“They’re off again already,” my friend texted. “Who?” I asked. “The class WhatsApp groups,” she replied. “They’re posting inspirational quotes and ‘we can do this’ messages. One has even said she’s going to print the quotes off and post them around her kitchen for the difficult days and I can’t take anymore of it!” she wrote in block capitals, lest I was under any misapprehension that she saw these helpful suggestions as a good thing.
I know how she feels. I thought my homeschooling days were over. At the end of last summer as RTÉ Homeschool Hub waved goodbye and President Michael D Higgins and Bono left me in tears with their words of hope and inspiration for the nation’s children, I reminisced about how the children of Ireland had learned through the pandemic of 2020 and hoped we’d never be there again.
When my youngest child had his first day in big school last September while his older siblings galloped down the path, eager to see their friends and teachers again, I was hugely grateful to the school community for all they did to get our children back to the classroom safely. School was the one thing that got us through the last few difficult months of 2020 when we couldn’t see family, when restrictions increased and when the days got shorter and getting outdoors was a little more challenging.
As sentimental auld me lamented the absence of nativity shows and school carol services, my school brought in snow machines and Santa and made sure that even if it had to be a different Christmas at school, it would still be a magnificent one.
And I felt we could cope with most things, if the schools could manage to stay open.
But I knew what was coming when the Christmas holidays were extended until January 11th. I’m not sure there was a parent in the country who believed schools would reopen then.
Even in fully accepting the public health advice, I hated having to break it to my children. They have appreciated school this year like never before and there is zero appetite among any of us for homeschooling again.
We already know from our last experience that children with additional needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be disproportionately affected. Once again, Leaving Cert students are left to play a guessing game of will or won’t it go ahead, while the Junior Cert students could be forgiven for thinking they’ve been forgotten about altogether.
This time I’m more fearful of the fallout, of the consequences if my best isn’t good enough
Homeschooling and trying to work from home is coming between my sleep and I again. The ask of parents is impossible. You cannot focus on your work and engage with your children in any meaningful way at the same time.
But the vibe feels different this time. The expectations are higher. The curriculum will be advancing and the fear of letting my children down feels even more than last time.
This time around I have one child in third level, two in secondary and four in primary all trying to continue with their education around the dining room table as Mammy supposedly tries to work. Aside from the wifi challenges, attempting to support so many children at so many different stages is a nightmare. I hadn’t factored living through a pandemic into my family-size choices.
Last time I felt overwhelmed but I took comfort in the comments of others who said ‘do your best, do what you can’. This time I’m more fearful of the fallout, of the consequences if my best isn’t good enough.
Because, you see, I thought I was already parenting at my best, trying to work, keeping the house ticking over and taking care of my family’s physical and emotional wellbeing in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not sure that my best can stretch beyond that to fit in their formal educational needs too.
And yet I’m one of the lucky ones.
We started out in March 2020 with a great call of ‘in it together’. Perhaps that has been lost a little along the way as we scramble to make the best of our personal situations. But ‘in it together’ must mean just that. It cannot be acceptable to leave anyone behind, including our vulnerable children and families.
There is no perfect answer, but homeschooling is an utterly unworkable solution for so many. Perhaps instead it would make more sense to declare this period as holidays and reshuffle the school calendar with children attending school during midterms, Easter and possibly summer as appropriate.
A chance for all children to be taught in school, rather than only some taught at home. And a recognition of the fact that schools are a vital, essential service that are about so much more than education.