Unprecedented in every way, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it, not least of all how we educate our children. With schools closed, children are now learning remotely, leaving many parents wondering how their academic progress will be affected. Joel Westheimer, a professor in the Faculty of Education who holds the University Research Chair in Democracy and Education and the education columnist for CBC Radio in Ottawa, shares his insights into this singular version of “distance education.”
What is your main message to parents who are concerned with how school closures might affect their children’s education?
I don’t think parents should be overly concerned about kids falling behind or needing to catch up. There will be a lot of accommodations in the fall at the K-12 and university levels for kids who haven’t received the same kind of grading, who haven’t taken standardized tests, or who have missed certain aspects of learning in the classroom.
Parents should not be worried about learning loss. We can’t only look at what kids are missing when they don’t follow the “normal” curriculum. We also have to look at opportunities for learning that are unique to this time. What can children learn from the world around them now — the crisis and the world’s response to it? What can children gain from time with family, from watching nature, from cooking, playing, creating? Let’s talk about learning gain and not just learning loss.
Do you have any tips for managing learning from home?
One of my main recommendations to parents is to help your children structure their day. The day should have times when kids are engaged in cognitive, physical and hands-on activities, like cooking, gardening, or building something. That’s very important because we don’t want kids, or adults for that matter, spending eight hours a day scrolling through social media. First of all because it’s not very useful but, secondly, because it can lead to depression, and we know that depression can actually lead to a compromised immune system — something especially worrisome during a pandemic.
I would most want to see parents drawing on their own resources and interests, and on their kids’ interests and passions, to develop activities based on what is available to them. If a parent plays a musical instrument, maybe this is a good time to teach those skills to their children. If Mom or Dad is a writer, then do a writing project. If a parent is a health worker, professor, or policymaker, then look into the social, economic, and political effects of pandemics.
What would you say to parents of high school students who are worried about their school year and handling schoolwork remotely?
The Ministry of Education in Ontario has, in general, struck a very balanced and reasonable set of expectations, whereby it offers online resources while also making it clear that this isn’t do or die. To the extent that it helps you and your child, use those resources. But don’t let them add an extra layer of stress to an already stressful time. Universities, for example, are making accommodations for next year which will take into account the missed school time.
High-achieving kids are going to feel like they want to do it all. But sitting in front of a screen is not the same as being in a classroom. Parents should watch out for that. Is your child getting exercise? Is your child getting away from their screen and doing things offline? I prefer to see hands-on, project-based learning and using worksheets as little as possible.
What is your advice for parents of primary school students?
The advice doesn’t change much, but primary school students will need more help structuring their day and they will need a little more attention. I think it’s great if they can check in occasionally with their teachers and their classmates online. The time requirements in front of the screen should, of course, be less than in high school. Make sure they’re not getting lost in their screen for hours and hours.
How do parents, particularly of younger children, reconcile working from home with their children’s schoolwork?
This is a tough one. You should certainly look out for yourself and your family, and limit the amount of work that you can expect to do. For everyone’s mental health, you should not stress about a child watching movies, for instance. You don’t want them in front of the screen the whole day, but you have to balance work demands and what you can do. For those lucky enough to have two parents working from home, you can take turns. Most employers will be giving parents a little leeway in what they can and can’t get done.
Can you think of another situation when school was out for a prolonged period? If so, how did it affect children’s education?
In our lifetime, there’s never been this kind of global pause. I think, in some ways, a global pause is easier to manage than isolated events, such as school closures due to a strike, which occur in one place while the rest of the world keeps going. That’s when you get more of a sense of falling behind.
There’s no evidence of long-term damage to children from missing a few months of school. The pandemic is a unique situation whereby everyone is going to be “behind,” so let’s acknowledge that and take it to heart. We’re all taking a pause.