As schools prepare to receive the first group of students next week, Justine Limpitlaw describes her experience with online schooling as a working-from-home mom. From her family’s first attempts to create a conducive learning and working environment to the learning programme prepared by her daughter’s school, Justine shares her family’s journey into a “new normal.”
My child is 11. She’s an only child. As I write this, she has been in lockdown, without coming into contact with another child, for 69 days. On 16 March, her school, Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg, sent all the children home.
Like everyone else in South Africa and much of the world, our lives are being discombobulated by COVID-19. In some ways, the transition has been less jarring for us. My husband and I are both self-employed, used to working from home and sharing the cooking.
What we are not used to, is the fusion of working from home, sharing the cooking, weeding, watering the plants, mowing the lawn, putting out the rubbish, loading the washing machine, sweeping up the dog hair, dusting the shelves, cleaning the oven, scrubbing down toilets, … and home schooling.
Why any parent would inflict this on themselves is a wonder to me.
Round 1: Frayed nerves
Through March and early April, the first three weeks of homeschooling went by in a blur. We responded to dozens of daily emails and WhatsApp messages from teachers and printed off reams of revision exercises. I remember it as a time of real relationship stretching — to put it politely.
Mine and my husband’s different personality types make any accommodation when educating our child together just about impossible. I believed in filing everything in date order, having a timetable, marking revision exercises, and setting out a daily “to-do” list – ticking off things, one by one, as we went. I was adamant that she should wear her school uniform; he didn’t think it was appropriate. Before long, the decibel levels had reached previously unheard octaves in our house. Everyone was strained — even the dogs would hide under the table.
But through those early tumultuous days, Sacred Heart worked hard to give the kids a sense of “being at school” — together if separately. The teachers and the principal recorded the “assemblies” that are so much a part of ordinary school life before COVID-19 struck. One of the teachers did breathing and calming exercises. While I am not sure how much the Grade 5s appreciated them, I loved them and badly needed them. My daughter and her classmates were encouraged to do things, like light a candle at noon — a point of connection to remember her school friends. The Physical Education teacher provided an exercise regime that could be done anywhere —in a sprawling garden or a small flat.
Then, relief followed, as the holidays came and homeschooling ceased.
All we had to worry about was work and keeping to our house chores to ensure a manageable state of chaos.
Frankly, we took advantage of the holidays and put our child to work. She was tasked, daily, to lay the table for meals and pull blackjacks from the garden. There’s more. There was “a biggie” task assigned to her — the family washing. She separated colours, loaded the clothes in the machine, filled the soap dispenser, hung the clothes to dry, cleared the clothes from the lines, folded and sorted into piles for each of her family members. A task she was forced to repeat, repeat, repeat.
Round 2: Smooth sailing
When May came around, it was time for school again. I felt panic welling up. We couldn’t go back to how things had been in March and April – the constant interruptions to make sure documents printed, checking cellphone messages, Whatsapp groups and emails, to avoid falling behind. Now it was more serious — no more revision exercises — it was time to learn new things and real teaching was going to happen.
We received a plan of action. The school would resume on Google Classroom. There would be timetables, videos of lessons, “chat time” together, online worksheets and submission of documents. “This will be a dog show” — I projected bitterly and completely wrongly.
We chose Sacred Heart because we felt it was a place where our child would be happy; and not for its Prussian rigour and attention to detail. The staff seemed laid back, caring and fond of all the children given to their care. There have been times when this has driven me crazy, and …, frankly, I was dreading “Eckstein Street comes to Google Classroom”.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Apart from a couple of problems, early on, with my child’s laptop (our issue not the school’s) – it has been smooth.
Our daughter gets up, goes for a walk with us, has breakfast (usually at her laptop) and is at her desk until 3pm, except for lunch and morning breaks, when — poor child — she hangs up the washing (I figured it was good physical exercise so she should carry on).
She logs on, follows the timetable, watches the lessons, downloads the worksheets, does the work, hands it in. It is like she is at school and we are left to get on with life through lockdown, managing home and office.
I kept rushing upstairs to check on her. Was she coping? Was she following? That was until one day she told me she didn’t understand the new work on angles. “Angles?” I sheepishly asked. “Right!”. My standard grade matric maths from 1984 made this a tough ask. “Why couldn’t she have had a problem with Roman law?”
I was starting to think — “It’s great when the rubber hits the road and there is real confusion, it is all back on us”— when she said, “Mom, don’t worry, a number of kids wrote in the comments that they weren’t following so we have a make-up class on Google Classroom at lunchtime with the teacher”. Phew! Happy days. She got the point — and now we all know a lot about obtuse and reflex angles.
One day, I was at my desk when one of her teachers rang me on Whatsapp. “Katie’s having a problem with science, can I talk to her?” “Is she? How do you know?” I asked, feeling like the worst parent in the world. Why didn’t I know this? “She said so on the class chat line, so I thought I would phone to talk her through it”. I handed the phone over to my child and they both got on with the science pep talk. Two minutes later, I had my phone back — issue resolved.
I know that Sacred Heart is a private school, where learners can access the Internet easily from their homes, have access to Google Classroom and teachers who reach out via WhatsApp to give extra support.
I keep hearing lots of horror stories from other private-school moms on the hardships of homeschooling. An experience in which I don’t share (not since the second term anyway). I think the teachers must have spent every minute of their April holidays preparing to make this run as smoothly as it has.
Importantly, for my husband, our beloved daughter and me, the school has managed to make it feel unusually light and fun for the learners. That’s quite a feat when you are also executing the teaching with Prussian-levels of excellence and rigour. We are feeling pretty blessed to have this school in our lives. Thank you, Sacred Heart College!