The COVID-19 pandemic has made virtual learning a household phrase for almost a year now - no one could have predicted the level of disruption the coronavirus would bring to our daily lives. More than an emergency solution, virtual or online school has become a lifestyle and everyday reality for kids all across Canada. It’s unlikely that any child in school today will be able to forget this experience.
When kids first started on virtual learning in spring of 2020, the setup was often basic: it was an emergency situation, after all, with little time for teachers and students to learn new technology. Teachers posted printable worksheets (only effective if kids had printers at home), made lists of tasks for kids to complete throughout the day, and held Zoom or Google video meets that were often faulty and slow. As weeks became months, and the pandemic wore on with no end in sight, many kids, parents, and educators wondered - what would learning be like in the new year?
Provincial governments across the country struggled to create a plan for learning that would balance cost against safety: classroom sizes, in most provinces, did not change, making physical distancing nearly impossible; personal protective equipment and new guidelines for co-horting appeared in every school. Distance learning options were offered, with the understanding that it would mimic a bricks-and-mortar context as much as possible.
Do you have a child in your home struggling with learning online? Learn our strategies for helping your kids in virtual school.
Virtual Learning: Advantages and Disadvantages
Virtual learning has many advantages, the most significant one that it lowers the risk of exposure to COVID-19 to your family members. If you have elderly or immunocompromised family members, virtual learning was probably an easy choice to make. Many parents working remotely also took advantage of online school for their kids if they had a second home to retreat to: what could be better than working and learning with a lake view? Many kids with anxiety issues, a love for technology, or simply prefer to be at home have also found online learning to be a perfect option. Of course, there's no morning rush to get lunches packed, no bus ride, and the freedom to wear PJs all day - how amazing is that?
However, there are a lot of disadvantages to online learning that many parents likely realized months into the school year. First of all, it's exhausting for kids to focus on a screen all day with no context for socializing or collaboration off the screen. Many learning tools, books, and manipulatives are also missing from the online learning environment, clicking from tab to tab to access resources isn't exactly ideal. Poor internet connections also add to frustration: when you are constantly being kicked out of your Zoom call or your microphone stops working in the middle of a presentation, it can be mind-numbing. Distractions are common when learning on a computer, with games and social media platforms an easy click away and no teacher to manage your behaviour. Starting your school day from your pajamas in bed sounds fun until the afternoon hits and you realize there's no point in changing - this lack of variation in daily routine, layered with the absence of social interaction and play, can have detrimental mental health impacts.
Wondering how you are going to survive this year of working from home while your kids are in virtual school? Read our tips.
The Stress of Learning Online
Online learning emerged as a source of stress the more students spent online and families isolated together. Frustration, worry, anger, substance abuse, difficulty sleeping, low energy levels, and sadness are just a handful of the problems that cropped up after people spent excessive amounts of time in the home and living a virtual lifestyle.
Why is learning online so stressful? In an online environment, kids can often get confused without the larger context of body language and classrooms to support their learning. Students must listen closely to their teachers for hours on end, and feel overwhelmed by the amount of writing it takes to participate. When internet cuts out and our computers cannot keep up with new technologies, it can also result in stress. And of course, the regular stress factors - deadlines, cyberbullies, worries about getting the right grades, speaking and presenting in front of a large group - can all take their toll.
With so much to worry about, what can parents do to get through this challenging phase? This article explores some practical ways parents can survive online learning, create healthy learning environments from home, alleviate stress, and help kids who are struggling.
Survive and Thrive During Virtual Learning
If you’re a parent that is feeling the stress from playing the roles of teacher, parent, and full-time worker all at the same time, you’re not alone. While most parents wish they could live an ideal work and learn-from home lifestyle and keep their families sheltered from COVID-19, a significant amount families living a virtual lifestyle are just trying to survive. Let’s face it, it’s exhausting to keep your child focused, on task, and motivated while doing the exact same in your career. Let’s explore a few strategies for getting through a year of virtual learning.
Know When Your Child has Been Online for Too Long
While it’s important to be flexible with the amount of screen time our kids get during these times, we need to be aware when enough is enough. At this point, many adults are aware of when we have spent too much time looking at screens and phones: a feeling of irritability, a hand sore from texting, a feeling of boredom with the same headlines and social media posts that comes with scrolling for too long. When you see your child acting differently, is always distracted, or having a hard time looking away from their smartphone screen, it’s time to help them take a break.
Every family will have a different perspective on screen time, and have different attitudes to the type of screen time their kids are getting. Age will be one factor, as will your child’s temperament. Figure out how much screen time you are OK with, and set limits and guidelines. For example, listening to a lesson or live chatting with a family member can be prioritized over gaming and social media scrolling, and streaming shows might be better done on a larger TV than on a small phone. In any event, there are consequences to being sedentary all day and make sure that your child gets movement and outdoor time at different points during the day.
Try to Give Everyone their Own Space
Make sure everyone has their own space to focus in the home, and that each space is equipped with the supplies they need to learn. When everyone has boundaries, there is less stress - having to worry about unwanted noise or background guests creates anxiety, especially when trying to keep focused in class. If you have space limitations, mark out areas in your home for each student, equip them with headphones, and have portable caddies of supplies you can tuck away when the day is done.
