Home schooling in times of a pandemic. Worth it?

In week one of lockdown due to the coronavirus we were having a lot of fun at home with the kids. My boys are just 6 and 8 years old and generally have heaps of energy but not an equal amount of patience to sit down and do school work. So we were dancing, baking, drawing, singing, playing, dressing up and cuddling. A LOT. It was lovely. At bedtime we’d read a book and the next morning we would again come up with brand new ideas. I felt I was catching up on lost time. In Spain they are normally at school five days a week from 9 till 5. You hardly see your children during the week.

Then came week two. First an email from the teacher of infantil for the 5/6 year olds, then swiftly followed by another one from the teacher of Primaria 2. Five, six, seven or even eight attachments for several subjects, accompanied with a plan for the week and I’m sure well meant suggestions for how to focus your day around your children’s education. Your DAY yes, not hours, or a morning, but DAY. Because, sure, us parents in lockdown are suddenly all jobless and twiddling our thumbs and dying to get retrained as our children’s dedicated primary school teacher.

covid 19 mental health impact
We are lucky to have a little bit of outdoor space. Many families in Spain live in apartments, sometimes without even a balcony.

I knew it should not make me feel stressed, after all we are all in a very unusual situation, worrying to say the least, and the main objective surely is to stay calm and love our family. I admired my friend Marie who bravely emailed school administration to tell them they wouldn’t be doing any home education whatsoever (read her very funny blog post here). Good, I thought, let’s all jump on the barricades! But another friend pointed out to me that “Nina, you are rebellious, but you also want to please the teacher”… Damnit, I’m caught out, I admit it, I suffer from a split personality and it’s bugging me.

You cannot get a bunch of high wired children to do a week’s worth of maths, when they haven’t been out running outdoors for over a fortnight. Anybody who is a parent of young children and boys especially knows that these monkeys need to be ‘walked’ in the fresh air regularly just like dogs, to regulate their energy and emotions. Now in other countries with less restrictions around lockdown you can still escape to a nearby field or forest as long as you are pretty much on your own, but not in Spain. Unfortunately dogs currently have more rights to public space here than children, so the poor puppets are stuck between four walls for the next foreseeable future. Imagine living in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor and not having a balcony. Seven Spanish million children are not allowed out. It’s like a high pressure cooker.

covid 19 mental health impact
Quarantine action shot. Noise, mess and multiple activities going on all at once.

So yes. Homeschooling dilemmas. We try to find a compromise. Our children normally have week plans at school with their various assignments they have to finish by Friday, so I decided to copy this concept and make up my own simplified plan per child. In week one I got them to make up their own plans, which included anything from cuddling mummy, joining an online dance class to eating an apple in ten seconds. I mean, essential life skills right there! Last week I incorporated a few more ‘educational’ tasks from the teacher’s email. But I also happily skipped others, such as ‘sing these traditional Spanish songs with your children while dancing together’ and “do page four full of problem sums” (key: meltdown – I’ll leave that for the classroom, thank you very much). But it turned out that my children were actually OK with an hour of doing a few sums and/or spelling exercises, followed by an hour or longer of drawing (Art for Kids Hub is now a firm favourite here) and of course investigating weird and wonderful stuff on Youtube. I mean, who doesn’t want to know everything about megalodons or how cars are made? And why do animals not have belly buttons?

covid 19 mental health impact
Who needs to know about Picasso when you can learn how to draw a poop emoji?

Week three has commenced and suddenly the teachers are ramping it up. Four separate emails with attachments (our printer is broken, but “if you don’t have a printer, just let your child copy the text by hand in their notebook”. Yeah right.), and basically the same amount of tasks they normally get in class. Just as I felt I had cracked it during the very laid back and enjoyable second week of semi-homeschooling, the knot in my stomach was back. Nina, please, I told myself, just ignore them, these people are crazy. But what if, I kept on thinking, what if all the other children are neatly keeping up with their tasks in their notebooks and so when school opens again, my children have nothing to show to the teacher? If you’re like me, you will have surely had a similar non-stop stream of Whatsapp messages from anxious parents about the various assignments, showing off their kids in photos sitting at the kitchen table working and seemingly being a much better home-schooler than you’ll ever be.

covid 19 mental health impact
Need your child to write? I asked mine to make up a recipe. A favourite task that day.

