Lockdown life (Photo: Getty Images)
Lockdown life (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONParentsApril 15, 2020

Emily Writes: You don’t need to turn your home into a lockdown school

Lockdown life (Photo: Getty Images)
Lockdown life (Photo: Getty Images)

Parents who have had it drilled into them that their under-10s will fall behind if they don’t homeschool all day are stressing out. There’s absolutely no need to, and teachers agree. 

Today marks a return to school for most primary school kids in New Zealand, except that they won’t be returning anywhere. It’s groundhog day with an improvised school term. School holidays were pushed forward. This likely impacted few people except teacher aides who were losing out because they’re not paid during holidays, and teachers, who likely spent the time preparing for the coming term.

Prior to the lockdown announcement, my inbox was full of parents of immunocompromised kids alarmed that they were getting grief for wanting to pull their kids out of school. Parents sent me passive-aggressive correspondence from schools around the country insisting there was nothing to be worried about and kids must, absolutely must, go to school. Parents of kids under five were told they’d lose their spots at their centres if they pulled their kids out of ECE. The Principals’ Association, which seems so often adversarial to parents, barked that families of absentee pupils were over-reacting to coronavirus. Perry Rush told RNZ: “Attendance every day that a school is open is really vital. I think it underlines the importance … of taking a really sensible and measured and carefully considered approach to what is happening so we’re not panicking each other into over-reacting.”

The principal of Wellington High School, Dominic Killalea, proved that many principals aren’t keen to take quite such a patronising approach. He seemed to think it was his job to support all students. Wild. Could that be a reflection of the diversity of the school he leads?

“If you are apprehensive about sending your student to school, we feel we are in a position to support your student’s learning from home and this is no different from any normal student absence,” he wrote.

A week after emails telling parents their child must not miss a day of school lest they fall behind forever, school shut down (Photo: Getty Images)

Early Childhood Council CEO Peter Reynolds told RNZ he could understand that fear and anxiety was driving the reaction, but it appeared that young children were less likely to be affected by the virus than adults. It hardly fills you with confidence that people understand the reality of living with someone who is immunocompromised or vulnerable.

Of course we know what happened next – a week after these ALL CAPS emails telling parents their child must not miss a day of school lest they fall behind forever and become social media influencers, school shut down.

Is it any wonder then that my inbox is now full of parents terrified they won’t be able to homeschool their children? Does it surprise anyone that parents are tearfully emailing their principals and asking what can be done to stop their child falling behind? Based on questions I’m seeing in Facebook groups, parents of under fives actually think they need to homeschool their babies. How unsurprising, given the grief they got for questioning whether their little ones should be at ECE.

Could there possibly be a connection between principals and early childhood education centres smashing parents over the head with a giant two-by-four that has “IF YOUR CHILD MISSES ANY SCHOOL THEY WILL END UP ON LOVE ISLAND” written on it?

The people I feel for in this shitty situation aren’t just parents under such pressure that they now thinking two months off school will do irreparable damage to their kids, it’s the teachers and teacher aides of this country. Already underpaid and under-resourced, they now have to deal with parents losing their minds over what seems to me a freshly fabricated mythology about absenteeism.

The priority for kids at this time should be supporting them through any fears and anxieties (Photo: Getty Images)

I‘ve talked to dozens of teachers over the last week. All told me that quietly, wherever they can, they’re telling parents of kids under 10 not to worry about school while in lockdown. They all said that the priority for kids at this time should be supporting them through any anxieties and fears they have, talking to them and reading to them. That’s it.

None of those I expected children under 10 to be doing any school work unless it was led by the child. Not one believed kids under 10 would fall behind as long as they were being read to and talked to by their parents or caregivers.

“This lockdown is an exercise in trust,” teacher Jessie Moss told me. “Teachers are suddenly feeling exposed, in that everything we are planning and providing is going straight to parents. All of our greatest fears of being seen to not do enough, not know our students properly, not be professional enough are suddenly out in the open. And the same goes for parents. They’re feeling like they perhaps don’t actually know how their children learn best or indeed what is even good for their child’s education. We are suddenly being forced to trust each other, when that has never really been nurtured, in a diabolical situation.

“The light at the end of the tunnel could, however, be increased trust and understanding. And realising that parents and teachers are not, and do not need to be, opposite sides of a coin or working in opposition to each other.”

As a parent whose child often has long periods out of school due to being medically fragile, I have a very relaxed approach to schooling. His health is more important than anything else and when he’s in hospital, he can’t be at school. I know that last year when he had a month off, the thing that mattered most was keeping his spirits up because he missed his old life.

Our school helped with sending word puzzles and books to read – which we did. But there was no expectation that he should do them. Learning through play was what was important. We watched him inject his teddy bear with pretend insulin. We watched him set up a hospital for animals with diabetes. We watched him hold a tangi for a bear who died. He talked to friends on the phone. He wrote letters with us. All of this was crucial. I cannot imagine the impact on his mental health if we had made him sit down and write for an hour a day, do maths for an hour a day, read for an hour a day.

Is there any other more efficient way to destroy any love of learning that he has? Is there any other sure way to create anxiety for him that when he returns to school he won’t be the same as his peers?

One teacher told me something that really stuck: “At their age, learning to be a learner and a decent human being is so much more important.”

I have no doubt today will be a day of huge stress for those parents who have been left thinking that their under-10s will fall behind if they don’t homeschool all day. It will make life even harder for teachers. And there will be kids under five who will have to endure “teaching” when just being in the world is more than enough learning for them.

Prior to all of this I’ve seen evidence of kids as young as three getting report cards from private ECEs trying to convince parents that their little one wouldn’t be successful if they didn’t write their own name. Parents become neurotic, kids are overwhelmed, teachers are slammed.

All of this is part of the same mess. In this country we have kids that truly, truly do not have access to quality early childhood education or primary education. They do not have access to the things kids need to learn and to grow. They do not have food. They do not have safety. I’d like to see a focus on the wellbeing of these kids and families rather than needless hysteria over the need to homeschool during a global pandemic.

One teacher who wanted to remain anonymous told me that the lockdown is exposing many of our society’s inequities, and there are so many in education. I totally agree. So does the secretary of education, Iona Holsted. She told media on 24 March, “A situation like a pandemic reveals the inequity in our system. It doesn’t create it. Many, many children in this country suffer from poor learning outcomes because of where they live and the lack of support they have. This might be an opportunity to give them more resources.”

At this time, principals and teachers need space to support families who are not safe right now. The message that parents who don’t homeschool during a pandemic are putting their kids at risk of falling behind is not just bullshit – it’s taking what limited resource we have away from families who need it most.

It’s not good enough. And it needs to stop.

Keep going!