Ottawa women's shelter creates learning 'pod' for kids

Harmony House has set up a makeshift classroom where the children of women living at the transitional shelter can be home-schooled together. So far, five students are signed up.

5 students signed up for remote learning at Harmony House's new 'classroom'

Early childhood educator Michelle Inglis meets one of her students. Inglis will be on hand to help the young learners attending Harmony House's 'classroom.' (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

The women at Harmony House have enough to worry about without adding their children's schooling to the list, especially during the current uncertainty.

So the Ottawa women's shelter has set up a makeshift classroom where the kids can be home-schooled together. So far, five students are signed up.

Harmony House is a transitional shelter where women and their children fleeing domestic violence can find longer-term housing instead of a single room at a traditional shelter. Most of the families there have been living in their own kind of bubble since the pandemic began.

Family support worker Jade Lickers said as the new school year loomed, she and a colleague decided to empty out a boardroom, turn it into a classroom and hire an educator.

"It was a comforting feeling for moms knowing that they're going to be safe and also get that education that they need so dearly," Lickers said.

The online learning will take place in this boardroom, which Inglis has decorated to make the kids feel like they're in school. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Anxious times

"It solves the anxiety part for me," said Nadia, whose 11-year-old son will start classes in the new "pod" on Monday. CBC isn't using Nadia's surname or her son's name to protect them from the stigma often associated with domestic violence.

Nadia, who has four children, has stayed at Harmony House on two separate occasions after running away from a violent partner. She now works with other women there as a peer support worker. 

She said many women were finding the remote learning option difficult to navigate, especially for those looking for work and trying to rebuild their lives. Sending their kids back to school came with its own concerns because they knew a single infection could result in a lockdown at the facility.

Nadia and her four children have stayed at Harmony House on two occasions. Her 11-year-old son will be one of the students starting Monday. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Nadia said the home-schooling option came as a relief.

"Just to be able to bring your kids somewhere that you know is like family and close and you can trust, that's a really good feeling," she said.

Nadia said her son had a lot of anxiety about starting Grade 7 in a new middle school without his siblings.

"It was scary for him," she said. "This is home for him, so when I told him, he was jumping up and down and rolling around a little bit."

Her son will be one of the older students, and has taken on a role as a mentor to some of the younger children, Nadia said. 

Jade Lickers, a family support worker at Harmony House helped create the new learning pod for the children at the shelter. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Routine is key

While the curriculum will come from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's virtual school, Harmony House has hired a recently graduated early childhood educator, Michelle Inglis, to help the kids feel like they're in a real school.

"During the pandemic it's very stressful for the little ones, as well as the adults, so I think providing them with a recess and that schedule will help them feel comfortable and get used to the routine," Inglis said.

Inglis has spent the last week decorating the classroom, including posters with positive messages like: "You are smart, you are kind, you are important." 

"I just wanted them to be reminded that they're strong, they're capable and they can succeed no matter what's thrown at them," Inglis said.

'Providing them with a recess and that schedule will help them feel comfortable and get used to the routine,' Inglis said. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

It's those touches that convinced Nadia that she had made the right choice for her son.

"I'm excited to have a real educator," she said. "And for me that would have meant maybe not going to work, and maybe not having time to spread out between the four children, because they're all in different grades, and I'm not an educator."

Lickers said Harmony House is hoping to get donations to pay for more school materials, including tablets and headphones.

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