‘Hanging on by a thread’ . . . Home-schoolers limp towards half-term

Parents and teachers look back on an increasingly difficult first half-term of 2021

Ellen Brophy at her home in Kilkenny: “I feel as though I’m failing my children despite the fact that I’m doing my level best.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Ellen Brophy at her home in Kilkenny: “I feel as though I’m failing my children despite the fact that I’m doing my level best.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Five weeks into homeschooling, round two, and the novelty, if it ever existed, appears to have well and truly worn off. The mid-term beckons, offering a welcome respite, but the last few weeks have left many parents and teachers overwhelmed, stressed and worried about the impact of the situation on their children and students.

The parents

“I feel as though I’m failing my children despite the fact that I’m doing my level best,” says mother-of-three and marketing executive at Fioru Software Solutions, Ellen Brophy.

“My biggest concern is that my children are going to fall behind. From what I understand, the Department of Education is continuing with the curriculum.

“I’m also worried about the wellbeing of my children. They miss their friendships and I have noticed a visible difference in their moods. I do what I can to make home life a bit of fun, that’s a challenge in itself. After a day of juggling work and Zoom and Google Classroom and Aladdin and Seesaw there’s not much left in the tank to have fun.”

While Ellen says she has a very supportive boss, she admits that she’s not sure she is “managing”.

“There is a definite expectation of participation” in remote learning, she says. “I find that pressure difficult to deal with some days. Every household is going to have its own set of challenges. Mine is that the adult to child ratio is 1:3. I wouldn’t expect special treatment, but I don’t have anyone to share the pressures with, and that’s tough.

“I don’t know who was being considered when all these measures were put in place. My capacity to cope is well and truly being tested.”

Father-of-five Alan Lacasse says there has been a definite drop-off in one son’s engagement with online learning. Alan puts this down to a low number of “live” lessons. His son has decided not to return to school when they reopen. Alan believes school closures have played a role in this decision.

“If this had been a normal transition year he’d be a lot more engaged, interested and, hopefully, as was the point of doing TY, his self-esteem and confidence would be raised. As it’s not a normal TY, it’s been a complete waste of his time, causing more issues than good.”

Alan says school closures have affected his children in different ways.

“My senior infant has had no contact with her school friends, no horse riding or swimming. Having a baby added to the mix as well, it means her little world is upside down. The bigger kids have their consols and social media. Being stuck indoors with just your brothers for weeks has made them more tetchy, argumentative and surly.”

Lucinda O’Connor is a nurse and a mum to four primary school children. One of her children has additional needs.

“It’s been really challenging,” she says. “It’s very difficult to meet all their needs.” She feels frontline workers “have been overlooked. Schools in other countries have remained open for frontline workers. When I’m working 13-hour shifts, no homeschooling is done. It’s caused much upset and pressure. We only have one computer. I’ve been mentally and physically exhausted. Some days I just haven’t been able to remote learn. That makes me feel incredibly guilty and makes me feel I’m letting down my children.

“I’m extremely worried about my eldest. She’s 12 years old, has ASD and profound dyslexia in a mainstream school. She should be in sixth class. She’s already a year behind. She socially struggles massively and school is a really important part of her emotional regulation.”

The teachers

“My students are definitely getting more attention than my own kids,” says secondary school teacher and mother-of-three Jennie, explaining that she is working much longer hours preparing classes.

While engagement from students in live classes is good she says, “videos and mics are being used less” and assigned work is not always completed. Jennie says not knowing about the Leaving Cert makes it “impossible to plan and guide. Some of my students are disengaging more and more”.

As a parent, however, homeschooling is proving more challenging. Two of Jennie’s children have additional needs. Lack of time is a huge issue, and with the novelty of Zoom classes having worn off, she finds getting them to do “any school work is a battle”.

Her second-class child is not sleeping properly, and Jennie says she herself “can’t sleep at night worrying about them. I feel we are drifting further and further away from family and friends this time. No Zoom calls or quizzes, no enthusiasm from anyone to do anything. We had the summer from hell last year trying to get the boys back out with friends or back into sport activities, and we will have to start that battle all over again.

