Why the kids need a village: thoughts on reopening schools in ontario

Schools throughout Southwestern Ontario have remained closed since the Christmas break. The original plan was for students to return to in-person instruction on January 11, 2021. However, statistics from the Ministry of Health released just days before the return to school indicated a spike in cases as a result of “holiday gatherings,” (which in my view was negligible because the amount of children being tested decreased during over the holidays and therefore the denominator was less). As a result of this, the provincial government made the agonizing decision to extend online learning for most parts of Southern Ontario until February 10th. Although I believe this was a difficult decision to make and as much as I appreciate efforts to curb the spread of the virus, this left many children and parents heartbroken, upset and confused.

I can see that heartbreak in my kids, everyday. My 4 year old son, cries almost every day and tells me “mama, I miss real school” and finds it very hard to stay engaged. My oldest son who is 6, sometimes gets frustrated because he feels as if he can’t keep up with the rest of the class. We are now into week three of virtual learning and my children are really starting to feel it. The stimulation from the screen time coupled with the frustration of navigating online learning is difficult for children in their primary years.

Don’t get me wrong: both of my children’s teachers have been phenomenal and very understanding of the situation. They have gone above and beyond to help my kids cope during this time, including one-on-one meetings, encouraging us to use meditation and breaks when needed. We really need to give our teachers a show of appreciation right now because they themselves are adapting to a new learning environment. Despite all of our efforts to make online learning a positive experience, I am worried about the impact of continued online learning in young children, specifically:

-The lack of interaction with their peers, especially during the formative years of development;
-The long-term effects of disruption in the school year and finally;
-That we are inadvertently creating a mental health crisis in all our youth.

I have been communicating with my MPP’s office on and off since the summer, writing letters and voicing my concern for my children’s well-being and quality of education. I understand that we are living in unprecedented times and I truly believe that they are trying their best to help protect a vulnerable health care system and the elderly. However, based on all the literature and data about schools, closing schools is the wrong policy choice. UNICEF recently came out with a statement and declared that children cannot afford to miss another year of school. The CEO of Sick Kids Hospital even stated that schools should be “the first to open and the last to close.” But even more disturbing are stories such as the New York Times report on the decision for schools in Las Vegas to reopen as result of increased suicides in youth.

This should frighten every parent.

I have come to the conclusion that despite all the academic evidence, children’s voices have not been heard at the decision-making table. This is where we as parents must come in and this is why I have been advocating for a safe return to school since the summertime.

Please don’t misunderstand me and I have to be explicit when I state this: I know first-hand how serious COVID-19 is and personally have friends and family on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis, but something in my heart tells me that keeping children away from the classroom is also wrong. When every peer-reviewed journal has indicated that the spread of the virus is extremely low in school-aged children and that schools are in fact, the safest place for children to be in right now, why are the schools still closed, knowing that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits?

It’s just plain wrong.

I recently read a tweet from the the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) which stated that Ottawa had the second-highest rate of distress calls to the Kids Help Line. That tweet really resonated something inside me. As an NICU parent, I have my own appreciation around mental health awareness and as such, I decided I could not stay silent no more. As an NICU parent and navigating our journey through prematurity, I learned early on, that a parent is a child’s greatest advocate. Considering too that we are also approaching Mental Health Day here in Canada, I believe this conversation is appropriate. So last week, I reached out to my friends on my private account on Instagram via my stories to see if any one else felt the way I did.

The response was overwhelming and the consensus was…..children need to be in schools.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

The conversations I had with many of my friends inspired me so much because every person I spoke with was in a different situation, or they had a different view of the pandemic. But despite all these differences, I was able to engage with each person in a meaningful and positive way. I believe that engaging in this manner is what should be the foundation towards positive change and sound policy-making.

In summary, the response was overwhelmingly positive but also revealed a lot of sadness, fear and frustration. I spoke with people from all walks of life: from health care providers, teachers, early childhood educators, business owners, parents and non-parents, stay at home parents and working parents. Overall, everyone agrees that children need to be in school. Many parents told me that they have noticed a negative change of behaviour in their children, others said they felt tremendous guilt for leaving them to watch television while they had to work and others were concerned about the amount of screen time as a result of remote learning. Some individuals reached out to me and told me that they kept their kids home for the year, not because they were afraid of coronavirus, but they were more concerned about the possible interuptions to their child’s learning.

