‘Home-schooling has been a bit of a bust.’ Parents share tales of fun and frustration from the front lines of learning at home

The first week in, Laura Fraser Ash gave up.

“We’ve thrown home-schooling out the window,” said the Burlington mom of three children ages five and under.

“Our days consist of negotiating meltdowns, me hiding in the kitchen with an enormous mug of tea, and trying to keep the baby away from my husband’s Skype work phone calls.”

They’re not alone. While some parents are on social media proudly posting their children’s daily schedules and photos showing kids hard at work, there are just as many who struggle to juggle things at home now that schools are shut down for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Parents can’t get their teens off the Xbox at night — and then can’t get them up in the morning. One mom said her daughter burst into tears when she simply asked her to study. Another mom tweeted that she has only just come to learn that her daughter doesn’t really know how to tidy the kitchen so she is “bringing home ec back to the curriculum.”

Their tales from the home-schooling trenches are frustrating — but also funny.

In Burlington, the Ash siblings — Maggie, 5, Alice, 3 and Owen, 1 — have been learning a lot around the house, planting seeds for a new garden, building forts and enjoying story time together. But mother Laura Fraser Ash says the days also include meltdowns, her hiding in the kitchen with a mug of tea, and keeping the baby away from her husband's work calls.

Fraser Ash, a primary school teacher, noted her daughters Maggie and Alice — who are 5 and 3 — are now “working collaboratively.”

“They have hilariously learned how to both sit and pee on the toilet at the same time,” she said.

Sara Milroy woke up Monday morning with good intentions, then ended up reading the news online and went down a “rabbit hole” before realizing half the day was gone and her two boys were still in bed, as her husband worked in the basement.

“Our reality is, we’re all staying up too late, and we are all sleeping in because we are not in a routine,” said Milroy, an elementary music teacher in Peel.

She’s come to terms with her boys Brennan and Callum, in Grades 5 and 8 respectively, playing video games, because they do so virtually with friends and she can hear them laughing and having fun at a time when they miss those social connections.

“We will figure it out as more information is released and shared” by boards about learning plans for kids next week, she said.

“I’m not going to sweat it right now.”

Emmett Szego-Sorrenti, 13, with sister Eve Szego-Sorrenti, 9, enjoying some time in a near-empty park close to their Toronto home.

Toronto mother Andrea Szego, whose son Emmett is 13 and daughter Eve is 9, said the time spent together means “we’re laughing more — but we’re (also) fighting more because of proximity.”

Speaking by phone — as her children screamed and wrestled in the background — she said, “We try to keep a schedule, but it changes daily.”

Still, she tries to squeeze in outdoor time, school work, fun stuff and “Operation Wipe Down,” which involves disinfecting common surfaces in the house.

“To be honest, I’m finding that all of a sudden, it’s 11 a.m., or 4 p.m., and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much done,” Szego said.

Toronto mom Carla DeSantis is blunt: “Our first week of home-schooling has been a bit of a bust.”

Her two sons in university are busy with online classes — but her daughter, in Grade 9, isn’t as motivated. One of her teachers reached out via Google classroom with links to resources, but otherwise, DeSantis has been coming up with ways to keep her daughter engaged, including compiling a stack of books for her to read.

But with teens, she said, “nothing is happening before 11 a.m.”

On Friday, DeSantis says they were “trying to get back on track … I just told her to not tell me about her interesting dream but to write it down — (I’m) grasping at straws here.”

A photo taken with a drone shows the efforts made by the Kahn kids to brighten up their west side driveway, and neighbourhood.

In Guelph, Lisa Kahn’s children, Avery and Grayson, spent two long days painstakingly colouring the driveway, brick by brick, with chalk.

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“It’s brought many smiles to our neighborhood,” wrote Kahn on a Facebook page where parents have been sharing their kids’ outdoor chalk art.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said when she first heard about the shutdown, she assumed they’d have a schedule for her younger daughter, who is in Grade 10.

“Then reality set in,” she said.

“The hardest thing is getting her head around the fact that she’s not going to school anytime soon — she can’t see her friends in the same way she’s used to” and she also misses the certainty and routine of school.

“And there’s the anxiety about what’s coming next,” said Stiles, adding it’s important to focus on kids’ mental well-being as well as their physical well-being during such stressful times.

The family — her husband is now working from home and her eldest daughter now back from Concordia — is eating dinner together and frequently touching base during the day, something that doesn’t normally happen in their busy lives.

Fraser Ash noted that for young kids, “so much of their learning happens with how they interact with the world around them.”

And even though that interaction has been significantly limited by where they can go, there’s still plenty of opportunities around the home for learning.

“I’m not really in the mental head space right now to sit down with my kids and educate them in a formal way,” said Fraser Ash. “They might even be ready for that, but I’m personally still coming to terms with everything that’s happening. And putting that extra stress on myself, and my kids in what’s already a stressful situation, is a lot.”

Still, Fraser Ash says the kids “have probably accidentally learned more than I intended.”

“We planted some seeds for a new garden and they’ve watched them sprout,” she said via telephone as her girls played noisily in the background with baby brother Owen.

“They’ve built forts, had them collapse, and built them again.”

Milroy is worried about her older son moving to Grade 9 next year with gaps in his math knowledge, so she has ordered workbooks and hopes he can finish maybe a page a day.

“In our heads, we keep wanting to try to do as much as we can,” she said. “But we are sleeping in. We are staying up late. We are baking. We are eating. We are talking. And we have actually been able to slow down through this whole thing, which is nice.”

“But as a parent, and as a teacher, I know we will sort through this. The kids will be OK. Whatever disruptions we have this year, we can deal with that at the start of next year.”

Eloise Tan's two sons, Theo (left), age 5, and Jonah, age 3. On homeschooling, Tan says: "It's messy ? it's what our reality is like."

Eloise Tan, who has two boys ages 5 and 3, said at their place, the “learning” is mostly “daddy has to do the laundry, do you want to help him?” That said, her eldest, Theo, has also been practising his letters.

“It’s messy — it’s what our reality is like,” said Tan, the director of research at advocacy group People for Education.

While parents might struggle to get their kids to do school work, there are other things — like communication, collaboration, responsibility — that can be honed while they are at home, she added.

“Bringing kids into the daily life of what’s happening doesn’t need to be seen as separate from learning,” Tan said. “That is learning.”

Kristin Rushowy
Isabel Teotonio

TORONTO STAR