schooling they could fare better, but if parents are doing shift work or also trying work from home, there may not be extra time for those parents to engage in their child’s education.

“[Parents] are finding it very challenging to do both things, so the whole question of who’s behind, it’s highly variable. But one key thing to look at might be socioeconomic status,” she said.

She added that a fast internet speed that may be widely available in cities, isn’t always available in more rural areas or in Indigenous communities which could directly impact a child’s ability to learn.

‘THE STUGGLE IS REAL’

For Ontario parent Brandi Stanley, the back and forth school year on her nine-year-old son Liam has been difficult.

“It’s been very hard on him, both emotionally, with his like mental well-being, and his focus, he’s nine, so I find it very difficult for him to sit for long periods and focus online,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Friday.

She’s also concerned about his language skills as he’s enrolled in French immersion, but neither parent speaks it at home.

“He was doing very well, progressing in the French language before the pandemic,” she said. “But now, I find his vocabulary and comprehension and everything has sort of fallen behind.”

Stanley has had some evaluations done to assess Liam’s education levels and both his school teacher and tutor have indicated he’s fallen behind on reading and comprehension, but she doesn’t think he’s the only one.

“I do believe it’s not just him, I do believe that there’s more in his class and in the school, period, across the board,” she said.

Liam’s school and teacher have been supportive and good with communication. For his focus, she hopes Liam is back in school for the fall.

“I think he’s just done with the online learning. Not seeing people, not being around people and so I think it started to bore him and he lost all motivation,” said Stanley.

Rhianon Charbonneau has seen a big change in her five-year-old daughter Kaylee since online learning began. Her very first year of school was split between in-class and online learning and a lot of uncertainty.

“Remote learning seemed OK for a bit, she was really excited because of the concept because she was still doing school. And then I think the novelty wore off, like, a month later,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Saturday.

But rather than seeing a change in grades or development, Charbonneau saw an attitude change in her daughter as online learning wore on.

“This was just unbelievable. It was any little thing that set her off, she started having many major temper tantrums over nothing,” she said.

Kaylee began the school year in remote learning and returned to the classroom in November, after winter break they were once again put on remote learning. She then returned to the classroom in late January, only to be sent home again in April.

“Kids like routine. And so this was screwing up her routine constantly because for a few months it would be one way and then the next few months it would be a different way,” Charbonneau said.

Every time Kaylee returned to class, her attitude improved, she came home from classes happy, stimulated and mentally exhausted. As soon as schools closed and online school resumed, the temper tantrums returned. By the time June hit, Kaylee had seen enough.

“I think it was the beginning of June, the last stretch of school and I had to tell the teacher: ‘I’m sorry, like I’m trying my best, but she wants nothing to do with this,’” said Charbonneau.

Her friends have had similar experiences, she added. One friend with a child the same age as Kaylee also saw changes in her child’s attitude when they were switched over to remote learning.

She had hoped that the Ontario government would resume schooling for the last few weeks so that young kids could end the year on a positive note, but it didn’t work out that way.

“I think they really did choose the economy this time over schools even though schools were always somewhat a priority in the past,” Chabonneau said. “They used to be the last to close and the first to open, that didn’t happen this time.”

“The struggle is real,” she added.

BEING ‘BEHIND’ IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT

One expert says this idea of being “behind” and needing to “catch up,” is a social construct, a line drawn in the sand by adults and something parents shouldn’t be too worried about while they and their children try to navigate a pandemic.

“This idea of being behind is some idea that we as adults have conceptualized and constructed,” Cassie Brownell, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Friday.

Kids don’t always learn the same things at the same rate as other kids, she added.

“Not all first graders learn to read at the same pace, or at the same time. It clicks differently for different kids at different times, and I don’t think it’s something that we need necessarily to always be worried about,“ said Brownell.

These ideas of being behind often stem from ideas of grades and school performance being tied to good jobs and higher incomes far down the line in the future, she said.

“When we talk about being behind and we talk about learning loss, we often frame this as an idea of learning being a sort of like singular thing that is typically tied to some sort of long-term economic outcome that we envision for young children,” she said.

It’s not uncommon, of course parents and caretakers want the best future for their child, but these social constructs, she said, that emphasize grades and education levels miss the mark.

“It overlooks a lot of the everyday learning that kids really did have the opportunity to engage in,” she said.

And learning doesn’t just happen in a school workbook.

“There’s a lot of learning that actually happens and we might not see that,” she said. “Measuring flour is different than me practicing a fraction on a page, but in many ways it’s a much more real world learning experience that perhaps has more value than fractions on a page, in terms of how most adults engage in the world with fractions.”

This isn’t a new concept, she emphasized. Many women of colour have been doing the work and research and pushing for changes in education for this reason. 

It’s also important to look at what kids have learned this year, instead of what they haven’t or what they’ve forgotten, she added.

“We have to shift our paradigm of how we understand school and what we understand school and learning to be to really account for these everyday contributions that children were already making and the different ways that they were already engaging in being active community members, people with agency, and that caretakers and adults whether they be teachers in the classroom or adults at home, are people who are facilitating sorts of opportunities for children to engage very differently,” said Brownell.

The time to reassess schooling and education is now, when there’s been such an upheaval to the way kids are being taught as is. Brownell says we need to start questioning the way children are taught.

“Was that a right, just, equitable way for people to be learning? Or did that benefit particular people in particular ways?” she said.

“If we disrupted those notions of what schooling was, to think about the possibilities of what schooling could be, then we can really shift what it is that society engages with their own histories, or in developing different sorts of futures.” 

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