‘Felt like crying:’ Parents and teachers struggle to balance work and online school

After teaching elementary school online — while also parenting three young kids — Katie Armstrong is exhausted.

“I’m stressed. I’m frustrated. I’m overwhelmed,” said Armstrong, who teaches grade six and seven at Bellmore Elementary School in Hamilton. 

Armstrong and her children — age four, eight and 11 — have overlapping schedules full of online meetings. She spends her teaching days juggling tech issues, helping her own kids, and making lunches.

She had hoped remote learning would only last four days. But the province announced Thursday that online schooling would be extended in southern Ontario for another two weeks until Jan. 25, as COVID-19 cases surge.

“I don’t think I can sustain this for too much longer,” said Armstrong on Thursday.

In Burlington, Jennifer Dibben said she “felt like crying” when she learned schools wouldn’t re-open on Monday.  She has no option but to work from home so she can supervise her two young kids.

Online schooling is a lot better than it was in the spring, she said — but it’s still hard to get any work done.

“It’s demolishing my career,” said Dibben, a dental technician.

“I know that lockdowns work,” she said, “I wish there was another way, but I don’t know what that would be.”

Sarah Langille has three elementary school kids doing online learning this week. (Submitted by Sarah Langille)

‘It’s not much of a choice’

In Stoney Creek, Sarah Langille had no choice but to take the week off to look after her three kids. 

This will impact her family’s finances, she said on Tuesday, but she can’t leave her kids alone. 

“It’s not much of a choice,” said Langille. The dental clinic where she works provides essential services, but she isn’t eligible for emergency childcare. Her husband is a truck driver, and can’t stay home.

Dibben says the lockdown forces women into difficult career situations, where they are often the ones staying home while their partner works.

“Women generally make the concessions,” she said. 

“If it’s a choice that you’ve made then that’s OK,” she said. But, “If it’s a situation that’s forced on you, it’s harder to swallow.”

Jennifer Gibben, left, is working from home this week so she can care for her elementary school-age children. (Submitted by Jennifer Gibben)

‘There’s a hole in the plan’

Childcare is not available for school-age children doing remote learning, except for parents working certain essential jobs.

But not everybody with an “essential” job is eligible for emergency childcare, notes Beth McNally, a mother and operations manager at McMaster University’s Centre for Automotive Materials and Corrosion

“There’s a hole in this plan,” said McNally, who has kids age six and eight. 

On Thursday, the Ministry of Education said it would expand emergency school-age childcare access to some other workers, but was still determining who would be included.

“The focus of this week’s time limited program was on front line workers saving lives in the second wave.,” by ministry spokesperson Caitlin Clark. 

Children in southern Ontario will learn online until Jan. 25. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Education workers are currently not eligible for emergency school-age childcare. But Armstrong says she is expected to come into school part of the week to help with a special needs class. 

“It’s almost like …we’re forced to choose between our jobs and our child’s education,” said Armstrong, who spent her winter break preparing to teach remotely on short notice.

While some families are doing well with online learning Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, says remote learning amplifies inequity among families.

“We know that families that were already disadvantaged are struggling more,” said Kidder.

She wants the province to set up an education task force to help solve these problems. 

‘I feel like I’m set up for failure’

Rebecca Mothersole, a reading specialist at Prince of Wales Elementary School in Hamilton, said she’s glad her students’ families have been understanding.

She says it’s been a juggling act trying to teach, while helping her son through Junior Kindergarten online.

Armstrong said she wishes there was more time to prepare for online teaching. She said it felt like “emergency learning” more than remote education.

“It’s an understatement to say that I’m exhausted right now,” said Armstrong on Tuesday. Her husband works from home, but has to be on frequent calls in another room. 

“I feel like a first year teacher trying to figure things out,” said Armstrong. “I feel like I’m set up for failure.”

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