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'The math ain't working:' Online schooling not a smooth transition for parents

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Every day, Karyn Keith feels torn between her competing roles as teacher and caregiver during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Keith has been working to ensure her daughter keeps up with her studies since schools closed, but knows the eight-year-old needs a little extra comfort during this time.

Despite her best efforts, Keith has struggled to arrange a consistent at-home learning structure. Online schooling plans haven't borne fruit. A power struggle often ensues. 

Keith is considering non-traditional learning options instead and celebrating the small wins as they come.

"Every day it's like there's this anvil swinging above my head," she said. "Like I've got to get it together, I've got to get a program, I've got to get a schedule, I've got to get this figured out. I've got to enforce this somehow.

"Then the other side is like, 'You know what? The world has gone crazy and she needs love and care and not so much (me) trying to enforce learning.'"

The dilemma is a real one for many parents around the country. Adding in-home learning for kids to an already full parental plate can be a significant challenge.

Teachers and educators have tried to make the transition as smooth as possible, but it can still be heavy lifting for some. Many parents are also adjusting to working from home while balancing other duties.

Keith, who said she has physical and mental health challenges, has been on disability for over six years. Her husband leaves their Brampton, Ont., home early each morning to work long shifts as a mechanic. 

Keith said she sees the so-called "SuperMom" posts on social media and feels it's important to note that not everyone is having an easy time of it. 

"It's really hard to figure out how to parent and take care of my home and try to help my daughter not get far behind in school," she said.

"I might have had 10 things on my checklist for today. If I got three done, it's like, 'Yay, it was a productive day.'"

Rajni Siperco, a mother of two from Oakville, Ont., said it can be difficult to make sure her 4 1/2-year-old son stays on task, especially when his two-year-old brother is screaming for attention.

She aims for about an hour of learning a day.

"It's just added to the stress level," she said. "We don't always have the same patience with them that the teachers would. We don't have the same capability — because you're not a teacher.

"The kids are very different with their parents versus being in a school environment."

Sejal Patel, an associate professor in early childhood studies at Ryerson University, said communication with children is key so they understand things will be different for a while.

"Their routines have been drastically impacted and that daily structure that they had is no longer necessarily there," she said from Toronto. "And so families can work to try to re-establish those routines and daily structure and tailor it around their own particular circumstances."

Abigail Doris, a Toronto-based registered early childhood educator, said children and adults may also be experiencing social grief.

"Children have deep and complex connections with their peers and being away from that social familiarity can be very challenging," she said in an email. "Build feeling-based conversations into your weekly or daily schedule.

"Adults may find this challenging or silly at first, but ultimately useful in understanding and supporting their children."

Keith said she is trying to stay positive and offer different things for her daughter to learn. She plans to set up a sewing machine she bought 10 years ago so they can both learn how to use it.

Keith also brought out an old instrument and her daughter is now taking video lessons twice a week.

"The math ain't working and the English ain't working," Keith said. "But you know what, she can learn to play the keyboard. That's a real life skill — music.

"If I can teach her how to cook or bake, I'm trying to focus on where the strengths lie. I try not to get too hung up on the deficits that I feel I bring to the table."

Keith added she also wants to take advantage of this "unique opportunity" to connect and be closer with her daughter in a way they might not have in the past.

"We have to adjust and figure out what works for us," she said. "I think that's a real key component for survival and sanity for families.

"It's to recognize what works, what doesn't work, play on your strengths and don't get hung up on those areas where maybe you're not doing so well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press