We asked parents to share their experience of teaching their children at home while juggling jobs and other responsibilities. Their stories shine a light on the challenges that families are facing in these unprecedented times – and on the vast differences in levels of support from individual schools
We’re almost a month into Homeschool: The Sequel and many families are settling into a routine of weary familiarity. With no end in sight just yet, it’s hard to plan ahead or to know just how long we’ll be doing this for.
To find out how families are really coping, we surveyed parents on Independent.ie to ask about their experience this time around and how it differed from the lockdown last spring, when schools closed for almost three months.
The range of responses was illuminating. Most parents reported that schools were — unsurprisingly — far better prepared than they were last spring, offering more structure and support for pupils throughout the day.
However, many parents reported a variety of challenges, from not having enough devices, to managing different schedules, not to mention keeping on top of their own careers and jobs on top of school work.
What’s also clear is that schools are offering widely varying levels of engagement with their pupils. Some have ‘live’ online classes, while others offer daily or weekly videos, and some use apps such as Aladdin or Seesaw to communicate. For each individual family, the challenges are different.
Derry O’Sullivan and his wife, Yeonhee Kim, live in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford with their three children: Owen (7), Eric (4) and two-year-old Suzy. Yeonhee is a nurse in a nursing home, while Derry works in the pharmaceutical industry. Both are out of the house doing shift work. With only one parent in the house at any time, managing the homeschool schedule is tricky.
Derry says the family found the first bout of homeschooling very tough. “In the last lockdown, there was no communication, no books, nothing we could use at home,” he recalls. The O’Sullivans have since moved Owen, who is now in first class, from his previous school to the local Gaelscoil, which is smaller. This time round, things are far better.
“We have something to work with this time, and we have some structure and support,” says Derry. “The school is doing its best, providing games and activities on different platforms like Zoom and Aladdin. The principal dropped round books the other day. Owen is busy for about three hours a day. And that’s enough.”
But their oldest child misses his friends. ”Owen knew that the schools would be closed after Christmas, but he wanted to go back and see his friends,” says Derry. “The social aspect of it has been the main thing for him.”
For Owen’s little brother Eric, his preschool is sending printouts and worksheets with activities. “But to be honest,” admits Derry, “I can’t make it work. Maybe it’s easier when they are in a group setting, but I can’t get him to focus.”
Two-year-old Suzy “floats around the house” playing with her toys or her brothers. But for Derry, the strain is showing.
“It is stressful trying to keep on top of things. It’s very hard to keep Owen focused, while keeping the smaller ones quiet, and trying to focus on him. You would feel it on your chest and your head. But we know it is not the worst situation in the world.”
The O’Sullivans are also without their usual support system. “Usually my parents would have helped out once a week, covering gaps in our schedule, while we need to sleep,” says Derry.
Another problem is trying to get enough fresh air. “The weather has been bad, and we can’ t really go anywhere. We have been going to the beach as much as possible, or we go to a local field. There are not many options, as we live in a housing estate in a small town with no parks as such.“Recently the nursing home where my wife works had a Covid outbreak, so we have to isolate completely. With the bad weather, when we are not leaving the house, we’re in a small house, and you hear everything. So if someone is trying to sleep when they are working nights — it’s hard. It’s had a big impact on family life.”
Meanwhile, mum-of-three Gráinne MacHale believes that schools are doing their best in the current lockdown to keep connected with students. Her eldest son Senan (7) has five Zoom classes a week and his teacher makes herself available every school day at 1pm to answer students’ and parents’ questions.
A pupil of St Corban’s National School in Naas, Co Kildare, Gráinne says Senan’s school has been excellent in providing both written and oral feedback.
She explains that the Zoom classes are live teaching and this is complimented with video lessons and activities on the Seesaw app. The video lessons cover every topic and include interactive activities and written activities for the children to follow.
However, Gráinne doesn’t follow a typical school day with her son. “There’s a flexibility to our day. Depending on what the weather is like, we might go for a walk or the kids will bounce on the trampoline. We might spend two hours or two-and-a-half hours over the course of the day on homeschooling. We may not do anything for a day and then catch up. If you were actually homeschooling, that’s what you’d do — it’s children-led learning,” says Gráinne.
“The Montessori approach is children-led learning and we are getting back-up from the teachers. By being flexible, you’re not trying to shoehorn the ordinary into the extraordinary,” she adds. With two younger children at home — Iseult (4) and 13-month-old Elodie — Gráinne, a secondary school teacher, believes that her homeschooling experience has been good overall and the day goes better if she has a positive outlook.