It was interesting to note that in other places in the world, like Croatia for instance, kindergarten is not mandatory, rather there is vrtić (daycare,) which is optional and is more for young children to socialize. A close friend of mine who lives in Paris, France told me that children have been going to school the whole time, while another friend in Australia told me that the measures were just too much.

Many teachers disclosed to me that online learning, especially for children in their formative years is not ideal and rather this was created more as a response for the demand for live learning at home. As pointed out by one teacher, the amount of time for synchronous learning also has no bearing on pedagogy. Another close friend who works in occupational therapy told me that the amount of distress calls, specifically with families who have autistic children, went through the roof.

Although I am not disputing the severity of the virus and agree that there must be an effort to slow the spread of the virus as a means to protect our vulnerable and our health care system, there also needs to be a balance, in my view. I too was for lockdown back in March when we knew very little of the virus. Images of Wuhan, Iran and Northern Italy frightened us and we had to do something about it. However, 10 months in, countless studies and research, vaccines finally arriving, we still aren’t doing any better for our kids. This is leaving many parents afraid that schools will be closed until March.

We know already that the results of prolonged lockdown policies are disproportionately affecting low-income communities, ethnic minorities, women and children. My question is, despite all the research regarding children and schools, why aren’t we doing any better? How come no one else has proposed a more sustainable solution?

But there is hope!

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Slowly, the ideas are starting to come in. One example of an innovative solution was on a podcast I listened to called “Solving Healthcare,” hosted by Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng. This particular episode that I listened to consisted of a panel of experts ranging from infectious disease, communications and public health. They discussed possible solutions to the pandemic and addressed areas of concern. I was particularly impressed by some of the ideas that they proposed such as:

-going back to the core values of public health;
-having a clear and consistent message;
-the need to address target areas that are greatly affected by COVID-19 such as workplaces and long-term care homes;
-making more use of available tools such as rapid testing and finally;
-paid sick leave for essential workers.

You can listen more to the podcast here and decide for yourself, but from my point of view, this was an excellent start for changing policy. Listening to a dialogue such as this one reminded me of the core values I learned as a graduate student in political science many years ago. Creating good public policy means coming up with sustainable solutions to handling a crisis, without harming other aspects of society. It’s about being efficient with the tools you have available for everyone to benefit from.

But going back to my main concern of keeping schools closed, please know, that I am not by any means undermining the severity of this virus. However, I am speaking as a concerned parent who wants what is best for her children. Its what we as parents, educators, health care providers alike want and should strive towards: a safe, loving, nurturing and warm environment for all children. Like the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. We need to support our children during this time and come up with ways to help them not just cope, but to thrive, for they are our future!

Let’s be that village and let’s support our children!

Some of the conclusions I came up with during my Instagram conversation to help navigate during this time (and for you too):

  1. Remember that we are ALL doing our best;
  2. Remind your kids that they are doing their best too and give them breaks when they need it (i.e. outdoor play, going for a walk or bike ride, puzzle time, colouring sheets or watching a movie;)
  3. Be kind to yourself and remember that you can only control how you feel;
  4. Know that support is available if you need it (i.e. call a friend or a family member for mental support; know that there is also support available in your community;)
  5. Talk to your child’s teacher and come up with a plan of action if your child is struggling with online learning;
  6. Stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally and stay safe.


With much love and gratitude,

N.

Getting in tune with our learning cues – my experience with home schooling my children thus far

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we in Canada are basically adjusting to a new way of life as we navigate through self-isolation.  Because of the pandemic, most non-essential services are closed, including schools and day cares.  In Ontario, school is currently postponed until April 5th (although this is subject to change) and now parents are left with the seemingly daunting task of home schooling their kids.  Last week was a bit of an experiment in terms of home schooling the boys as I tried out different methods to see what works best for them.  I was pretty relaxed considering I don’t believe in forcing kids to do something when they really don’t want to.  Furthermore, as it was technically their March break, I didn’t want to push them too much with home schooling.

