Pandemic forces home schooling on families

Lack of adequate broadband speed is a major problem for rural families trying to replace school with online learning

Adrienne Ivey isn’t worried about her kids not learning enough during this time of school closures and home-schooling.

“There are real-life skills being learned here every day,” said Ivey, a cattle producer in Ituna, Sask.

Those skills are being picked up more than ever these days as her 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter spend their afternoons helping out with farm tasks.

But Ivey, like many farm parents, is having problems getting her kids’ online learning system working as well as it should be.

“Lack of broadband internet. That is our biggest struggle,” said Ivey.

“Even what our teachers are sending out to us is tough to view just because our internet is so terrible.”

Most schools have begun “teaching” through electronic platforms like Google Classroom and through apps like SeeSaw. Materials and assignments are posted online, and students are able to complete and submit them. Students and parents are able to communicate with teachers through most online learning platforms, as well as by email and telephone calls.

But successful learning for at-home students relies upon children and their parents being willing and able to use the platforms, to have enough self-discipline to do the work without a teacher’s physical presence, and the ability to handle problems in learning as they arise.

“There’s stuff she’s learning in math that I’m already struggling with,” said Ivey, with a laugh, about her daughter’s assignments.

While she monitors as her kids spend their mornings doing schoolwork, some farm parents might not be able to be as involved.

“Parents aren’t just sitting around saying, ‘Hmmm, what should I do next,’” said Gerry Friesen, a mediator who is an expert on farm stress.

“This gets added to everything they’re doing already.”

The COVID-19 crisis hitting right before spring seeding piles up the intensity on farms with school-aged children. Some parents are already overstretched with farm work. Others might feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of ensuring their children don’t fall behind in their studies.

“You can only do so much,” said Elaine Froese, a Boissevain, Man., consultant who helps farm families communicate about difficult issues, such as succession.

The present school shutdown hasn’t added more hours to the day, so people spending time helping their children need to take that time away from something else they might have been doing.

For some, that might require making tough choices between essential tasks. For others, it might eat up precious relaxation time.

The latter is one area where there might be some time now freed up that could be used for helping children.

“How many people are going through (Winnipeg) Jets-withdrawal?” said Froese, joking about the suspension of most professional and amateur sports. For those who attend or watch sports on TV, there are gaps appearing in their weeks that can now be used for something else.

However, adding structure and routine to the family day will be important for most families, Froese noted. Without the enforced scheduling of the school day, some people’s days might become unmoored and that can create its own stress.

Friesen said most farm families will be able to find ways to fit the children’s learning needs into their lives.

“Farmers have this crazy ability to adapt,” he said.

However, this spring will be more stressful than many for thousands of farm families, so the added stress of home-schooling exacerbates the situation.

“There are farmers now who still have to combine a crop from last year. They’re getting ready to put another crop in the ground. It’s all-hands-on-deck and this just throws another curve ball at them,” said Friesen.

Ivey said she feels up to the challenge of helping her children keep up on their school work and keeping her family’s home healthy and happy.

If there’s one challenge she could do without it’s the bad internet access common in farming areas.

“We are relying almost entirely on cellular data,” she said.

With some many people working from home these days, the satellite-based internet access many have is overloaded and too patchy to use much.

On the other hand, Ivey the optimist feels sorry for people in town who don’t have a big farm upon which to unleash their cooped-up kids.

“It would be much more difficult to keep your kids home in town,” said Ivey.

On a farm, if you need a little bit of space, you’ve got lots to choose from.

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