'Educational paralysis': Private schools offer at-home learning, public students still waiting

Experts say students and families need at-home learning for mental well-being during pandemic uncertainty

Vanessa Blanch · CBC News · Posted: Apr 02, 2020 8:00 AM AT | Last Updated: April 2

As students in New Brunswick wrap up their third week at home, anxiety around the absence of a home learning plan is growing.

Premier Blaine Higgs promised an education plan would be rolled out late this week or early next, and said the Department of Education is working on a virtual learning plan.

Fredericton Grade 12 student Sydney Campbell says being home with nothing to do is only contributing to her stress and anxiety.

"I'd really like to see online classes because, as a graduating student, I'm really worried about missing curriculum that I'll need. I'm also worried about all my grad events."

Meanwhile, private schools in New Brunswick and public schools in other provinces have introduced e-learning plans for their students.

'Healthy routine' crucial for kids

Paul McLellan, head of school at Rothesay Netherwood, said his 300 students returned from their spring break on March 16, and began their online learning "immediately," on March 17.
"We think it's pretty important that kids, especially at this time, maintain a healthy routine," McLellan said. "We're experts in the education of students, but we're not experts in online learning. But we're doing a pretty good job. We're learning how to learn online."

McLellan's students all have their own laptops, and course information has alway been posted online so the infrastructure was already in place to hit the ground running.

Classes have been held by video-conference and all staff, including counsellors, have been available to students and families for support.

In addition, each student at Rothesay Netherwood is assigned an advisor, and they are talking to every student at least once per week.

"Their mental health is something that we can't lose sight of," McLellan said. "So that's why it's pretty important to us that all of our services are still available."

After the first two weeks of their "At-Home Learning Plan," McLellan surveyed students and families.

He said with everyone, including his staff, under stress right now and many looking after their own children and parents, it wouldn't be realistic to expect anyone to complete a normal school day.

Grade 6, 7 and 8 students are spending between two and three hours each day on school work, Grade 9 and 10 students, three hours, and Grade 11 and 12 students, four hours.

"Most parents are pretty anxious about this — and you know kids feel that so they need to have something they can do."

McLellan said an abbreviated school day where students are spending just their mornings or afternoons in classes or completing assignments is "completely OK" and will help with the anxiety so many are feeling.

Level-playing field not realistic

Earlier this week, education officials in New Brunswick said they were focused on the mental health of students and families, and school guidance counsellors started offering telephone support on April 1.

New Brunswick Teachers' Association president Rick Cuming said the plan for education moving forward must provide a "level playing field," and take into account "the inequitable distribution of technology."

But, that may not be easy, according to Beyhan Farhadi, a public school teacher in Toronto who completed her ​​​​​​PhD research looking at the relationship between e-learning and educational inequality. 

Farhadi said in an emergency like this, teachers will have to accept that some students will be left behind.

"I know that there are going to be a couple of students who are completely going to fall off the map," she said.

Farhadi said while some students won't have the support from parents, or the technology they need to be successful, educators still need to roll out a plan for e-learning.

"My key is prioritizing the students with the greatest need, not prioritizing the greatest number of students, because ultimately designing for inclusion requires us to remember those who are most vulnerable of getting lost in the system."

Farhadi said with schools closed indefinitely, she will be trying to contact by telephone the students she knows will struggle.

"Maybe just two a day … just spending about half an hour doing that and hoping for the best on the other end because when you're preparing in an emergency we can't expect perfection."

Farhadi said the focus must be on making sure as many students as possible have access to a routine, and that those who fall behind aren't punished when school resumes and they haven't completed assignments or tests.

'Educational paralysis'

With routines out the window and no indication of how long schools will be closed, Sydney Campbell worries the grad activities she's been looking forward to won't happen.

"I think it's only fair that I get to walk the stage and get my diploma just like every other class has before me. I'm really anxious about that. It's just the stress of missing one half of your entire graduating year."

She has a dress for prom, but said it might have been a waste of money.

Ross Leadbetter, a retired teacher and principal in Fredericton, is now the CEO of an education not-for-profit called iHub Learning Inc.

He has a 16-year-old son at home, and understands the struggle of finding a routine, but said parents can break the "educational paralysis" that's settled in for many with no at–home learning plan from schools.

"You don't need to wait. Learning how to bake or build birdhouses is just as useful as anything because content isn't really the objective … it's training the mind how to think."

Leadbetter thinks parents should leave the curriculum to teachers who will come out with a plan, and instead find a project to work on with their children or a problem that needs to be solved.

"It has nothing to do with being online." he said of engaging children in learning at home.

"If you have kids, you have been educating for a long time and that's the stuff that I really feel that we should talk about and preserve — that sacred role as a parent — and enjoy it."