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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I think I hate online school more than my kids. Don’t you? Thank God that’s about to end.

When 2022 started with the announcement that the kids were going back online in Ontario, three out of the four in the family cried (a hint: my husband just gritted his teeth). Because the memories of last year’s virtual learning for our daughters, now aged 8 and 12, are still fresh in our minds. And they are not pretty.

This would have been the third time our girls were learning online (thanks, COVID-19). After observing them for the past two years I can tell you that what they have mostly learned is how to switch screens with supersonic speed when adults enter the room, download new apps and access free game sites. Their addiction to screens kept growing. No surprises there, as they were spending up to six hours a day online for months at a time in 2021 (and that’s before additional leisure or family screen time outside of school hours).

But in lockdown, when the entertainment options were severely limited, you can’t help coming back to the screen as an individual and a family. We’d go out for a long walk on Saturdays, and then settle in for a family movie. And yes, we told the girls, you can play on the dreaded Roblox game platform Saturday morning while we sleep in.

There we were, screen generation of four: 7, 11, 42 and 46.

Learning online allowed our eldest daughter to develop some serious dramatic skills. She once sat next to my husband with an Oscar-worthy facial expression busily clicking away on her keyboard during class, and we later found out she was watching YouTube. My youngest learned her way around the iPad settings, reinstalled deleted apps with ease and could sit for hours in the most uncomfortable positions scrunched in corners to avoid showing us her screen.

What can I say? They are both talented in their own way.

Learning online also taught my kids how to be flexible and fast. That is – how to hide things from their parents.

And it made my kids brave. Not the heroic kind of brave, but brazen. I once caught my 12 year old playing Roblox games during class when I was standing right in front of her. My husband once spent a pleasant day sitting with the kids at the kitchen table during online school, doing his work. The kids’ screens were not in his line of vision. The girls worked quietly and, it seemed, studiously for hours with serious faces focused on their devices. When I checked at the end of the day – nothing was done and on my youngest’s computer, the Roblox app was one of the most frequently accessed on her homescreen. Right next to the school board’s web portal.

Students don’t really get On The Road anymore. Classic road-lit is losing its charm

Reading books over the phone with my grandson did us both a world of good

Online school caused a fair amount of conflict in our family. My husband doesn’t believe in monitoring the kids, “I can’t stare at their screen all day and I have my own work to do.” Yes, I get it. He also doesn’t like being challenged. I understand that, too. But I also know that once we are out of the room, Google, YouTube and game sites are getting a workout. I know that when I’m out of sight, my eight year old will spend the hours between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. mindlessly playing games on the iPad. And if I’m sitting next to them all day long, there won’t be enough wine or chocolate to un-numb my brain. Also – who will do my work, get groceries and cook dinner. Roblox?

Online school made our kids addicted to screens. They began to reach out for it every time they wanted to be entertained, hear some music, had a question or had nothing else to do. For them life became a screen, everything else was boring and didn’t measure up.

Last year I considered pulling my youngest out of school. Despite her teachers trying so hard to engage her in class, she refused to participate and did the minimum of what was required. Her stubbornness and unwillingness to play by the COVID/school/parent rules meant we gave up after a while. Our daughter’s teacher and I were both a little broken by the strength of her determination. While it was incredibly frustrating (trust me, we did try various things), how could we blame her? When Zoom-exhausted adults struggle to sit in front of screens all day, how can we expect an eight year old to just bear it? And to learn something while she’s at it?

So when the announcement came about a return to online school, we did have a little cry. But after that, we had a family discussion and made some decisions together. We wrote to our respective schools and informed them we were cutting screen time and focusing on learning.

This time around, our girls attend only core subjects online – math and English – and skip the rest if they wish. They complete their homework and get off their screens. I’d rather them make a gigantic mess doing something off-screen than spend half a day online playing games.

And you know what? The sky did not fall. It worked for us.

While we (well, maybe just my husband and I) are doing a little dance about schools reopening soon, we’ll hold on to our part-time, online-school strategy. When another variant strikes, there will be no tears.

I just hope the roof won’t cave in before they are back in class again.

Natalia Tsygankova lives in Toronto.

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