Home-based learning blues: Life in a rental flat during the COVID-19 circuit breaker
What the past two weeks of staying home 24/7 has been like for four Singaporean families living in one- and two-room flats.
SINGAPORE: It is 9am and Ella is about to attend her first lecture as a polytechnic student.
She fires up her live lesson, Introduction to Accounting, on her laptop, keeping her camera on long enough for her lecturer to register she’s there. Just long enough – before a loud cry can shoot through the hall, or one of her younger brothers crawls into frame.
Once her attendance is marked "present", the 19-year-old turns off the camera, and her real work begins.
Sitting on the floor of the two-room flat which she shares with seven brothers and her parents, Ella plays teacher – as she has done since the start of full home-based learning (HBL) on Apr 8 – to Dylan, nine, and Darren, seven. All the families' names in this story have been changed.
“I don’t want them to go back to school not knowing anything,” said Ella, helping Dylan with a Primary 3 mathematics assignment. “I’m afraid that they would need a lot of catching up.”
But their "classroom" for the past two weeks has not exactly been conducive to learning. In that small confined space, there is no privacy or quiet.
“11 minus 6 is …?” says Ella, trying to cajole the distracted Dylan, who has a lollipop dangling from the side of his mouth. One of the toddlers barrels towards them and sits on the workbooks; the other three young boys run amok, their screams shattering any fragile focus.
A simple table with chairs could, maybe, help get the boys into a better frame of mind for learning. But they don’t have the luxury of space for that.
Sometimes, the chaos drives Max, 16, to seek refuge in the stairwell outside with his books and phone, "circuit breaker" rules notwithstanding.
“It’s very hard to focus when I have to look out for my brothers while paying attention to my teachers and taking notes,” said Max, who is taking his O-Levels this year.
Perched on the stairs, with a flaky Internet connection, he has to do all his schoolwork on the six-inch screen of his mobile phone, which makes typing “a bit troublesome”. Two donated laptops at home – from the family service centre and Beyond Social Services – are for his younger brothers’ use.
A third, on loan from the primary school, sits unused because their mother Tina is afraid the younger kids might break it.
FOR SOME, THE MAMMOTH TASK OF HBL
Since the start of circuit-breaker measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, the new reality of self-confinement at home has posed stark challenges for low-income families like Ella’s.
They are among 52,000 households in Singapore living in government-subsidised rental flats – and, in some ways, are the hardest hit by the safe-distancing measures.
Many have lost jobs or income. Added to that is the mental stress of lacking physical space 24/7, and the feeling of helplessness among parents out of their depth dealing with their children’s schoolwork – as well as with their pent-up energy, once the month-long school holidays start next week.
Take Nora, 47, who sometimes can’t answer her two youngest children’s questions about schoolwork. “We do (the work) together, but I also get it wrong. I have to take some time to Google, but it’s very slow,” she said.
She is especially concerned that her son in Primary 4 might drop to a foundation class if he does not do well this academic year.
“It’s not easy for me, but if I don’t help him he will be so stressed and he will give up. In school, the teacher is there to help, so now I need to be the teacher,” Nora said. It helps that they can reach out to his form teacher by phone when they face issues.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) acknowledges that home-based learning would be more challenging for students from lower-income and vulnerable backgrounds.
“From an educational perspective, the move to full home-based learning is not ideal,” said an MOE spokesperson. “This is a key reason why MOE has been reluctant to suspend schools despite petitions and calls from the public to do so.”
Among the steps MOE has taken to “mitigate the impact” on vulnerable students, has been to loan out more than 20,000 computing devices and 1,200 Internet-enabling devices as of Apr 22.
But still, bridging the digital divide is an ongoing process.
A “JARRING” DIGITAL DIVIDE
At Nora’s two-room rental flat household, things were, in her words, “going haywire” with technical glitches and an unreliable Internet connection.
The family received two refurbished second-hand laptops sourced by the volunteer-run ReadAble, which has been giving Nora’s two youngest children lessons in reading, speech and drama since 2016.
READ: Volunteers rush to deliver laptops to families in need before full home-based learning kicks in
But she had trouble installing Zoom on one of the laptops, and it needed frequent rebooting – which meant her son missed all the live online lessons, said the frustrated mother.
The mobile data dongle donated by ReadAble also got lost in their busy household of eight. So the children had to rely on her phone’s hotspot, which provided a spotty connection.
All this resulted in assignments that couldn’t be completed and submitted online. As of Apr 22, two weeks into HBL, her Primary 4 son had about 17 assignments left undone, she said. He is given about three a day.
One social studies assignment, for example, required him to answer questions about Kampong Glam based on a video. When it failed to play, Nora resorted to using Google to read up about the place and its history – but still, they couldn’t complete the assignment as the questions were specific to the video content.