“Our schools are fantastic. The children will catch up. In the context of all the years they’re in school, the teachers will put the resources in place. I would have great belief in that,” says Gráinne.
At her home in Ballinasloe, Co Galway mum-of-seven Sharon Dooley says she’s managing much better at homeschooling during this lockdown by being more organised.
Mum to five school-going children as well as two adult children, Sharon is feeling the pressure to try to make time for her own work. And she believes her work running her own online coaching and public speaking business is suffering as a result of so much time devoted to homeschooling.
Her three secondary school children Oisin (16), Clodagh (14) and Liam (13), as well as her two primary school children Eva (11) and Amber (9), start the school day at 9am.
While the two older children work in her home office, the other three work from the kitchen table. “It’s working well this time. But I’m not going to lie and say it’s great. I cannot wait for them to get back to school safely,” says Sharon.
After the school day is finished at 4pm for the older children and Sharon has fixed dinner, she tries to put in a few hours at her own workstation to make sure her business isn’t neglected. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, her husband Henry takes over the homeschooling while Sharon carves out some space to work.
Sharon feels that the schools are much better prepared for this lockdown and this also makes it easier for her and her husband to schedule their time.
“School starts at 9am and we’re following a timetable. I’d normally get them up at 7am and we’d leave the house at 8.20am. Now they just have to walk down the hall so they get extra time in bed. We call it a day for the younger ones at 3pm and the older ones after 4pm. Dinner is at 4.30pm,” she says.
“The secondary school uses Microsoft Teams. There’s a mix of live classes and some pre-recorded videos. They get assignments on Teams and the year head checks in with them on a scheduled call. For the younger ones, they don’t have online classes. They get an email at the start of the week outlining the whole week’s work. At 2.30pm the corrections are sent through and they correct their work”.
Sharon says having a larger family has made her more organised in general. Now she’s applying that to homeschooling. She also feels that the timetable means their days are structured and it gives the weekends a different feel. “With the numbers I have, I can’t afford to be relaxed,” she adds.
The current regime means that she’s often at her desk until late into the evening. “I do have to catch up in the evenings. But we’re surviving a pandemic — we’re getting through this. We’ll look back and ask ‘do you remember the struggles?’
Mum to Áine (13), Oisín (11) and Odhran (9), Jane Byrne from Carlow believes both parents and teachers have learned a lot from the experience of the first lockdown.
She says her two primary school-going sons are doing much better as a result of a weekly Zoom class where they get to check in with their friends and teachers.
“It’s chalk and cheese this time around. What has made the biggest change is that every Monday the boys have a Zoom call with their classes. Odhran is on at 12pm and Oisin is on at 1pm. They just chat and each person in the class gets to tell their news. They’re in very good spirits after it,” she says.
“I’d love if they did more Zoom classes. The boys ask me questions and sometimes I have to Google the answer — school is so different now. But “I feel more organised and I’m not panicky about things”.
“With the boys we know the work for the week and Odhran’s teacher is also sending out a timetable for the day. She does it in a really fun way. Oisin gets his work as well and on a Friday he sends in a voice recording of how he’s feeling,” says Jane.
However, she says she does worry about her daughter in first year because she feels that class meetings were too sporadic at the beginning. However, this has improved.
“In general, Áine is up at her desk at 9am. I get the two boys up and get their breakfast and then we sit down at the counter together. Odhran takes half an hour on the Seesaw app and it takes Oisin an hour. I check in on Áine every hour,” she adds.
With her own business closed — she runs a dance shop in Carlow town — Jane says doing an online Zoom class for two hours every week keeps her going in the midst of all the homeschooling.
“I would never give anything a 10 out of 10,” she says, referring to her experience of homeschooling second time around. “Nothing is perfect,” she adds.
“I’m doing more now because I’m working less outside the home this time around.”
“We were a little overwhelmed when we realised what was expected of our 13-year-old. However, he seems to be coping.”
“I hope the secondary doesn’t do online classes every day. The day they have online it’s full on and they don’t get time for fresh air or exercise.”
“The dreary weather, the knowledge that it is likely to go on for longer than January is a little hard. But it’s going much better than lockdown number one.”
“I am not spending time on it. My kids manage with the help of their teachers online. They love being home and feeling safe.”
“We are doing too little, for sure. Mostly they are done with school work in less than two hours.”
“My main concern is for my daughter who is doing her Leaving. Last time I had my eldest son doing the Leaving and she was in fifth year. I see her experiencing the same pressure except it is worse because she missed so much last year.”
“Fantastic. I am extremely medically vulnerable so we have been homeschooling and flying blind. Now we are finally getting instructions.”