What I learned from that first week is that my boys need structure and simply put, thrive under a structured day.  I also learned that I have to tailor their learning based on their age and needs:  T, my oldest, is in senior kindergarten and can start to recognize words , read books for his age and is really good at math.   Whereas, my youngest I, is 3 and a half; he knows his 123s and ABCs and loves to draw.

Here is a little glimpse of our homeschooling routine.

pencils in stainless steel bucket
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Please note, what works for my kids does not necessarily mean it will work for you as every child is different.  In addition, I am not an educator (although I did get into teacher’s college but rejected the offer because I got my first job in Toronto and went there instead) so I am basically putting together what works for my kids from the resources I have available to me.  My educational background is in Political Science (I have an MA and a BA) in case you are wondering (and no I won’t be teaching them public policy or the foundations of classical political thought yet!)  

The key is being in tune with

their needs and following their cues.

The first thing I did was create a schedule for the boys and placed in on the fridge directly across the island where we eat so its in plain view.  I figure the island is the best place to conduct our home school as they can enjoy a snack while learning plus we have a lot of space.   With that being said, the schedule is in no way strict, its more of a guideline for me and if they aren’t into it, we move on to the next activity or have some free play time instead.

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Play is so important for kids as it promotes their development and sense of imagination.

Based on my research, preschoolers and kindergarteners only require 1-2 hours of learning a day.  I also learned early on that you can’t force them to learn as you do not want to create a negative association with learning.  At this age learning just needs to be fun!

We typically start our day like we would on a normal school day:  we get dressed, we brush our teeth and we eat breakfast and get started with our day.    Usually I will start Kumon first as my oldest is in Kumon and his teacher gave him work sheets until the end of April.    For my youngest,  I found a Kumon workbook at Costco called Are You Ready for Kindergarten? so that he too can try out Kumon.

My biggest challenge is since I am at home  while M works, I have to home school them at different times.

This can be challenging homeschooling two kids who are at different levels.  What I started doing is that I’ll focus one activity with one child and then switch.  So far this method has been working for me, although some days it can be challenging as one may be more interested in his toys for instance.

I also found that there are a lot of great resources available online for children, such as the Scholastic Remote Learning and the School Age Program with TVO.   I really like the Scholastic Remote Learning because every day there is a new lesson theme (i.e. bears) and comes with free printable worksheets.  There is a quiz at the end of each lesson so it gives us time to recap what we learned for that day.  Both my boys seem to enjoy this program the most.  My cousin, who happens to be a teacher, set my kids up with a Raz-Kids account to get them ahead with reading.  She tailored the program to each of their levels.   I also downloaded the Math Story Time App and Go Noodle on the iPad.

With that being said, I try to stick to the guidelines surrounding screen time as set out by the Canadian Pediatric Society as much as possible.  I also find that if my kids have too much screen time, they become really wired (as do we when we spend too much time in front of a screen!)  This is where free play and going outside comes in handy.

Our kids need a break from all this stimulation (be it from technology and what not) and sometimes we just need to let kids be kids!

…so we go outside, be it in the backyard to run around and play soccer, or to take the scooters out for a scooter ride (since parks are off limits due to the pandemic).  Fresh air is good for everyone and getting my boys moving makes for a much happier day.  Going outside promotes both physical activity and wellness in children.

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I decided to create an arts & crafts board on Pinterest to get ideas on how to help the boys with their fine-motor skills. For instance, tomorrow we will make crocodiles out of green popsicle sticks.  Considering that Easter is around the corner, we’ll make some Easter-themed art such as paper plate bunny masks.  I also love to get my kids involved with baking.  It’s a good opportunity for them to learn basics such as measuring and counting.  Last week we baked muffins and earlier this week we made Croatian crepes (palačinke).  I happened to have a gingerbread cookie set left over from Christmas so we spent one morning decorating gingerbread men.  The kids are always so proud with how tasty their creations turn out!