The lack of adequate technical tools for HBL among low-income families has been a “jarring disparity”, said ReadAble’s co-founder Amanda Chong, 31. “I think we take for granted that in 2020, most households would have some sort of computer device, but we found that most of our kids never owned a laptop.”
The organisation, which aims to equip students of disadvantaged families with literacy, has thus far given out 12 MacBooks donated by Skyscanner and another 40 laptops sourced from families in their programme.
They also have replacements standing by in case of technical problems – Nora’s faulty laptop has since been replaced. She is also planning to apply for subsided fibre broadband access under the Home Access Programme for low-income households.
WHEN PARENTS STRUGGLE TO HELP
But technical tools are just one part of the problem. Natalie, 13, also a ReadAble beneficiary, said that no one at home can help her with the “difficult but still fun” assignments.
Her mum Eva, 47, said she can only instruct Natalie in her mother tongue, and besides, she doesn’t have the time with a three-year-old granddaughter to care for. Her husband studied only up to Primary 6, she added.
The stakes are high because Natalie is taking her Primary School Leaving Examinations this year, after being held back a year in Primary 5. Full HBL has meant missing out on an after-school programme where, for four days a week, there were mentors to help her with homework.
For now, Natalie gets help with English once a week through ReadAble’s online lessons.
Ella’s brother Max, meanwhile, is struggling to stay motivated in his O-Levels year. “There’s no teacher around to scold me if I don’t do my online work, so there’s nothing driving me to complete my assignment,” he said.
“But I’m not going to take things for granted ... I’m afraid of failing,” said Max, who only just scraped through Secondary 3.
His mother Tina, though, is determined to help the two younger boys in primary school learn – even when it means nights spent toiling through their workbooks with Google Translate to decipher the more difficult English words after everyone has gone to sleep.
“I need to learn how to do (their homework) and show them how to do it,” said Tina.
Thankfully, there are online tuition classes by a community self-help group which Max, Dylan and Darren log on to once a week. And there’s Ella to help too. Though the Year 1 polytechnic student has to spend her evenings catching up on the lessons she missed during the day, Ella does not complain.
“To my mum, education is very important," she said. “(Helping her) is not something that she has to ask of me. It is my responsibility.”
At the other end of the spectrum are children like Katie, nine, whose father Sam can’t be home to supervise her because of his 12-hour shifts as a security guard.
The Primary 3 student has attended only one online class since HBL began, said her father.
While they have a desktop computer, obtained with the help of MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme, Katie said she does not know how to use Google Meet for her live lessons, and the 39-year-old single father has yet to figure out how to demonstrate it to her.
Her days are spent with an elderly grandaunt at home. It is only when Sam returns to their one-room flat at 9pm, when he’s not working overtime, that they attempt the assignments.
By then, a tired Sam can only spend 45 minutes to an hour helping Katie. Her hyperactivity makes focusing a challenge. And science homework is a bit of a struggle for them both. Said Sam: “Sometimes I don’t know the answer but I will (search on) Google or ask my friends. It’s tricky, but we somehow find a solution.”
So far, they’ve been able to submit most assignments on time, he said. “I’m trying my very best.”
ACHIEVEMENT GAPS COULD GROW
All these difficulties lead social service groups to worry about HBL widening the learning disparity between students from low-income families and the rest.
A survey by Beyond Social Services showed that many children from less privileged homes were already struggling in school before HBL, said Lim Shaw Hui, 47, the charity’s assistant director. “Their learning will definitely be impacted,” she said. “It’s especially stressful when the parents have to juggle between helping many children.”
ReadAble’s Amanda is worried that “achievement gaps would continue to grow” if full HBL extends beyond several months.
“There are clear disparities when a parent is able to handhold a child through the entire syllabus, versus a working parent who may not be so educated and is already stressed trying to put food on the table,” she said.
During HBL, in addition to teachers making themselves available over the phone to students who need help, schools have also stayed open for students whose home environments “may not be conducive for learning”, or who need additional support, said MOE.
“We have been inviting these students to school, and so far, the response has been good,” said the ministry spokesperson.
When schools resume, teachers will also take stock of the students’ learning progress and provide “the necessary remediation and consultation”, MOE added.
Having two of the younger boys return to school is an option that Tina – who says she wasn’t aware of it before – is now exploring.
But other parents are reluctant, citing worries about the coronavirus. Nora and her husband have tried not to let their children set foot outside since the circuit breaker began. “My husband is very, very worried for their safety,” she said.
Their concern was heightened when Nora recently learnt of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a neighbouring block. “Even though it’s difficult, it’s hectic (at home), I would rather bear with it than let my children go to school with the situation like that,” she said.
For Sam, too, sending Katie back to school is a last resort. The nine-year-old likes to run around and doesn’t always keep a safe distance from others, so her grandaunt would have trouble taking her to and from school, Sam explained
“The number of (COVID-19) cases is increasing, so I do have worries,” he said early last week.
