New Brunswick parents raise concerns over another return to online learning
'It's been chaotic a lot of times,' says Saint John single mother
Lori Robb is frustrated and taking time off work after the news that her two children won't be returning to school in person for at least two weeks.
The Saint John single mother says virtual learning has been a struggle, leaving her kids, nine and 13, with reduced motivation and bad grades.
"It's been chaotic a lot of times, and it's been definitely stressful," she said. "I'm not an educator, and I can't do both and work."
New Brunswick students are preparing for a return to some at-home learning for the third calendar year in a row beginning on Tuesday.
The move comes amid an Omicron-fuelled surge in COVID-19 cases and as schools in most provinces and territories also delay a return to the classroom.
Students in New Brunswick will stay at home for a least two weeks and then the situation will be reassessed weekly. Restrictions on school sports and extracurricular activities will also remain in place.
For parents like Robb, the shift back to online learning once again is "disappointing."
Her 13-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter have been frustrated by virtual learning and the reduced socialization without in-person learning.
"I feel like they don't respect school enough anymore, it's a lack of being there and having more support," she said. "They think it's not as serious as it used to be."
Robb works from home in insurance sales but is on the phone, so she can't step away to help her kids with at-home learning. Another challenge: the family only has one computer.
"If they both have classes at once it's like, 'who gets to learn today?'" she said.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Department of Education launched a laptop subsidy program to help low and middle-income families purchase devices for high school students.
Robb said she'd like to see the province do more to offer devices to families who might not have enough computers or tablets for each student to connect. That obstacle has prevented her two children from attending some classes that overlapped.
She said a survey sent out last school year asked about need, but she hasn't heard back after indicating her kids would benefit from another device.
"Just thinking that I have to teach them at home, plus go to work and make sure they're good all day while I'm working — it's really hard," she said.
'Not a surprise'
New Brunswick schools first shut down in March 2020, when the pandemic first hit the province. Two weeks later, students and teachers pivoted to online learning for the first time and did not return to school buildings for the rest of the academic year.
At-home learning continued for high school students every other day during the 2020-2021 school year, but all students went back to full-time, in-person learning this September.
Classrooms had been open with the exception of a two-week stretch when provincial employees who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees went on strike. The decision to move learning at-home for that time sparked pushback and a movement on social media to boycott online classes.
But as the province began to tighten restrictions heading into the winter, many families anticipated virtual learning could be on the horizon.
Moncton parent Jeff Roberts said staying home for two weeks — and possibly longer — will be an adjustment for his daughter in Grade 8.
"It wasn't a huge surprise — I expected it," he said.
"I don't think she's able to get the same kind of not necessarily one-on-one time, but that sort of group learning opportunity."
New Brunswick schools recorded more than 890 cases of COVID-19 from the start of this academic year to the Christmas break, resulting in temporary closures of 193 schools.
Roberts, who works in IT from home, said he welcomes the reduced risk of exposure to COVID-19, but the lack of socialization and group interaction could have a negative effect.
"The extra time to sort of develop as a teenager, hanging out with your friends in school between classes, just having all that social time — that's really important for kids," he said. "I do worry it's going to have a bit of an impact on her long term."
Roberts said he wants the province to develop a hybrid model so students who need to self-isolate don't miss out entirely on learning when they are stuck at home.
"I definitely think there's better solutions than what we currently have in place," he said.
'It's a struggle'
For Lisa Stewart-Munn, online learning will be a unique challenge. She's a mother of two and a middle school teacher in Fredericton.
She'll be teaching virtually from the classroom beginning on Tuesday and her two kids, six and eight, will be in child care.
"I worry about not only their academic progress but also that they're missing out on learning how to function in that environment," she said in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.
"It's a struggle and it makes me sad."
As a teacher, Stewart-Munn is also concerned about the impact that missing content will have on her students.
"I also worry about their mental well-being and physical well-being," she said. "Some of our kids, they eat at school, they access the counsellor at school.
"I think about those kids that aren't on the extreme end of needed services, but those kids that just need their homeroom teacher for that 'Attaboy' or 'Attagirl' every day … that is their caring adult."
With files from Information Morning Fredericton