“They have always been anxious and nervous so this has just made it worse. Will they ever return to being completely comfortable around people or hugging their grandparents again? I know as a parent this is my responsibility and it’s usually a battle I fight every day. But I just don’t always have the time, or, to be honest, the fight in me.

“I believe the safe reopening of schools is an absolute priority.

“Despite the risk, I would be very, very happy if the schools opened tomorrow – for myself and my kids”, Jennie says. “The longer they are closed the more effects they are having.”

Primary school teacher Niamh says her “biggest concerns about school closures for young children are social isolation, educational setback, anxiety and behaviour problems. School is an essential part of children’s lives and there is absolutely no doubt that children have and will suffer from school closures.

“I have been in contact with all of the parents of the children in my class. They all reported their children miss their friends and struggle to concentrate doing educational activities at home. There is no doubt there has been a drop off in the last week or so, and I worry if this closure continues much longer that it will be very hard to maintain engagement.”

Niamh is keenly aware of the very different experiences children will have outside the school environment.

“Some children will have stories read to them every day, home baking, nature walks, conversation and engagement at home. But many, many children will not have this.

“I am also concerned that the gaps of educational attainment that exist in every classroom will have widened greatly during the school closures, which is most unfair on the children with the most needs, be that educational or social.

“I believe the safe reopening of schools is an absolute priority. As a junior infant teacher our whole school day centres around guided play and active learning. I can assign pages in our maths book and phonics activities every day on Seesaw, but what I really miss is seeing the children learn from each other.

“They soak up new language, learn to solve disagreements, ask and answer questions and take on roles. This cannot happen remotely. The online learning platforms we are using for remote learning are excellent tools. However they cannot and will never be able to replace in-person teaching.

“I would raise the suggestion that a pause of remote learning for two weeks with schools opened during the Easter holidays, would also relieve parents and give children more time for in-school education.”

The psychtherapist

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor says that “there is lots of concern about children falling behind academically and a lot of the discourse is about what they are missing out on from that perspective. But a far more concerning issue for me is the impact of loneliness, disconnect and isolation. Children are social beings and learn through social interaction. The loss of this may well far outlive any of the academic progress.

“For secondary school children, the major concern is motivation. Many young people are hanging on to school attendance by a thread. The less academic young people are motivated by the social incentives and hanging out with peers. This is what gets them up in the morning and gets them to go in.

Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist: “There is an unprecedented rise in the presentation of children with anxiety issues. The level of relapse of young people who have been coping well for years with conditions like eating disorders is heartbreaking.” Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan
Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist: “There is an unprecedented rise in the presentation of children with anxiety issues. The level of relapse of young people who have been coping well for years with conditions like eating disorders is heartbreaking.” Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan

“Without this, the incentive for attendance and engaging is greatly impacted, and I worry that a lot of teenagers may be lost out of the education system as a result of these closures.

“I feel the mental health of children narrative has been discarded as insignificant in all of the discussions. While I understand the needs for all of the physical measures for Covid, the mental-health impact of lockdowns requires some consideration. Many, if not all decisions, are not considering the potential mental-health impact on children, families and communities.

“There is an unprecedented rise in the presentation of children with anxiety issues. The level of relapse of young people who have been coping well for years with conditions like eating disorders is heartbreaking. Young people cannot access any of the usual routes of mental fitness – like socialising, mixing, sport and hobbies. They are also becoming fatalistic and hopeless, with continuous disappointment of cancellations and recurrent bad news.

“I’m concerned that stressed parents who are forced to become teachers is having a significant impact on family stress and relationships. The family system is under enough stress already with Covid lockdowns without adding this into the mix.

“The potential stress of homeschooling versus the potential gains to be made do not stack up for me.”

*Four tips to help families reset after midterm:

– Try to keep the family home feeling ‘safe’ by keeping stress levels low. If home schooling is causing friction, park it.

–Try to keep some semblance of structure to the day, where possible.

– Allow young people to vent about how they feel and try to remind them of what there is to be hopeful about.

– Support each other where possible. Everyone will have better days and bad days. Try to be there for each other when you’re struggling, and they will hopefully return the favour when you are struggling.

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