READ: Safe distancing measures in classrooms need to be in place when schools reopen: Indranee Rajah
COOPED UP AND FED UP
But staying home 24/7, with many people sharing a small area, brings its own set of problems and frustrations.
Eva's son, Nat, is 14 and on the autism spectrum. She used to bring him for a walk when he had his meltdowns, but now she must find new ways to calm him down.
The noise, flaring tempers, and other stressors at home are taking a toll on Eva in the form of migraine attacks. These now happen every day and can last hours. “Before COVID-19, it wasn’t like this,” said Eva, who turns to painkillers and medicated oil to cope.
Tina used to be able to snatch a few hours of peace on her own when the younger boys were out at school, or engaged in after-school activities like swimming and soccer. These used to help the boys – especially nine-year-old Dylan, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – expend their boundless energy.
Now, restricted to just running around the hall and bedroom, Tina said: “Sometimes they cry and ask to go out. It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to handle their behaviour.” The toys that she’d bought to salve their boredom were all broken in just a few days.
For Tina, there is also the preparation of endless meals and snacks, and chores that eat into the night after hours of HBL. “I have been feeling close to giving up,” she confessed.
With the circuit breaker extended until Jun 1 and school holidays brought forward, the parents worry about how to keep their children occupied.
Katie has already been complaining of feeling bored the past two weeks. There is nothing much to engage her at home besides a mobile phone and some colouring books, said Sam. “I need to crack my head and find more things for her to do.”
HELPING STRUGGLING KIDS TO EXCEL
But beyond the support offered by schools, teachers, self-help groups and MOE, others in the community stand ready to help families grappling with HBL.
Several non-profit and volunteer groups, such as ReadAble, Beyond Social Services and Engineering Good, have been channelling refurbished second-hand laptops to low-income families. And at least two projects started by university students are providing a pool of tutors willing to help remotely for free.
Social enterprise VivaKids has also been busy helping primary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Working with partners, it provided the 700 students in its programme with 4G-equipped tablets. Its KidsExcel supplementary academic classes have migrated online.
“These classes are meant to help children who may fall behind during this period of change as well as complement HBL,” said Victor Pok, founder of VivaKids.
Within a week of CNA Insider linking VivaKids up with Tina, Eva and Sam, their younger children were provided with the tablets and trial classes.
It took Victor by surprise how receptive the children were, especially Katie. “Most kids will think ‘huh, tuition?’ But she took to the teachers straightaway. She couldn’t wait to get into action. This shows that she’s been disengaged for a very long time,” said Victor.
Before each lesson begins, the children must do one thing: Put on the KidsExcel T-shirt. This gives them a “sense of uniformity and structure”; that it’s official class time despite being at home, said Victor.
Each online class is kept to four or five students. In one of the lessons that CNA Insider observed, Katie – who suffers from a short attention span – sat through a 30-minute class with minimal disruption. She read along with the teacher and tried her best at the exercises.
In the same class was Tina’s son Dylan. Though his attention was sometimes on the action at home, he mostly listened and highlighted his answers on a virtual whiteboard, which the teacher corrected on the spot.
“Unlike in physical classes, where students have to wait a week for their work to be marked,” Victor noted.
At the end of the session on adjectives, the students took turns describing the class: Some were “happy”, others found it “funny”, and Dylan called it “perfect”.
One student asked: “Tomorrow are we doing it again?”
When the circuit breaker is lifted, the children can look forward to joining KidsExcel’s resumed physical programmes at a designated family service centre. “Twenty years ago, school would have been an equaliser, but now it’s about extra tuition classes. So that’s my motivation to help the lower-income kids,” said Victor, 46.
Though Ella cannot yet tell if Dylan’s work has improved, she has noticed that he has become more focused, after the first two sessions with KidsExcel. “He’s been able to navigate his classes more independently. I don’t have to guide him all the time,” she said.
‘IN MY HEART, IT’S NOT CRAMPED’
Indeed, however rough the road gets, the families say they try to keep their minds focused on the positive.
“As long as (my kids) are in front of my eyes, they are safe, it’s okay,” Nora said. “It’s stressful but ... I have to endure. I have to really play my part as a parent.”
As for Ella, she said: “Serving this circuit-breaker period with my family, I get to see what the struggles of each of my family members are. It has made me more aware of what I should do to help.”
A week since CNA Insider first reached out to her, Tina shared eagerly in a text message that she had finally bought a table and chairs for her children to better focus during their HBL classes. She threw out other stuff to make space.
And though their walls are covered in the children’s scribbles, and nights spent sleeping on mats rolled out across the living room floor, these conditions do not bother Tina too much at the end of the day.
“I don’t find that it is cramped because in my heart, it is not cramped. We are thankful to have a roof over our heads.”