“Don’t ever use the H word in my presence,” a friend said to me not long after Victorian school children returned to the classroom in June. “The H word?”, I queried. “HOME SCHOOLING,” she gasped.
I laughed at the time at my friend’s comment. But today, I am not laughing. In fact, I am trying hard not to cry as parents in Victoria’s metro Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire prepare for another uncertain period of remote learning.
I am not disputing the need for these areas to return to remote learning. Victoria is currently experiencing a dangerous second wave of this horrendous virus and is recording hundreds of COVID cases every 24 hours. Some of the largest COVID-19 clusters have emerged from schools in Melbourne metro areas. Lockdown and isolation need to happen.
On Sunday, Premier Daniel Andrews announced that around 700,000 students in lockdown areas – notwithstanding years 11 and 12 students and pupils from special schools – would return to remote learning from next week. Parents across Victoria – particularly mothers, who shouldered most of the responsibility for supervising their children’s learning during the first lockdown – let out a collective sob when Andrews made his announcement.
Victorian parent, Danielle Amer, lives on the Mornington Penninsula, a lockdown area, with her husband and primary school aged children. Her daughter, in grade 3, coped reasonably well with home learning earlier this year, but her son, who has learning difficulties, found the experience overwhelming and stressful.
“I will be honest, I cried watching Dan [Andrews] say we would return to remote learning. Not just for me, but for my son,” she says. “He has learning difficulties, and this year has been an absolute waste for him. He’s better one-on-one and Zoom was very overwhelming for him.”
Danielle and her husband both work: her part-time and her husband fulltime. Most of the responsibility of home learning is hers, with her husband continuing to work “as normal”. The experience was stressful and not ideal for Danielle and especially her son, who struggled with the changes to his learning and routine. She describes 2020 so far as “a wasted year” for him, and for that reason, she and her husband have decided to send him to school during the second lockdown. Their daughter will also attend school, while they are both working, and return to home learning on the days that Danielle does not work.
“Honestly, I have had a lot of judgement about me wanting to continue to work,” Danielle says. “There has been none of that judgement directed at my husband though.”
Similarly, single parent, Sonya, who lives in Melbourne with her two primary school aged children says: “the first time it was a choice between my job and their schooling and I chose my job, because [of] rent.”
Sonya says she had daily Zoom meetings, meaning her children were left to their own devices for most of the day.
“My daughter logged in by herself most mornings and did a few random tasks as best she could,” she says. “But my son, who has dyslexia, mostly drew weird cartoons with his new iPad pen (not intended for the purpose), and was marketly absent for the whole term.”
Sonya is not yet sure how she will approach this new period of lockdown. She needs to work to pay rent and buy food. She is not sure if children with additional learning needs are able to attend school. “Even [face-to-face learning] for an hour each day would be better than nothing.”
Other Victorian parents, such as Natalie Walker, have abandoned the idea of home schooling altogether. From the beginning, she emailed her daughter’s principal and thanked the school for “their efforts to make work available for families” and said she would not be home schooling her child.
“I advised them that every day my daughter would read, cycle and cook and that we wouldn’t even be opening the links being sent home from school,” Natalie says. “I’m grateful for all my privileged that enabled me to do that, and that my privilege also means there will be no repercussions for me or my children because of my actions.”
Natalie began a Facebook support group for mothers after seeing “how stressed mothers were” and the pressure they felt being responsible to home school their children. She says the pressure being put on mothers is causing unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety.
For me personally, I found remote learning difficult. I have two young daughters in early primary school who required constant supervision and a three-year-old who we made the decision to temporarily remove from childcare. My husband runs his own business and was very busy during the lockdown, leaving me to juggle the responsibilities of working with home schooling and parenting. I was lucky enough to have an employer who was very supportive of my need to reduce my hours, and other supports that many parents would not have had access to. My daughters school and teachers were excellent and always flexible and supportive and there to help when we needed them. Even so, it was HARD.
So, would I do it differently? The answer is yes. I am also aware that my answer might be different if my children were older, completing high school.
I take advice from my mother and sister, who are both experienced primary school teachers. I would ditch the Google Classroom. I would focus on core subjects, such as literacy and maths for a couple of hours a day. I would encourage them to read and write and draw. I would take my children outside for a long walk every day, let them jump on their trampoline more, ride their bikes and make mud pies. After all, it’s these activities, as children, that makes them happy and helps them to retain new information.