The pandemic has not only flipped our lives upside-down but has now jolted the entire education system. The rollout of alternative education during COVID-19 has left our teachers and education experts with the need to get creative when delivering information, while students have had to adjust how they receive and process this new way of learning.
These amendments to the education system have also left parents in tight spots, as back in August they faced the ultimatum of keeping their kids at home for online schooling or enrolling them back into the classroom. Kristen McMahon, a mother of two, said it was the hardest parenting decision she’s made.
Being a few months in now, she is thankful the grade school online program successfully mimics the days students would have had at school. “The teacher gives them lots of breaks, the assignments are smooth, and even if the kids aren’t tech-savvy, they can hand-write assignments and the parents can take a photo of it and send that in.”
Kristen works, so her youngest goes to her grandparents while the oldest studies from home. The transition has been smooth because the grade four teacher has translated his classroom to the new online model, and in addition, has made the education accessible to all types of learners. Where shy children typically won’t raise their hands in class, many teachers have now created a separate forum tab for students to be able to ask their questions in private.
According to both parents and students, teachers have been remarkable at engaging students in creative learning techniques; not only that, but students are now claiming autonomy over their learning experiences.
Therese Hounsell says that her son Walter, who is in grade five, has adapted quickly to online learning. This shift allowed him the opportunity to map out his own learning through collaborative gaming this summer and improving his tech skills before the school year started. “Of course he can trust that his parents will always be a good resource to him, but if knowledge is power, then now he can be a resource for himself,” Therese explains. “He’s learning valuable skills that he’ll use for the rest of his life.”
However, every student is different, and while some students are thriving in the independent style of learning, others are looking to a more intimate learning experience.
Terri Knight Lepain wanted to arrange care for her kids that would keep them as present as possible in their education. A friend of hers had suggested they find an occasional teacher from the supply list to perform a “pod school” for their six children. It was a win-win since the supply teacher didn’t want to bounce from school to school during COVID, and this allowed the supply teacher full-time security with the benefit of working closely with just six students.
Terri’s friend enrolls her kids in the pod school five days a week, whereas Terri’s three kids—who are three, six, and nine—stay home two days a week while Terri works from home. She follows the “paper package” option that she received from her kids’ French Immersion school, which tailors their learning to their level of reading and comprehension.
So far, Terri is happy with the progress and says things seem to be progressing. “Each child is different, but I can say that my youngest has learned more in a shorter period of time as he’s getting a lot of one-on-one undivided attention,” she explains. Right now, she’s most concerned for their mental health, and depending on the COVID numbers, she may send the kids back to school for the added socialization.
Joseph Sakr, a secondary media arts teacher, says that the mental health component has affected his high school students’ learning the most. Digital socialization isn’t the same as in person, he says, and he has noticed that since his students are more on edge, there has been a decrease in attention and motivation to learn. “It’s also challenging to keep their attention when we’re already burnt out,” he adds about his own mental health. “There are double the amount of sick days from teachers because everyone is overworking themselves to illness or mental breakdown.”
Jessica Defoe, a music teacher at E.J. Lajeunesse, says that for her as an instrumental music teacher, the hybrid program, where high school students are online some days and in-person other days, presents its challenges.
“It’s strange as a music teacher to not be moving around and conducting, but I’m being as available as I can to them. Teachers are just trying to take care of everybody.”
Jessica, like many teachers in the arts as well as physical education, has had to pivot her program completely, as they can’t use wind instruments in class but can practise their instrument at home. On top of exhausting every possible creative solution to her program, like music appreciation and listening journals, with the hopes of engaging her students in writing their own music, she’s also checking her email every 20-30 minutes to see if an online student is needing assistance. These students would be in the cohort currently working from home that day, depending on the week.
Jett Shields, a grade nine media arts student at Walkerville Collegiate, says that the mix of in-school and online learning has been complicated—not only does he have to take the time to figure out where he has to be, but teachers are also having to balance both rather than just one. If Jett’s stuck on a question in-person, he says the teacher can respond as usual, but he says, “If you’re stuck on a math question and you message your teacher, there’s a good chance they won’t get back to you for a longer amount of time. Then, you have to switch what you’re working on in the meantime.”
Thankfully, he’s been able to keep up. “A student who has trouble with English or math, they’re probably having a much harder time than I am with this form of schooling.”
Though Jett doesn’t have a sense of what “normal” grade nine would be like, he says that he does believe high school students are doing a lot more work than in regular times. “We have to do so much in a small amount of time and get twice as much work in. These first two months, there hasn’t been a day where I don’t have homework or a test to be done.”
He’s glad that he chose the in-school option to truly get that “high school” experience, but in terms of learning he says strictly online would have been easier. “I will be continuing in the hybrid program, because I’ve gotten used to it and I’m going to stay with what I know. It’s all strange, but it’s doable,” he says about his decision for next semester. “But the students who are online… it’s a tough decision for them to go back in person if they’re debating it.”
So, with the added complication to schooling with the hybrid program, where does this leave our high school kids?
Emily Richard, a high school student at General Amherst, says that her school—and most schools around Windsor-Essex county—have a Student Success team. In some schools this means having specialized teachers available for assistance, but in Emily’s case, she and other students are set up as “experts” in subjects and are made available as tutors. This is a great resource for any student who may feel nervous to ask an adult for help and want someone closer to their age group to relate to.
The high school hybrid program has presented more challenges than the online grade school option, because these students are sitting in a single subject for up to 300 minutes. With our decreased attention spans, students are missing a great deal of the content. Julie Fader, owner of Head of the Class tutoring, says this inevitably changes how accessible teachers need to be to students.
“When you have kids who have missed one day of school, but now that means they’ve missed a unit and a half of grade 11 functions, there’s a sense of urgency to get their feet back on the ground,” she explains. “And you have to make sure the emotional support is there and not just the content. For us, it means looking out for the mental wellness more than we already had.”
In these challenging times, we all have to “do business” differently. These out-of-the-box thinking strategies like pod schools, creative teaching methods, and independent learning can only be successful if we show kindness and compassion to the kids in our lives. Sometimes, all the student needs is for you to reach out, ask them how they’re doing, and say, “You’re doing a good job.”
Something that simple could be the difference between student success and student overwhelm.