PEI·CBC Investigates

How much are P.E.I. students learning at home?

P.E.I. education officials say they're not tracking how many students are doing their school work at home during the pandemic, because they don't want to penalize students who are in a situation that was beyond their control.

Education officials not tracking school work done at home during pandemic

Tara Russell helps her kids with their school work at the kitchen table of their home in Pleasant Grove, P.E.I. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Tara Russell makes her way around the kitchen table dividing her time among her four children, ages four to 10, with their homework.

"Do you want to do math or writing?" she asks Abi, 6, who replies with a shake of her head. They settle for her drawing a rainbow and labelling the colours. Today, school is art and English.

The family has one laptop, so Russell uses a newly-purchased printer to print off assignments so all the kids can do their work at the same time. "Otherwise we'd be here the whole day," she said.

Teachers send assignments, instruction videos and answer any questions they have, said Russell.

Robbie, 4, doesn't have homework but Russell gives him colouring to keep him busy and make him feel he's part of the homework effort. "I'm colouring my lizard, mom," he tells her.

Tara Russell works with her daughter Eva to make sure she understands her math assignment. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Isabelle, 8, opens her books and starts her work. Eva, 10, asks for help interpreting a math assignment.

"It can be busy but you just have to always say 'OK. I'll be with you in a second,'" said Russell.

Russell, a nurse, works 12-hour shifts — sometimes days, sometimes overnight — so it's been impossible to set up a routine schedule for school work. Her husband, Gerry, also works outside the home. "Some days we don't do homework. Some days we do homework on the weekends. It just depends on what day I have to work and what works for all of us."

Abi Russell, 6, says she does not like doing homework. Today she is covering art and English by colouring a rainbow and labelling the colours. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

She said it's been manageable and she's enjoyed having the kids at home. But it is an effort to juggle work and school at home.

With just days left before the official end of the school year, she's glad to see the start of summer.

"In the beginning it wasn't so bad. The kids were happy to have something new to do while they were stuck at home," said Russell. "As the days get nicer, it's definitely a little harder to sit them down and get them to focus on homework." 

Logged in at least once

The Russell kids are among close to 20,000 P.E.I. students at 62 schools who have been learning from home for nearly three months — ever since the schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

'It was a challenge at first of course to get the kids in the routine,' says Ernie Noye, right. His wife Nina Arsenault and their sons Brody, 9, and Josh, 8 are pictured with him. (Submitted by Ernie Noye)

An average of 94 per cent of students logged into their school Google Classroom accounts at least once since schools closed, according to the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. The department didn't track whether students ever logged in after that first time.

Logging in that once also varied dramatically depending on grade. For example far fewer kindergarten to Grade 2 students logged on. 

And beyond the logging in, no one in the Education Department is measuring the quantity or quality of the work the students actually did while at home. It's not clear whether individual teachers may be tracking. The P.E.I. Teachers' Federation declined an interview.

It's a similar situation across the Atlantic region. CBC News surveyed schools in Atlantic Canada to gauge how schools were connecting with students at home. The numbers vary between 89 and 98 per cent of students connecting online or by phone with their teachers.

Brody, 9, holding the saw, and his brother Josh, 8, are getting some hands-on education in home repairs from their father. (Submitted by Ernie Noye)

Ernie Noye of Summerside and his wife, Nina Arsenault, have been teaching their boys, with support from their teachers, at home. Arsenault helps Brody, 9, and Josh, 8, with school work in the morning, and Noye takes them along to help with his home repair business in the afternoon.

"It was a challenge at first of course to get the kids in the routine," said Noye. "Now that we've been doing it for so long they know what's expected of them and it's not usually a challenge."

Noye said the boys seem to enjoy spending time with him and learning hands-on skills — they've been helping him paint, do baseboards, saw wood, and shingle a roof.

He considers it part of their education, too.