Luckily, I stocked up on flash cards and workbooks from Costco last summer so we can work on different things such as basic math, counting, alphabets and sight words.  My oldest can read and is slowly starting to write words, but my youngest still knows only his 123s and ABCs, so I would sit specifically with him and go through each flash card together.

depth of field photography of p l a y wooden letter decors on top of beige wooden surface
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

My oldest son’s kindergarten teacher also posts different activities to do at home on the classroom Twitter account, so I get both my boys involved.   Today’s activity was to take out utensils and create patters and do some basic addition and subtraction.  Tomorrow we will have an alphabet scavenger hunt where we will look for letters and then put together to create words.

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By that point, it brings us to about noon (keep in mind I throw a snack or two in during the morning learning fun).  After lunch I basically just let them unwind or play.  My youngest still naps so I try to get him to sleep while the other will watch a show or play quietly.  The afternoon is also a good time to read a book or two.  Fortunately, my boys love being read to so every day we pick a different book to read.  Other than that, the afternoon is pretty open and I basically let them control what they want to do for that part of the day.

As each day passes, I find that I am learning more and more about them; what their likes and dislikes are; what their strengths are and what skills we need to work on.  I also have a new-found appreciation for teachers and early childhood educators.

Overall, I learned the key is to have fun otherwise it won’t work.  Home schooling, when done right, can be a great experience for everyone.

 

 

 

Travelling with children: survival or enjoyment? One mom’s thoughts

We always receive a mixed response when we tell friends and family that we are going to Croatia with our boys.  Some people respond by saying “that’s awesome” and others say that we’re “brave.”  More often than not, you hear that travelling with children is more of a trip than a vacation.  I can see how that is, especially if your children are challenging (or lively) like mine.  But on the other hand, knowing that it’s not easy, is simply half the battle.   What I can tell you for sure is that even the most uptight of parents, with the most spirited children, can still enjoy a vacation abroad.

We’ve travelled in the past with the kids before, where some trips went off without a hitch and others have been so bad to the point where we say “we are never doing this again!”  However, my husband and I both have that travel bug in us and we so badly want to instil that same love of travelling in our kids.   In January we decided to give it a try again and booked a trip to Croatia for the end of June.

We spent three glorious (well depends on who you ask…) weeks in Croatia.  The first week went without a hitch.  The kids loved staying in Zagreb and at Hotel Dubrovnik.  They were overall, very well-behaved.  They climatized to the time change and to the food well.  Heck, they loved the food.  With that being said, we weren’t strict at all when it came to diet because we knew that this was the time to indulge.  We all deserved it! They really enjoyed the sights and sounds of Zagreb and were amazed at all it’s lovely buildings and landmarks.   Our kids enjoyed the three-hour car ride to our family home in Vodice, where they were enamoured of the mountains along the way.   They were so excited to arrive at dida’s house and to go swimming on the beach.

Week two is when things started to become tough.  The older child wanted to go home to his bed and the younger one refused to sleep at night.  This resulted in some cranky kids.  Perhaps they were overstimulated by all the sounds and sights of the beach.  Perhaps it was from all the sugar they were intaking.  Who knows?  Some days they were upset that the water was too cold or that their ice cream was melting funny.   It was hard as parents to not get frustrated, but that’s kids though.  They have their moments; some days they weren’t too into things and other days they were great.

Our oldest is a screamer and it’s been challenging with him, and when he would scream, I just step away and remind myself, he’s just a kid and I just need to shake it off, I want to enjoy this vacation.  I spent a lot of time reading “Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka over this trip and boy, did it really help me get through those tough moments.  During those moments when he would get upset at the beach, I would take him to a quiet area and say “I know you are angry, what is it that you need?”

There were some days that we just didn’t go anywhere, and that was okay, because little kids get tired and sometimes you just have to roll with it.  Does that mean I did not enjoy myself?  Absolutely not.  I enjoyed not having to do chores and errands, or going to work everyday.  While they watched a show, I would read a book in one hand, and drink a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) in the other.

You see, it’s all about perspective.   Going into a vacation and knowing there will be obstacles makes you better prepared for how to handle them.   This is where we failed during our last trip.  Some children have a calmer temperament and others are more challenging.  Ours happen to be more challenging so we decided to just roll with it this time around, and in the end, we did find a way to enjoy this vacation.