Prepare Healthy Meals and Snacks in Advance
Remember those pre-pandemic days when gaining weight was a reason to set goals for fitness? Well, it’s only gotten worse now that everyone is at home eating more and moving less. A virtual day is typically spent sitting, and reaching for a bag of chips or some chocolate can be all too easy.
Keep your family healthy through the pandemic by getting in the routine of preparing healthy foods on the weekend for consumption during the week. Healthy, whole grain muffins and breakfast cookies, overnight oats, homemade protein bars and pre-cut fruits and veggies loaded in the fridge and pantry on a Sunday night makes a great source of nutrition during the week. You’ll feel truly rewarded on pizza night after a few days of healthy at-home eating!
Prioritize Health and Fitness
In addition to healthy eating, families should focus on prioritizing health and fitness during learning. Posture and alignment can be negatively affected without regular movement and ergonomic support, and your muscles can feel cramped and deteriorate without regular exercise.
Without a regular gym class to attend or recess time for running around and playing, a school to walk to, or after school sports and intra-murals, your kids lose valuable physical activity. Alleviate stress in the virtual environment by making sure fitness comes first. Spend 10-15 minutes in the morning taking a walk after breakfast - this will mean waking up early, but everyone benefits from those morning air endorphins. During lunch break, give your kid “recess” time outside - put some music on those headphones and walk around outside. Parents of small kids can take their kids to a local park or a short bike ride. Remember that as a parent, you need movement too - you benefit as much as they do from the exercise!
For colder days, pick up some inexpensive yoga mats and weights and do a fitness video from Youtube or an app. Have a dance party inside, do some burpees - whatever it takes to get your blood going! Reward good work with new fitness clothes or gear, and play games and sports whenever you can.
Make Time for Digital Detox
Digital detoxing can completely change the way you and your kids feel after extensive time online. Start in small amounts like an hour or two, and move to full days once you see the benefits. The daily rhythm of notifications and emails, the easy reach for a search engine whenever you need questions answered, the fact that phones have made their way into many of our bathrooms and bedrooms - it’s time to take breaks from it all.
Distancing yourself and your kids away from computers can be a huge challenge, especially if everyone is hooked. Plan activities that force you to look away - bake with a cookbook or printed recipe, pull out a board game, use colouring books and crafting kits, grab a book that’s not digital or audio: it can feel strangely liberating to do things away from technology. When you do inevitably return to the screen, you will feel refreshed, healthy, and have more productive days.
Make virtual learning better for your family by creating a healthy virtual learning environment for your child.
What to Do When Your Child is Struggling in Virtual School
If you notice your child appears anxious, depressed, or is behaving differently than normal over a long period of time, you might want to have a conversation with them about what is going on or set an appointment with your family doctor. Virtual learning can stressful as cyberbullying, game addiction, and relationships with others take their toll over a multitude of platforms. Ask questions, limit the sites and apps they have access to, and spend some screen-free time with your kids as much as possible. Consult with health professionals and your child’s teaching staff if you think bigger interventions might be needed.
Be proactive by building a strong relationship with your child’s teacher: they see your child in the virtual environment every day, and can give you honest and valuable insights about their behaviour. Do they turn on their camera? Are they submitting work? Participating in live chats? This kind of feedback will help you stay a step ahead and prevent or understand problems.
If the home life is stressful - be sure to inform your child’s teacher so they can come up with solutions that benefit everyone.
Look at Your Child’s Work
Sometimes the most obvious solutions are the most effective: if you see declining grades or get a warning call from the teacher, look at the work they are doing. Sometimes reviewing their math or writing work can alert you to areas they may need extra support; a look through their notebook or Google class can illuminate you on whether your child has developed their learning skills enough.
Should you notice that they need help - and you are pressed for time or too exhausted to help your child with homework regularly - it might be time to consider getting a tutor to work with your kid. A tutor can explain and review new learning with your child, provide one-to-one attention that is much needed in large virtual classes, and provide feedback or scaffolds on their big assignments. A tutor can meet your child virtually, and is typically equipped with tools to help your child learn.
Sites like Superprof have hundreds of listings for tutors near you - of course, if you prefer a virtual environment, you can choose from tutors far beyond your region.
Always Remember that You are Protecting your Community
Whatever your predicament is during the pandemic, remember that the decision to stay home is one that supports the health of your family and the community. So many sacrifices are being made right now, from social life to rites of passage, and it will all be worthwhile when we can return to regular life without worrying about seniors, the immunocompromised, and our front line workers.
When your family gets frustrated with the ongoing lockdowns, not seeing friends, family, or missing out on major life events like graduation and prom, remind them and yourself that there will be plenty of time to celebrate when everyone is vaccinated. The pandemic is simply an interruption that will stop soon - they are doing their society a huge good by limiting the spread of the virus.
Are you feeling stressed from having your kids in virtual learning? Find out our best tips for coping with virtual learning stress.
Your Family Will Get Through Virtual Learning
Never lose sight of the fact that the pandemic will end. With vaccines rolling out all across Canada, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you have gone as far to put your kids in virtual learning all year, make sure all your hard work and sacrifice are worth it by holding on for a few months more.
We all miss seeing our kids socialize freely, play sports, attend graduations and birthday parties, and simply go to school without turning on a computer. While it may take some time to go back to a semblance of our former lives, we will get there and your kids will be thankful that you worked so hard to keep them safe and healthy.