Ernie Noye has taught his young sons how to shingle a roof. (Submitted by Ernie Noye)

His family has been managing, he said, but he knows other families are really struggling.

"I do hear from some other parents that, you know, maybe their work schedules are different or they have a little maybe more kids or different age kids and and just with everything, they're finding it hard to cope and getting frustrated and stressed," Noye said.

What's worked and what hasn't?

A survey from the Department of Education to all parents is asking "what has worked well and what has not" to prepare for school in the fall. It asks about access to technology and the internet, how students and parents managed with home learning, whether they got enough support from teachers, and child care issues.

The P.E.I. Home and School Federation also asked parents for feedback. 

Heather Mullen, vice-president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation says 'everybody has been faced with such a change,' figuring out how to help their kids learn from home. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Heather Mullen, vice-president of the federation, said they've heard "quite an array of responses." Lack of technology has been a big challenge, as has accessing reliable high-speed internet. 

But some families are struggling for other reasons. 

"There's always concerns about the families that are … having struggles with literacy in their homes, having struggles with food, having struggles with, you know, even people being home, because you don't have child care and people have to go to work. There are so many different situations when it comes to children learning at home," said Mullen.

"It's very hard to say, you know, 'We should have done that. We could have done that. How could things have been different.' Because again everybody has been faced with such a challenge." 

Tara Russell bought a printer so she could print off her kids' school work. 'Otherwise we'd be here the whole day doing homework,' she says. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

They're not covering the volume of material they would be getting in the classroom, but Russell said all kids are in the same boat, and she's confident her children will catch up on what they missed. 

"The kids are so young and they adapt so well," she said. "Once hopefully they get back to school in September that it'll just be like riding a bike. They'll just get back on and keep going."

Noye said his sons' teachers have provided material and a lot of support. But he knows that isn't enough for some kids. 

"Some kids it may not be easy to catch up when they get back in, or if they miss this, you know, are they going to get it back. It's just a tough situation. And the longer it goes on obviously the more they're missing right."

Art is on the home learning agenda as Nina Arsenault works with her two sons. (Submitted by Ernie Noye)

While he's enjoying spending time with his boys, he's looking forward to the return to school.

"You know you can't compare your living room schooling to a classroom schooling you know as much as or as good as we try to be. We can't beat the teachers in the school system," said Noye.

'Turn on a dime'

P.E.I. education officials distributed more than 1,400 Google Chrome laptops loaded with Google Classroom to students who needed them, focusing on high school and intermediate students and those with special needs. Another 600 students who have poor internet connections were supplied with printed materials from their teachers. In addition, teachers emailed, called or texted students, according to the province.

"We were really pleased to see that students and parents and families were engaged right from the get-go," said Gilles Arsenault, a senior advisor with the department and head of the fall readiness committee.

'Parents have to realize that they've done a great job,' says Gilles Arsenault, senior advisor with the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Teachers have been doing "a phenomenal job," said Arsenault, reaching out to students through video conferencing, music, challenges, support and messages to keep their students motivated.

"You're looking at a group of professionals that had to turn on a dime to make sure that home learning was going to be a success."

Some teachers were already using the technology before the pandemic, but others got one-on-one training over the past two months, on the various teaching tools available through Google Suite, like instructional videos, documents, posting homework assignments, and offering feedback.

But learning at home has been drastically different than in the classroom, with fewer subjects being covered, and less work to complete.

Russell writes instructions for her daughter Abi, 6, to help her understand her school assignment. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"We have to also be mindful that the learning experience is not only on the curriculum side," said Arsenault, outlining stories he's heard of how students are getting a different kind of education at home, even if "it might not be learning experiences that we can be accountable for or that we can mark on the report card." 

While some students may be less interested in material the school has provided, they may be learning from their parents, siblings or grandparents about things like, how to cook, repair an engine, or plant and care for seedlings, said Arsenault.

"Parents have to realize that they've done a great job," said Arsenault, "in providing a broader education."

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.

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