by Theresa Goodwin
It’s been roughly three weeks since schools in Antigua and Barbuda closed their doors for the second time in a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing students to carry on their lessons through a screen, literally, at home.
Due to the virus, preschoolers through to tertiary level students have had to swap chalkboards and face-to-face interactions with Google classrooms, Zoom and Google Meet – much to the dismay of parents who are now obligated to step in as surrogate teachers, while juggling full-time jobs in some cases.
Mother of two young girls, Angelica O’Donoghue, summed it up when she told Observer yesterday that “homeschooling automatically means your home is no longer yours; it is entirely theirs. Your home is now their playground, their classroom, their clubhouse; your home is no longer a home, that is the biggest challenge”.
O’Donoghue — the communications officer in the Office of the Prime Minister, and a member of the government’s education team on vaccination — said her day usually starts with cleaning up the house from the day before and preparing the children for the next day’s lessons.
Pre-Covid, she said, this process was a “whirlwind experience on its own” as it involves getting them to shower, eat, get dressed while dealing with the fighting from either one of her girls who may be resisting putting on a uniform.
“Now with Covid-19, that has eased up a bit; no one is fighting about uniform. If they want to wear a princess dress, they can because everything is online.
“My older daughter who is seven years old pretty much has a strict schedule where she has to be behind the computer, settled and ready for work, and as a parent I am trying to get ready for work at the same time,” O’Donoghue said.
“The challenge on the other hand is when you have another child, a three-year-old, who wants to be involved in everything, so you are settling the big one and here comes the younger one wanting to do the same thing as her sister.”
The young mother said this is where she has to strike a balance between prepping her older daughter for a day of lessons and ensuring that the younger one still gets equal time and attention.
While O’Donoghue has the devices, her mornings are not without the challenges of trying to connect to the internet to ensure that her daughter gets started, which delays her further from getting to work on time until she can get someone to sit in with the children. This is usually by 11am or later.
In addition to her two daughters, she also cares for a four-year-old child while her partner, who is a teacher, gets his duties done. She explained that it is a sort of juggling system depending on who has a lighter schedule.
Another challenge, she highlights, is mornings when her seven-year-old is in one room on a Google class, her partner is in another conducting his classes and she is attempting to participate in a Zoom meeting, while at the same time monitoring the younger girls.
“The back and forth is not the only thing. The fun part is the eating. ‘Mommy can I get this, Mommy can I get some juice, can I have a snack’. I try to keep them on the same schedule as school – breakfast, fruits, water, snack, then lunch – but it does not really work.
“Right now, it’s just filling bottles of water and their snacks and putting them on the lowest levels in the refrigerator so they can reach it,” the young mother explained.
O’Donoghue’s tale is all but similar to Theresa Goodwin’s, a mother-of-two and a full-time broadcast journalist and reporter with Observer NewsCo.
Goodwin’s day usually starts at 4am, fixing breakfast or dinner before jetting off to work to begin a 6am shift.
Her interactions with remote learning and dealing with the children usually begin in the afternoon depending on her work schedule.
“Fortunately, for me I have a 12-year-old secondary school student who is on an 8am to 2pm schedule, having most of his classes in real time, dressed in full uniform, of course.
“For the most part, he is able to work independently and I would call him periodically from work to ensure that all is going well,” she explained.
“My six-year-old requires a more hands-on approach with the instructions and usually starts classes in the afternoon going through her worksheets in preparation for an afternoon Google Meet session with her teachers from 4pm to 6pm.”
This essentially means her day does not typically end until sometime after 10pm when she finishes her preparations for the next day.
Goodwin burst out in laughter when she shared details about her days when she is given an opportunity to work from home.
Again, notwithstanding a later start at 9am, she usually gets up at 4am to ensure that she is able to prepare a meal that will cover the entire day thus cutting down the time it takes to handle the multiple requests for food, water or snacks.
“On these particular days, my dining table is shared between my daughter and I. I am using one side with my laptop for work and she’s using the other side with a pile of books and her pencils.
“My son is also on the other side of the room with his cellular phone for video class and a computer screen to get the work done,” Goodwin explained.
She said knowing that her work requires clean and clear audio for radio news purposes, she has since discovered studio quality sound at the back of one of the clothes closets in her home.
“It is quite funny,” the journalist said, as she tried to force a smile on a face that looked extremely exhausted before the start of one of her mornings.
As it relates to her new studio, she said, “I tried the closet on a day I was called upon to do a voice report and was concerned about drowning out background noise. When I played back the recording it sounded crystal clear and I jumped with joy.
“So, usually before going to do an interview I would notify the children that I am going into the studio and would require some form of quietness.”
Asked how she copes with handling what has been a new challenge for most parents, the news producer said, “It is extremely tiring; you want to do the best for your bosses and at the same time you want to make sure that your children are catered to and cared for despite the circumstances.
“There are some days that I just start crying for no reason and there are some days I get up like superwoman and I am ready to take on the world. Having a strong support at home has also helped me to sometimes leave everything and just breathe, even if it is only for a few minutes.”
As for O’Donoghue, she uses Friday nights to get some “me time which usually includes a bottle of wine and my Japanese cartoons. No phones, no calls”.
Jacqueline Knight, a stay-at-home mom, told Observer that while she is already at home with her son, the challenges are still real.
“Remote learning for me is very hard and frustrating at times, but I thank God for Google; many times I have to search for the questions to get the answers. I left school a long time ago and now I have to sit down and think,” Knight said.
A few other parents, some of whom are without devices or internet, also shared their challenges with having to send their children to a neighbour’s home to gain access, or having to collect specially designed packages from schools to ensure their children are able to continue receiving the education they deserve.
For these parents, the challenge of learning from home is even harder.
Meanwhile, Director of Family and Social Services and trained mental health professional, Feona Charles-Richards, has recommended making a schedule for children and getting them involved in the process and maintaining it, so that it feels more like school which has a structure.
“Once there is a structure in place, you will find that the day becomes a lot less stressful because it now takes on a particular routine.
“Routines are important for children; any child that is off of a schedule and is not sure what their routine will be, will become chaotic and the parent will become very stressed. Ensure that there are do’s and don’ts also, and the consequences if the rules are broken,” she advised.
As it relates to parents Charles-Richards advised, “take some time in the day to breathe; some people do not understand this but it is very important”.
(Part two of this article will detail remote learning through the eyes of an educator.)