KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Parents and teachers alike are frustrated by the lack of transparency by Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill and the McNeil government’s inconsistent implementation of at-home learning across the province during the pandemic lockdown.
The school year in the classroom came to a halt as an initial one-week March break extended closure continued through the conclusion of the term, affecting the learning of 123,000 students across Nova Scotia.
Derek Simon, a Dartmouth-based lawyer, published an open letter on May 20 to Minister Churchill ‘Minister, You are Letting Our Kids Down’, stating some parents are receiving no support with at-home learning, that teachers have not been given clear guidelines for online learning, and that the provincial government failed to provide adequate resources for parents to support their children’s home-schooling.
Simon received a response on June 23 from the Director of Policy and Planning, that indicated decisions have yet to be finalized for September.
Katie Perkins, of Hearing and Speech NS, works at Yarmouth Regional Hospital, which at one point served as the only COVID-19 assessment centre in Southwest Nova Scotia. Her daughter just finished their third grade of french immersion at Yarmouth Elementary School.
“Being a speech therapist, I know that learning a second language is best done when you are a child. Your brain is just like a sponge,” Perkins explains, adding her area had a strong French immersion program that could provide her daughter more bilingual opportunities.
Perkins described the at-home learning process as ‘difficult’ and ‘frustrating’ as she doesn’t speak French. “When your child has expectations of you as a parent and all of a sudden those expectations are changed, our role changed so I wasn’t mom anymore, I became the teacher,” Perkins said, adding a new layer of barriers of at-home learning.
“Our daughter’s teacher has a four and a three-year-old. There’s no possible way she can teach a class virtually for even a couple of hours without child care,” Perkins said.
“It’s interesting because when you’re someone who’s a rule follower and your teacher says ‘you know, you don’t have to do this with your child’, it’s not easy to walk away,” Perkins said, noting the fear of not trying adds to the stressors of at-home learning.
Lack of direction
Simon has two children, ages eight and six, who experienced two different styles of at-home learning. He attributes the inconsistencies to the lack of direction given to teachers from the provincial government.
His son participated in a digital classroom setting through Google Classroom for an hour twice a week, preserving the social aspect of learning and providing about an hour’s worth of work per day. His daughter, on the other hand, received one-on-one sessions once a week and had no digital time with classmates.
“Some were getting an hour of assignments a day, some were getting virtually none. There didn’t seem to be any kind of direction from the department or from the HRCE about expectations about how you should be teaching,” Simon said.
Most correspondence and assignments were submitted electronically, while parents could choose to receive their child’s work through mail delivery. Packages are distributed with weekly ‘junk mail flyers’ that must be opted-in if previous flyer delivery was discontinued. The flyer delivery system was an effort to navigate the barriers families face due to poor internet access or lack of technology.
Simon purchased an app for his child at their teacher’s request that provides access to an online children’s book service. Free for 30 days, Simon took on the $20 per month charge to maintain access.
Simon believes implementing the same standards across the board would provide clarity about expectations for both teachers and parents.
The inconsistency is similar for Perkins, who spends about five hours a day teaching her daughter while other families have spent less than an hour a day on schoolwork.
“Back in March when everything shut down, she understood why we had to do it. But now that some things are opening back up again and she’s seeing a couple of her friends for outside play dates, it’s almost like it’s harder now,” Perkins explained of justifying public health measures to her young child. “They don’t get the social distancing thing at all. The front part of their brain is just not developed enough for them to keep that in mind at all times.”
Perkins has been able to complete some of her work at home, but is still required to go into work for inpatients like stroke victims. “Before I was allowed to work from home, there was a short period of time where I was expected to go to work, there was no school, and there’s no March break camps,” she said, seeking advice from her MLA — Minister Churchill. “How can the province expect people to go to work with no child care in place?” Perkins wrote. His response suggested Perkins should enroll her daughter in a small daycare despite working in a regional COVID-19 assessment centre.