Bullocks of course. First of all, for all we know, we may have our kids home until September. Yes, let that sink in. It doesn’t matter if they do the homework that is being sent. They’ll start afresh once they are back. They are not going to fail in life because of this. Secondly, while any curriculum school work is put on hold, or lessened, suddenly an opportunity is created for children to discover a wide range of other things and have control over their own learning. Indulge in their current crafts obsession, learn how to cook, find fascinating facts about nature and science on Youtube, enjoy baking cakes, help out with daily chores, read lots of comics, have a disco in the living room each night and have heaps of snuggles with their favourite people in the world: YOU. And just chill. The modern world asks a lot of our children. This morning I read this awful article in the Washington Post about how ‘homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children‘ and how long breaks end up in ‘learning losses’ and a ‘mess’. Ugh. How about adding some extra pressure to us parents while we are already stuck indoors and worried about our health. Because, oh wait, why are we all indoors again? Yes, a deadly virus.

covid 19 mental health impact
The best way to play a knight is with a waste bin on your head of course and a laundry bin lid as a shield.

Of course I can see what the article was also saying: theoretically there is a risk that those children who live in homes where parents have no time for, or even interest in spending time playing with their children or do any kind of reading or revising with them while in lockdown, may be worse off than their peers in a more stimulating environment. Children are always learning, in their own way, every day, but if one child keeps working hard on their maths, with a private online tutor if one can afford it, and another sits in their bedroom only playing Fortnite for two months… You know who will likely pass their maths exam. But that would mainly be an issue for children in secondary school. Also, more importantly, this kind of inequality will always exist, with or without a pandemic. I don’t think in any case my 6 and 8-year old will ‘academically fall behind’ by keeping on reading daily, doing the odd sums and spelling words after breakfast and for the rest just playing and bonding with their family. You might just end up with happy and resilient children.

It is great to ask your child to make their own work plan for the week. You’d be surprised what they come up with.

So what are we doing as a family at home every day? I made up a bit of a day plan, which we all religiously try and stick to or else we’d still be in our pyjamas by 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Normally it’s 8 o’clock wake up time here and straight away getting dressed, 8.30am breakfast, 9am school! We work on sums or spelling for an hour, then do another hour or more of art or science if the kids are not moaning too much yet. Around 12 we’ll take the school papers off the kitchen table, make lunch and let the kids play. We stick to this schedule as much as we can. But we are only human and sometimes we change our plans. This morning we all felt tired and grumpy and the boys just really wanted to go and build a city out of Kapla. Who then am I to drag them to the kitchen table to do sums? I may as well open the gin bottle straight away. One rule we do try and stick to is no computer games before 4 o’clock. These things are fabulous babysitters, I know all too well, but enough is enough and 2 or 3 hours a day of square eyes is plenty!

covid 19 mental health impact
Who wouldn’t rather build a parking lot than do a sheet of sums at 9am?

Balance, it’s all about balance. And while some children love having homework, doing sums and writing stories, others would be better off using this lockdown time to indulge in things they have a keen interest in, whether that is cooking, crafting, building or dancing. While the numbers of infected people with the coronavirus are still on the rise, and many people are dying from it, we surely need to have our priorities right. We need to stay stay strong and healthy, all of us. Not just physically, but mentally too. No child benefits from parents at home who are losing the plot, getting frustrated by the amount of school work while also trying to hold down a job and working from home, who are turning into alcoholics in the process (right!) and literally missing the opportunity to just ‘be’ with their children. If you can, relax. (Yes, I am also taking note!). We are not teachers, we are parents. We are doing enough, we are doing our best, we are not expected to copy a normal school day. Let’s guide ourselves and our families through this storm on a calm ship and let our children remember this time as special, despite the crisis going on outside.