Parents concerned about coronavirus seek alternatives to classroom learning

Parents concerned about COVID-19 are looking for alternatives to classroom learning. Some families have the resources to help their children adapt, but there are concerns about the students who will fall through the cracks and growing calls for the federal government to intervene.

Growing calls for federal government to bridge socio-economic learning gaps

Dawnis Kennedy and her partner are working part time so they can keep their son, Kenny, 7, home from school this fall over concerns about the coronavirus. If his Winnipeg school won't allow them to do distance learning, they will home-school him instead. They've been teaching him at home since March, even during the summer. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Dawnis Kennedy pulled her son out of Grade 2 at his Winnipeg school one week before schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and she's increasingly worried about what Manitoba classrooms will look like in September.

"They're still recommending six feet [of] social distancing," Kennedy said.

"[We need] even more inside because enclosed spaces, crowded spaces, those are the places that put people at greater risk. And I don't want to put my son on the front lines."

Come fall, Manitoba's elementary school students will be back in class full time and maintaining any form of physical distancing will be a challenge for many small children, Kennedy said.

The Kennedys have already decided that if their elementary school doesn't support them in remote learning, they'll home-school seven-year-old Kenny.

It's partly to protect him because he has asthma and also to protect the Indigenous elders in his life.

"I wouldn't want to put them at risk," she said. "We rely on our elders, and so that's for us our primary concern."

WATCH | Dawnis Kennedy on why she doesn't want her son in class this fall:

Keeping kids safe

3 years ago
Duration 1:32
Dawnis Kennedy pulled her son out of Grade 2 one week before schools closed in March - and she's increasingly worried about what Manitoba classrooms will look like in September.

Across the country, parents concerned about COVID-19 are looking for alternatives to classroom learning.

School reopening plans vary from province to province, with some combination of in-class and distance learning, depending on the age of the student.

Some parents are opting for distance learning, with the help of a private tutor.

"Some parents are going to be concerned that they're not getting a full education at school. You know people are trying, but the system can only do so much remotely," said Marty McIlwain, a private tutor in Winnipeg.

He said he expects the need for his service will grow as schools reopen next month, but he is worried about the students whose parents don't have the resources to help them.

Marty McIlwain works on some math with Maddy Paulic. McIlwain runs Independent Tutors, a Winnipeg-based private tutoring company. He expects the need for his services will increase in the fall as Manitoba high school students will have some combination of in-class and distance learning. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"Some students will adapt OK, and we'll be able to make it up, but those are only a few of the students," McIlwain said. 

"A lot of them are going to slide behind, and we may be looking at losing an academic year here — and then that translates into problems next year and the next year [and] the next year."

Increased interest in private schools

In Calgary, some private schools are seeing a 15 to 20 per cent increase in the number of parents seeking information.

Delta West Academy is getting a lot of queries about class size, said head of school Denise Dutchuk-Smith.

"They're also concerned that the teachers are not going to be able to adequately enforce some of those social-distancing rules," she said.

"They're looking for someone or a school that already knows what they're going to do and has plans in place, and it's provided for some of those social-distancing measures, especially with the older children."

But not all parents can consider private school.

No computer access for half of world's students

This spring, the United Nations found that half of all students around the world — nearly 830 million — don't have access to a computer. More than 40 per cent don't have internet access at home.

Just last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the world faces a "generational catastrophe" and said getting students safely back to the classroom must be "a top priority."

In Canada, education is a provincial responsibility, but there are growing calls for the federal government to step in and provide support for students, schools and parents.

'Our futures are relying on these generations'

"We have to think of this as a national issue, not just everybody thinking about it individually by province," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, an advocacy group made up of researchers and academics in Ontario.

There have always been socio-economic and racial inequities in education, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away the equalizing benefits of school, amplifying those inequities, she said.

Ottawa responded to the economic crisis with billion-dollar programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. Now, it needs to do the same for the educational crisis, Kidder said.

Annie Kidder.
Annie Kidder, executive director of advocacy group People for Education, says the federal government must find ways to support teachers, parents and students as schools reopen in the fall. (People for Education)

She said she would like to see community centres and public libraries open for students doing distance learning, providing access to computers and adult supervisors who could take attendance and point children to academic and mental health resources.

"Let's get all the smart people together in rooms across the country and think of this as a problem we can solve," Kidder said.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say all of our futures are relying on these generations."

Kennedy said she worries that the ripple effects of the pandemic will affect children for decades to come.

That's why she and her partner are making a financial sacrifice to keep Kenny home and teach him in the fall. They're both working only three days a week.

"He's going through a global pandemic that's going to shape the way he thinks about the world and the decisions that we make. We want to show him the kind of world that we want him to live in ... that we care about people," Kennedy said.

"Don't tell me not to worry about it. Those are big decisions, and those are big choices to expose him to."

WATCH | Kennedy explains what she needs from politicians and educators as kids head back to school:

Too many unanswered questions

3 years ago
Duration 1:32
Dawnis Kennedy explains what she needs from politicians and educators in Manitoba as kids head back to school.


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at

With files from Jennifer Keene

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