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Educating during a pandemic

Experts say there's valuable opportunity for unstructured learning during self-isolation

Every weekday morning at 9:30 a.m., you will find Grade 3 students from École la Passerelle in front of their computers or tablets.

The class signs into a video-conferencing site, students get to see their classmates, and the teacher offers an assignment for the day. Later, they take a picture of that assignment and send it back directly to the teacher.

"For us parents, it alleviates a bit of stress," says Todd Lawson, whose eight-year-old daughter Seanna is in the class. "We're there to help, but the kids know what they're supposed to do and how to do it."

Lawson's family takes recess and snack breaks and, generally, formal learning is over by lunch. In the afternoon, they usually head outdoors for unstructured learning.

"We're super lucky to live in Whistler," Lawson says. "We spend as much time as possible outside to have any teachable moment. If they're digging in the dirt and find worms, we'll talk about worms and the importance of worms in the ecosystem. If we go for a little hike and see an interpretive sign, we take the time to read it. It's nice, we're not in a rush to go anywhere."

When the province ordered schools to close after Spring Break, school districts everywhere had to scramble to come up with a solution to an unthinkable problem: how to suddenly continue to effectively educate children self-isolating during a pandemic.

In an April 8 School District 48 board meeting via Zoom, superintendent Lisa McCullough shared one anecdote about how far some administrators are going to help students adjust.

A principal from one of the schools made a house visit to help a student figure out how to use the technology that would connect them to their teacher. With physical distancing in mind, the principal stood outside and, through a glass door, coached the family.

"They walked the mom and dad and the child through their device and where to tap to get the kind of support that they needed from the device they had," says McCullough.

There are countless stories of teachers and administrators in the Sea to Sky corridor and the rest of the province finding creative solutions to these unprecedented problems.

"We recognize that flexibility is absolutely key in times like these," McCullough writes in a follow-up email. "While teachers know the importance of maintaining a sense of routine for students, they also recognize that depending on family circumstance, some students may not always be available at scheduled times. Teachers do their best to design a blend of learning opportunities that include live interaction, set activities, and suggestions for further learning."

But as families settle in to their self-isolation routines, the challenges for students potentially navigating the remainder of the school year from home are becoming clearer. (Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said there could be a "gradual return [to schools] with smaller numbers in graduated classrooms," this school year, but nothing is certain.)

"It hasn't all been sunshine and roses," Lawson says. "I've got to say that. There are some frustrating parts. We're mom and dad—we're not teachers. So there are some disagreements. We're approaching it: 'Let's not stress out about it too much. She's only eight. She's fine.' We're happy and healthy."

An opportunity for life lessons

The school district has been working its way through a list of guiding principles put together shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit locally. In priority order, they include: maintaining a healthy and safe environment for students, families and employees; providing in-school services for children of essential workers; supporting vulnerable students who might need special assistance; and providing continuity of educational opportunities for all students.

The district has purchased 225 Chromebooks and are currently assessing who needs them; they're working with internet providers to create a plan for families struggling with getting online; and, perhaps most pressingly, they have guaranteed that all students who were eligible to graduate before Spring Break will, in fact, graduate.

"We want to assure everyone that learning will continue and our teachers are busy planning to provide students with ongoing learning opportunities," says Chris Nicholson, assistant superintendent, in an email. "Our teachers are committed to ensuring all students have the opportunity to continue to grow, learn, and build the curricular and core competencies they will need in the future."

It might seem counterintuitive that learning is the last priority on the list, but experts agree in this time of crisis, formal learning that covers every subject matter and offers a full day shouldn't be a family's goal.

"A lot of students in high school, they're focused on grades, not learning," says Marina Milner-Bolotin, an education professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who has years of experience with online teaching. "It's about getting high marks to get into university. In a way, they lose the real purpose of education. Maybe now it's a pause to hit the break and think, 'What is the purpose?' The purpose of education is to learn how to learn, learn to be vulnerable and make mistakes."