This is not to say that the whole trip was full of tantrums and meltdowns, there were lots of good parts as well, such as: going on mini road-trips and visiting family; going to the children’s waterpark at the Solaris Resort, and so on.  We got to spend a lot of quality time with family and friends, be it on the beach or at a restaurant.  My husband and I managed to get some alone time over dinner or coffee, which was a nice treat.  On our last night, my husband and I went out for dinner and got to enjoy some tamburica at a local restaurant.   The point is, that is what a vacation is about:  it’s about making memories and making the most of that special time together.

Yesterday, someone at soccer practice asked me how the trip went.  I smiled and replied:  “as good as you can get with kids.”

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An evening in Trogir; we somehow survived

 

 

Snow days and busy, busy bumblebees (aka toddlers and preschoolers)

The past few weeks we’ve had some wild weather here in Southwestern Ontario and for the first time in years, local school boards have cancelled school due to inclement weather conditions. The weather has been so bad that everything from government offices to your local coffee shop have been closed. I personally don’t remember there being this many snow days when I was a kid, but I’m glad that the boards did declare today a snow day because safety comes first.

It’s been nice having that extra day off with the kids. Getting an extra hour of sleep, watching some movies and staying in pj’s until noon is awesome. That’s all great and dandy, but if your kids are like mine, they get bored, easily.

I’ve learned with time that kids at the toddler and kindergarten age need structure. They thrive on it. They also want your attention and want to interact with you and their peers. Over time I’ve learned that simple activities can intrigue even the youngest of minds. I thought I’d share with you some of my kids’ favourite snow-day activities.

A little disclaimer: I’m not a parenting expert or an educator. I’m just a mom who is speaking from her own experience on what works with her kids. Keep in mind too that it’s never perfect and sometimes they don’t want to participate in the activity, but the point is to give them the opportunity and try.

1. Create in the kitchen: I started this with my oldest when he was about 3 years old as I noticed he was always following me in the kitchen. It’s usually something simple, like sprinkle cheese on a pizza or mixing pancake batter. Today they helped me prepare soup by placing all the ingredients in the pot. It’s a simple activity which is easy, a little messy and lots of fun.

2. Building: my kids love Mega Blocks, train tracks, Lego Duplo and Magformers. For instance, I’ll bring out a bin of Lego Duplo and place it on the coffee table and see what they do with it. Even if they just play for 5 or 10 minutes building things, then that’s great! This too gets messy but the idea is to present them with something and see if they roll with it! Today my boys made a farm with stables until my youngest started to chuck the Lego.

3. Worksheets, colouring books, Boogie Boards: yes! I’m old school and love worksheets. My oldest is in jk and is starting to learn how to write and enjoys the worksheets with traceable letters. You can find them at Costco in the books section or online via Pinterest. Colouring books are great too and inexpensive. Boogie Boards are also a great alternative to traditional paper and crayon because they are erasable and clean (say goodbye crayon marks!)

4. Reading: this one is pretty self-explanatory, but reading is so important for child development. Research has shown that reading to children early on promotes imagination, establishes concentration, and exposes children to literacy and language. For me, it’s a great time to bond with my kids. I was an avid reader growing up and it’s my hope that my kids enjoy reading too. Experts recommend that parents read to kindergarten age children for at least 20 minutes a day. What we’ve done is included it in their bedtime routine. My kids are really into Dr. Seuss at the moment so we went through “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” a few times today. The point is, pick up a book and read.

5. Flash cards: this one is pretty self-explanatory but flash cards are a great way to engage with kids and teach them how to count, how to recite their ABC’s and recognize colours and words. My boys also enjoy Brainquest, which is a quiz-type or flash card. Again, even if you get 5 or 10 minutes out of it, it’s great!

6. Last but not least- play in the snow! If it’s not too cold and it’s safe to play outside, take the opportunity to build a snowman or make some snow angels with your kids and create winter memories for years to come. Following that, hot chocolate is in order!

I hope these are things you will consider to do with your little ones for the next snow day.