Teachers kept in the dark
A core french teacher in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) says teachers are receiving the same information as parents, with no advanced notice.
The teacher initially continued sending work home before Minister Churchill directed lessons to focus on core subjects like math and science. “Being a core french teacher, it was expressed very concretely from the government that the priority was to be on the core subjects,” the teacher said, focusing on math, science, and english. “I’m getting work in from noon until 1 a.m. My phone’s going so I just start marking stuff,” later adding, “working from home is not something I could do long-term.”
Perkins noted a friend who is a single mom with a child with autism received no work or resources for their child from their resource teachers when schools closed in March. The failure to provide students with the resources and assignments to succeed with at-home learning is but one example of Premier McNeil falling short of his assurance that ‘no child would be left behind’.
“At this point, we have no idea what is going on in the fall,” said the french teacher at HRCE.
High-speed internet and technology to access online resources and material have been major barriers to students who have already experienced disenfranchisement in the school system, widening the gap of inequalities in education across the province.
“Roughly I would say probably 20% of our student population did not have access to technology, so that made it really difficult for them to follow along. I found they’re already struggling and then it just kind of made that gap wider,” the teacher said.
“I don’t know who they were consulting with about this stuff,” Simon said, referring to a May 14 statement by education minister Zach Churchill, telling reporters on a conference call, “”We decided to close a bit early to give (parents) a break, and relieve some of that pressure they’re feeling.” Simon has spoken to parents across Halifax and says no parents have been consulted. It is unclear where that feedback came from, but Simon believes it doesn’t reflect the reality of parents’ experiences. “We’re three months into this thing and we’re only three months away from the start of the next school year and I just don’t feel like I’ve got a sense that they’re better equipped for [the virus] in September than they were in March.”
When the province set a date for parents to retrieve their child’s belongings from their classrooms, Simon claims educators he’s spoken with said the announcement was the first time teachers heard about the plan, which he calls arbitrary. The teacher I spoke with confirmed the announcement was the first time school staff learned of the pick-up procedures.
“Basically, every bit of information that we’ve been finding out as teachers is the same time as the general public. Everything we find out is in a press release and then our administrators start asking more questions,” the teacher said.
“They hadn’t talked to the teachers. They hadn’t talked to the administration, so no one was actually ready for kids to come pick their stuff up,” Simon said.
Elimination of school boards removed accountability
Simon attributes the difficulty of navigating many at-home learning issues to the elimination of school boards. “The problem with not having school boards is there’s now no direct line of communication or accountability tool between the school system and parents,” Simon said, adding that school advisory councils are unable to influence policy on a school board-wide level. “Now, theoretically, every parent in the province, if they have a concern has to go to one man.”
“Being a core french teacher, it was expressed very concretely from the government that the priority was to be on the core subjects,” the teacher said, focusing on math, science, and english.
“A four or five year old isn’t able to log on to their computer and just sit there and do their homework. If you don’t have a parent with them getting all the materials out and setting them up, it’s just not possible for them to do it,” the teacher explained. “Who are you writing the report card for? Like ‘good job parent, you made the time to do this’, or ‘I’m sorry because you’re an ER doctor and you were busy this whole time so your kid couldn’t [log on].”
According to the teacher, many have been using personal cell phones to maintain contact and support with students and their families with the assurance they will be compensated if they track charges and calls. To their knowledge, there is no form to submit the records or apply for compensation.
Minister of Early Childhood Education and Development Zach Churchill was unavailable for an interview. In a statement, Churchill says over 22,000 submissions of feedback have been provided to the provincial government by parents, students, teachers, and school advisory councils about their at-home learning experience.
“Our plan will be ready by mid-summer and will respond to whatever the virus looks like in September,” said Churchill. If that means a return to the classroom, great. If not, we will have learning options in place to deal with all scenarios so we are prepared to meet the learning needs of all our students.”
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