Alphabet Soup

Opting Out of Online Education

I’m trying to help my 11 year-old son log into Google Classroom but a pop up keeps interfering. It’s a woman with large breasts barely contained in a flesh-coloured V-neck. “Looking for a date?”, reads the text below her ample cleavage. Mentally I add virus scan of his laptop to my to do list. Day one of online education in Ontario is already off to a rocky start.

We have a sourdough starter bubbling away on the  kitchen counter which is now our classroom. The boys and I mixed the flour and water goop on the first day of what was to be a normal March Break. We called it Frank, short for Frankenstein. He is our experiment in natural yeast and fermentation. An added bonus – he tastes great.

We have been birdwatching, playing math or language board games, baking, gardening and reading. Life felt slow and rich – until yesterday. The intrusion of online learning launched our whole household into orbit. Traditional education, with its worksheets and directive to ‘read and reply’ was an unwelcome guest. Things went badly.

I didn’t see it coming. Teachers had posted all kinds of information about Covid-19. One asked students to keep a daily journal about isolation. Another assigned a writing exercise titled ‘How The World Has Changed Since Covid-19’. There was also a social -emotional worksheet about how to manage stress.

It was all too much and too soon. I don’t think my sons considered themselves in lock down or restricted in any way until they read their assigned work. They were safe in their world at home. As a family we’ve had plenty of conversations about the virus because the evidence is all around us. My oldest son and I are unable to work right now and my husband is working from home. We cancelled vacation plans and chose to stay at home. 

We decided to make the best of our extended March Break. The boys were happily involved in hands on projects, learning as they researched things of interest to them. Thanks to the information deluge, the ground shifted beneath their feet. Fear and restriction came knocking.

It was an ugly, door slamming, defiant day. Anxiety ran high. Now might be the right time to tell you my boys are on the Autism Spectrum so reactions can sometimes be dramatic, but I suspect you don’t need to be neurodivergent to feel as side-swiped as they did. I know all the joy drained out of me when I took a look at the worksheets and assignments. I can only imagine how they felt. 

I lay on my bed, out of my middle child’s sight since even seeing me was a trigger for him, and scrolled through the news. Boris Johnson seemed to have been improving but today he was admitted to ICU and a new leader for the UK is stepping in. I took a breath. I’m not doing this.

It’s a pandemic. Can we just get a break from broken systems?  Education, especially for neurodivergent students, is high on my list of broken systems. Can we just take an honest look at education and see what a monster we’ve created? We have a chance to stop this madness. 

If one of us becomes sick, is this how I want us to be? Angry, anxious and afraid? Do I want to spend my days enforcing traditional learning, feeling afraid that my children will fall further behind, not get into the right school, get the right job, etc.? Is it not enough that they become resourceful, resilient, curious human beings? Online education – it’s like the band playing on as the Titanic sinks.

My friends in rural Ontario tell me they are struggling with unpredictable internet service making it impossible to stream lectures for university students and causing learning resources for younger students to crash. Some only only have one computer in the house. This online education situation is just widening the gap between those who have access and those who don’t. 

I spoke with another friend who is a teacher and also has two children with unique learning needs.  “It’s madness,” she texted. “My son is screaming in the background because he is so frustrated while I try to answer my students questions online.”

Today there are more items in the Google Classroom. I told my kids not to go online today. I haven’t told them that I’m opting out of this social experiment.

Let the band play on.

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