After a year of COVID-19 outbreaks shuttered Canadian schools, kids are back in the classrooms. Or, at least, most kids are. Some parents have opted to continue online learning, creating a hybrid curriculum for children in certain parts of the country.
Some parents are overjoyed.
“They are like different people,” Toronto mother Naomi Braunstein says of her three children, who are in Grades 5, 7 and 10. “They’ve missed (seeing their friends) so much that they’re willing to even do the work. They’re just so thrilled to be back.”
Unable to see friends, visit playgrounds or do other typical summer activities like camp, Braunstein says one of her sons became so depressed she had to call the hospital, while her other children got stuck in ruts at home and became withdrawn.
“They were really like caged prisoners,” she says. Now, Braunstein says they have routines again. They have lunch with their friends and “are just so happy to be back.”
But some teachers say the process is “overwhelming,” creating an overload of work for educators already working in an underfunded institution amid a pandemic that has left many younger children socially underdeveloped and behind in their learning.
“Teachers are faced with a very close to impossible task of monitoring and helping the students in class while also helping the students online,” said Leslie Jones-Lissack, who teaches first grade at Silver Pines Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont. “It’s just not working.”
Safe, but demanding
Schools reopened across many provinces in September. While many have opted for a return to in-person learning, Silver Pines developed a hybrid back-to-school session where kids can sign on and learn from home.
Jones-Lissack teaches a “homeroom” class, meaning a little bit of every subject, from English to Physical Education. She’s been teaching for 20 years, but insists that this year is “definitely the hardest year yet.”
“I wear a mask all day. I have a face shield when I have to be close to my students and we’re constantly sanitizing,” she says.
However, “there’s always that low-level anxiety of being in a public place with people who are unvaccinated.”
At Silver Pines, Jones-Lissack teaches 15 kids in-person and three online. The latter she observes from a laptop with a web camera that is pointed at her while she guides the class.
This sounds easier than it is, Jones-Lissack says. Kids who are learning online can’t participate in certain class activities throughout the day.
Arts and crafts days, hours that would normally be allotted for gym time, recess or classes that involve field trips such as walks to the park are replaced with interactive videos. In addition, Jones-Lissack says the kids who learn online lose “much” of the social interactions needed for their development.
“Kindergarten is supposed to be play-based learning and collaborative and inquiry-based learning,” she says. “There are definitely, definitely gaps in the learning.”
Jones-Lissack said any problems she faces are magnified in classrooms where there are children who have special needs.
“In those classrooms, the teachers are finding it particularly difficult because they can’t be (in) two, three, four, five places at once, especially if they don’t have the educational assistance support,” she said.
“Educational assistants are already being pressed to their limits because we don’t have enough funding to have enough in our schools for the needs that are there.”
A year of learning disruptions
After more than a year of educational disruptions, Dr. Claire Crooks, director of Western University’s Centre for School Mental Health, said learning gaps and mental health challenges are more than expected.
“We’ve taken children away from these opportunities over the past 18 months to have those day-to-day challenges that help them grow and thrive and test new skills and now they’re being pushed back into it, which is a big step,” she says.
“Some kids more or less seem to be picking up where they left off. For others, it’ll be a really big challenge.”
For some kids, this could take the form of anxiety or depression. Clinically, Crooks defined anxiety as a response that is disproportionate to an ongoing threat.
Crooks stressed that every child is different, and the impact of the pandemic on a child’s development could revolve around a variety of different factors, including age and temperament.
Kids in junior and senior kindergarten, for example, would have missed out on opportunities to “learn how to be a friend and share and give and take,” Crooks says.
“We talk about these pandemic puppies that aren’t well socialized because they haven’t been around a lot of people. Well, these little ones haven’t had those same opportunities to be in to learn how to regulate themselves around other kids.”
But this could be different from a child who is eight or nine years old, she added, who may have adapted easily to life at home and is finding it challenging to make new friends. But kids undergoing puberty will also have different concerns, Crooks notes.
“In that group, based on their stage of development, maybe they’re going to feel really self-conscious about body image concerns if things have changed for them over the course of the pandemic,” she says.
For parents and teachers, Crooks says the uncertainty of how or when the pandemic will end, coupled with being around kids who are not yet eligible for vaccination or having a tough time readjusting to school, could also pose concerns.
“I think anybody who’s a parent or who works with kids has concerns because we all see the impact that this has been, very stressful for children and youth, and there are increased mental health challenges and there are lags in reading,” she says.
What parents can do to help kids learn outside of school
According to Crooks, routine, predictability and stability can make a big difference in a child’s mental health.
She urged parents and teachers to develop routines and a “compassionate stance” for children and families who may have had vastly different pandemic experiences, which she says is “probably more important than rushing to make sure that they’re caught up in all their activities and math.”
“Kids are going to catch up and they’re going to develop the skills they need to develop,” she says.
Jones-Lissack says there are a lot of simple activities parents can do to help further their child’s development outside of the classroom.
Helping children with chores such as setting the table or sorting the recycling bin and having their kids count how many plates are being put out or how many pieces of plastic are going in the bin are good exercises, she says.
Reading inclusive books about other cultures, anti-bullying and anti-racism, or books that help children feel more confident about themselves and their bodies can also help ease social anxieties children may be having about re-entering school.
“If they don’t know how to get along with others … then it’s a little harder for them to really be able to focus on the learning,” Jones-Lissack says.
“Helping them to come into the classroom with an open heart and an open mind so that they can build these sort of relationships when they do arrive at school — to me, that’s more important than even the reading and writing.”
Crooks said parents can also do breathing and self-regulating exercises with children to encourage mindfulness.
“The best is for parents to do them with kids and kind of model that and support that instead of just telling kids what they should do,” she noted.
Parents can also practice teaching and modelling optimism for kids, which she said have “promising impacts” on a child’s development. Things like asking kids how they are feeling and talking to them about topics non-pandemic related could also be helpful, she says.
“Another part is just giving space for kids to be kids and being careful about how much, depending on their age and stage, news and bad news we’re exposing them to and things that make them feel like they have no control over it,” she adds.
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