For some kids, online learning has had unexpected benefits

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Kearie Daniel, executive director and co-founder of Parents of Black Children, poses for a portrait on the porch of her home in East Gwillumbury on February 10, 2022.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Before the pandemic, when students were in classrooms and the term “remote learning” was mostly just a theory, Kearie Daniel’s eldest child, now 11, needed help finishing his homework. He was a bright young student and generally happy in school, but he got grades of C and B less on report cards. His teachers worried about his behavior, including how he stood in line and how he reacted to teasing from a classmate.

When the first wave of COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual, Ms. Daniel noticed a sudden change in her son. He was taking on more responsibility in his work, even doing an additional project on Black Lives Matter using PowerPoint.

His next report card came back with As and Bs.

“He seemed so much happier, he was at peace,” said Ms. Daniel, who lives in East Gwillimbury, Ont., a 45-minute drive north of Toronto. “He’s still going to be like ‘Can I do it online?'”

Many students and parents have complained about learning difficulties at home, from technology issues to little ones breaking down in tears staring at a screen all day. But some students have thrived. For them, e-learning has brought unexpected benefits. This was especially true for children who felt excluded or uncomfortable in their schools before the pandemic – those who had experienced racism or bullying in their classrooms, or who suffered from anxiety or of learning.

Ms Daniel said her son was “thriving” at home. Other parents have shared similar stories, saying remote learning removes some distractions or safely protects their children from microaggressions that can occur in a physical classroom.

Experts say all of this raises deeper questions about how public education can adapt to meet student needs.

Ms. Daniel is executive director and co-founder of Parents of Black Children, an advocacy group that supports families and seeks to counter anti-black racism in schools. During the previous school year, when students in his province of Ontario spent more time learning online than their peers in other parts of the country, his organization served 86 families. Just three months into the current school year, with children settled into classrooms, just as many families have already sought help navigating the education system – a reflection of the systemic discrimination at that black students face, she said.

Educators may have good intentions, Ms Daniel said, but online learning meant that “our children didn’t have to go to school and watch their behavior, watch their tone, watch how they behave. ‘sit down, watching where they stand, watching their hand movements.

“For my son,” she added, “it was freedom. It was a huge change.

In his conversations with high school students take credit online before the pandemic, Beyhan Farhadi, postdoctoral researcher in equity and online learning at York University, said he was satisfied with his decision to take a virtual course. And for the three self-identified black students in the group, their satisfaction was relative to the harm they experienced at school. “It’s not necessarily that when they’re online they find an affirmative environment, but they find the absence of anti-black racism.” (Ms Farhadi interviewed 20 students as part of her larger thesis project, which ended in 2017.)

“Responsibility to address harm in schools rests with the school system,” Ms. Farhadi said. “When we tell a student who is experiencing bullying, racism and general prejudice at school that they have the opportunity to learn online, it takes them away from the in-person learning environment and all that that goes with.”

She worries that the public education system isn’t doing enough to support students, regardless of race, for whom online learning is a “relief” and not a “real choice,” meaning that they feel compelled to make the decision.

Even before the pandemic, Shannon McLay, a mother from Burnaby, British Columbia, preferred the online learning option for her 16-year-old son. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder when he was around seven years old. In primary school, he was disciplined for his behavior instead of receiving supports, she said. He had little help when he started high school.

Ms McLay was told by educators that online learning was not the right solution for her son and that he would not be motivated to work on his own.

Now in his third year of e-learning, his grades have gone from Cs in eighth grade to grades in the 80s. He is more confident.

“He’s becoming himself and he’s not being punished for it,” she said. “It was a game-changer for us.”

The students shared a similar sentiment with Jen Gilbert, an education professor at York University, who has researched how young people in two Toronto high schools understand gender and sexuality.

Professor Gilbert had heard that queer and trans students were particularly at risk during the lockdown, mainly because they were separated from their supports, away from their friends and potentially isolated with unsupportive families.

This was true for some students. But Professor Gilbert was taken aback by the responses of others. They told her the lockdown gave them “room to manoeuvre” to reflect on their gender and sexuality. They didn’t necessarily enjoy the virtual school experience, but they stayed in touch with friends and supporters through social media.

“We saw a lot of young people have time to think about who they wanted to be in the world, how they felt in their bodies. And they said that was possible because they had a little space by about what they called the toxic high school culture,” she said.

Professor Gilbert is still trying to make sense of what she learned and hesitant to interpret what it could potentially mean for the public education system. But her findings suggest schools could do a better job of creating open spaces for students to ask questions about themselves, so they feel safer in these buildings, she said.

Schools are complicated spaces, which “can be both a welcoming refuge and also an alienating one”, she added.

For the better part of a decade, Tyler Black has examined how school affects student health. Clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, he is also a psychiatrist and works with children and adolescents. His practice is busier during the school year than during the summer vacation period.

Attending school is helpful for child development, but it also causes anxiety and stress for many students. During the pandemic, Dr. Black found that 20% of his patients liked the online learning experience that minimized distractions and hoped the option would continue. Thirty-five percent wanted to be back in a school building, and the middle group were unaffected anyway.

“Many times when I meet a child clinically, my prescription is not to go to school,” Dr Black said. He said heterosexual students sometimes feel such immense stress that their health deteriorates. “I would talk to teachers and families about the stress they can cause their children when they care too much about the studies and too little about the well-being of the child.” He encourages schools to develop a mental health program as early as 4th grade and advises parents to be more lenient when it comes to attendance.

“Returning to school is not a panacea for mental health. It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “Children who found school difficult will not be happy to go back.”

Ottawa mom Carly Haydt watched her eldest son grow increasingly isolated and anxious in school, then excel when he transitioned to online learning.

Her son, who is 15, suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. He was bullied at school and became anxious if others misbehaved or disrupted class time. The school tried to help him, giving him space in a separate room if he was overwhelmed. But he always came home upset, and the family spent time in the evening discussing how to react. Even before the pandemic, Ms Haydt had considered online schooling options when he started grade 9.

“He tried his best, but we could see him struggling.”

During the last school year, when Ontario offered the online learning option, she enrolled her son. He made the honor roll in grade 9, participated in class discussions, and was less anxious. His council, the Ottawa Catholic School Board, has opened permanent virtual schools. Her son has re-enrolled in online learning this year, and Ms. Haydt is volunteering as school council chair. (Her youngest son has autism, and although he functions relatively well, he finds it difficult to learn on a screen.)

She has mixed feelings about her eldest returning to the physical classroom: As graduation approaches, she doesn’t want him to miss any in-person activities, even though the virtual school has responded to its needs. He maintains his friendships from school and he has met more students online. It is also active in other ways. Through a local hospital, he is working on a youth project where researchers pitch proposals to a group of young people to understand how meaningful they would be to the participants.

“There is something to be said about the fact that he learns better in this environment. He absorbs material better, there’s less distraction, there’s more focus, there’s more pride in taking ownership of his upbringing,” she said.

“These stories of kids… with mild special needs thriving in the virtual environment have been huge. He’s certainly not the only one. »

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