When I am asked about teaching remotely during a pandemic, my mind often drifts back to an old television commercial for the snack mix Bits & Bites. It featured a smooth-talking backyard neighbour, explaining how every time he reached into the bag to pull out a handful of goodies he’d end up with “whole new ballgame.”
Since March, that is exactly what teachers and students have been facing at all levels of education, from primary grades all the way up to university and college. Remote learning is indeed a whole new way of doing things, to which many on both sides of the equation have had to adjust.
This is not to suggest that the rest of society has not faced similar difficulties. My heart goes out to those whose jobs and incomes have been interrupted by COVID-19, especially as we experience this second wave of the virus and another lockdown.
But education, for a number of reasons, seems to invoke opinions on both sides of the coin. On Monday, as students of the District School Board of Niagara and Niagara District Catholic returned to fully online learning, a phone-in discussion on a local radio station revealed many parents upset with having their children stuck at home rather than back in class after the two-week break.
I don’t think I am saying anything controversial by claiming that online learning is not for everyone. I can also claim the same about online teaching. As a high school teacher with the DSBN, I could have taken the plunge into becoming an online teacher years ago, but opted against that. I know that my strengths lie in connecting with students in the classroom, not over fibre optics.
As well, when September started, teachers across the province had to learn to adjust to the whole new ballgame of cohorts. At DSBN secondary schools, that means one class a day, first on a two-week rotation, then on a one-week rotation, with two separate groups in class on different days, while also having to manage and teach those students who opted not to physically return to the buildings for valid reasons. And of course, we all wear masks all day, which constantly slip down below our noses as we try to project our voices to the back of the room. Try figuring out whether or not a teenager is understanding your lesson when all you can see is their eyes.
My colleagues in the elementary grades face similar stresses, and many report feeling completely burned out this year like never before. Many secondary school teachers spend their evenings developing lessons they can deliver synchronously to students both in class and at home. And during my recent conversation with university professor Joseph Brown, he discussed the problems and challenges that he faces teaching online, from the lack of energy from the students to the inability to sufficiently implement interventions.
Not surprisingly, mental health has been a big focus during the pandemic as well. A recent article in the St. Catharines Standard focused on the DSBN’s mental health team, and the efforts they have put forward to support students during this difficult time. The gist of things is that no one really knows what the long range effects of the pandemic will be on students once things are closer to normal.
Nevertheless, this is the situation in which we find ourselves. Believe it or not, there are ways to get the most out of it from a student’s perspective. And parents of students of all ages can encourage their children to use some of these suggestions.
• Be sure your child is on a set schedule for remote learning. Much of this will be decided by the teacher, but be sure to stick to a schedule.
• If possible, find a spot somewhere in the house that will be conducive to online learning, an area with few distractions. It’s probably best that they are sitting at a table or desk to provide the same type of in-class experience they would likely have at school.
• Parents need to be present and involved in their child’s learning as much as they can. Ask questions at the end of the day and check on their mental health.
• When the learning sessions are over, try to encourage them to move, to have some kind of physical activity, to get outside and do something they enjoy doing. Encourage them to step away from the screens for any break time that is scheduled in the day.
• Reach out to your child’s teacher if you are experiencing difficulties. Trust me, the teachers want to hear from you.
As a father of a student who graduates from Laura Secord this June, and another who is studying remotely at Niagara College, I can relate to the difficulties many parents are facing to keep their children motivated and on track without attending school. My message to you all is hang in there, there’s light on the horizon with the vaccine coming soon. We’ll be back to the old ballgame one day before we even expect it.