To that end, she says, valuable lessons for children abound during this time of crisis.

"I think the priority should be not to cover content; I think the priority should be to teach your family how you [work] together in a difficult situation," Milner-Bolotin says. "You are showing your children how to behave when times are tough. My grandparents went through [the Second World War]. Other parents went through some other challenges. Every generation has something they have to go through. That's life.

"To be honest, I think the parents are very stressed and it's difficult. If they show their children how families support each other in the time of the crisis—and it is, to many families, a crisis with unemployment—I think it's more important than teaching the kids math or science. And I'm a math and science teacher, so I have nothing against math and science."

Ultimately, Milner-Bolotin says, if they miss certain elements of the core subjects this year, they will learn it later. "But the lesson on how to behave, how to respect other people, how to support other people during a difficult situation, I think that's priceless," she adds.

As tough as times might be, parents can look at this at-home education as a chance to learn with their child and decide together what they would like to study, she says.

If parents are too bogged down navigating their own, new work-from-home reality, they can also try asking relatives to connect through online video conferencing.

Even before the pandemic, Milner-Bolotin met for an hour-and-a-half daily with her nephew in Israel over Skype.

"We learn math and English and we learn together," she says. "He teaches me Hebrew. We do mutual learning. I think it's a bonding experience.

"Maybe it's an opportunity for families to connect to the children. If they live in different provinces, you still have Skype. You can connect."

Hartley Banack, a professor in UBC's Faculty of Education who specializes in outdoor experiential education and learning, had similar advice for parents when it comes to children's education during this crisis.

"The first thing you should be thinking about is your child's level of anxiety," he says. "You're not the teacher, you're not trying to create a school culture. If your child is stressed out, let them have fun."

His advice for facilitating outdoor learning is not some complex lesson plan to count pinecones or craft a poem about trees. It's much simpler than that.

"I would recommend parents practice noticing—a sense of wondering and noticing," he said. "That's it ... If you go out with the explicit intentions of wonderment and noticing, you have the criteria for why you're heading outdoors. If something else occurs, that's a moment for the adult to give pause."

That means encouraging a child's natural curiosity. For example, Banack says, if a child is interested in sticks and loves to pick them up and bang things, try not to stop them.

"Parents are constantly saying, 'Don't do that.' They breed anxiety in their children," he adds.

As part of this process, parents need to work on "unlearning" some elements of their education.

"Parents have a certain expectation with school and they impose it on their child," Banack says. "They have to do unlearning to conceive of other ways—and unlearning is hard work ... You can think about how adults often respond to insects—spiders, bees, mosquitos. They flail their arms around and try to kill it. If you do that the child sitting beside you learns that as well. It's not a message of wonder or noticing."

In a way, the at-home learning offers an opportunity for kids to explore their interests, Milner-Bolotin says.

"At some point, we can decide what matters," she says. "I think it's an opportunity [even] with all the negative connotations, to be more authentic—not to learn because somebody in the Ministry of Education decided that was important, but what are you as a parent thinking about? What is important for your child? What do you want to learn with your child?"

Online education resources for parents

Both Milner-Bolotin and Banack, as well as the school district, have compiled a list of online resources for parents helping with their children's education.

"It's overwhelming," Milner-Bolotin says. "That's the reason I started combining those resources on my website ... What I recommend is to look at the resources, look at who created the resources. It's not enough to judge, but it gives you a clue."

(Find her full list here:

Banack, meanwhile, volunteers for Wild About Vancouver, an outdoor educational festival, and while they had to to cancel this year's edition, they have recently added a massive range of ideas for outdoor education activities to their website.

"We decided to populate the website with a ton of option for parents and teachers to think about," he says. "Come to, post to the blog if you have a story you want to share, look at different ideas of different educators. We put together a repository that's local here for the [Great Vancouver Regional District] and the Sea to Sky corridor."

The school district also has a list of approved online resources and learning apps, and staff is continually purchasing new subscriptions to add to the list. That can be found at


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