SINGAPORE: “Are you going to email the form teacher?” asked one mum from my son’s Secondary 1 parents’ WhatsApp group after I’d inadvertently opened the Pandora’s box by wondering aloud if anyone else was concerned that our boys’ school was near the heart of a COVID-19 cluster.
The replies came fast and furious. Parents were worried their children took public transport and shared the same commute with students from many affected schools and tuition centres in the East.
Another pointed out that despite the lack of reported COVID-19 cases at the school thus far, many boys there had younger siblings who went to an affected primary school nearby. I gulped nervously.
Next came the pings from my daughter’s Primary 2 parents’ WhatsApp group, circulating a REACH e-feedback form for parents to state their concerns about COVID-19 infections in schools. A deluge of comments followed.
“Let’s request that June holidays be brought forward,” went one. “Make the schools implement home-based learning (HBL) immediately,” said another.
All this hyperactivity on my smartphone took place on Sunday (May 16) – hours before it was announced that primary, secondary schools and junior colleges would move to full HBL from May 19.
A COLLECTIVE SIGH OF RELIEF
By the time the Ministry of Education (MOE) made that announcement, I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief across parent chatgroups and social media.
In the days leading up to the announcement, many parents were anxious. Their frenzied exhortations, which had practically reached fever pitch on Sunday, were variations on a central theme: Are our children are going to be safe?
Of course, there is no certainty to this question. One year plus into the global pandemic, COVID-19 has thrown out new twists and turns.
At yesterday’s media conference, Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing highlighted how some new mutations of the coronavirus were “much more virulent” and “seem to attack the younger children”. When kids under 16 years are not scheduled to be vaccinated yet, these developments are worrying.
With a spike in local cases in recent weeks, just knowing that HBL would kick in from this Wednesday has let me breathe a little easier.
My kids are also excited about this new development. My 13-year-old son finds travelling time on public transport exhausting, while my soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter says that keeping her mask on all day makes her sweaty and uncomfortable.
“But won’t you miss your friends?” I asked them. “Nah,” they said, all blasé. “It’s not like they let you talk to your friends at recess,” my girl added.
HBL 2.0 – BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
So here we go again. HBL 2.0. No sweat, right? We’ve been here before after all.
Yet, during last year’s circuit breaker, when both telecommuting and HBL became the new normal seemingly, the learning curve was steep.
Households across Singapore scrambled to convert homes into workstations with reliable Wi-Fi. Parents had to ensure enough laptops and iPads to go around so Daddy and Mummy could be on their respective Zoom calls while the kids could log into their Student Learning Space (SLS) accounts without issue.
The birth of HBL also sounded the death knell for the era of work–family segregation. To survive this new reality, I had to accept that the full integration of work and family life was here to stay. Teamwork was critical to keep each day running smoothly.
When we had a lull at work, my husband and I took turns to supervise the children, see to their meals and take care of the chores.
The juggling act with HBL was mental. Was my son giving his full attention? Was my daughter on the right page? Did they remember to click “Submit” at the end of each assignment? Were they actually learning anything?
Questions like these were constantly at the back of my mind throughout each workday even as I attended discussions, responded to emails and completed my tasks, pretending to be unfazed by a messy home and restless children.
DIFFERENT FROM LAST YEAR
I had apprehensions about HBL last year.
My son was due to take his PSLE that year and I had concerns about how this disruption of physical schooling would impact his learning outcomes and his performance in the year-end national exams.
Moreover, my daughter, who was in P1 at the time, only had the benefit of attending three months of primary school before the circuit breaker.
She had only begun to build foundations in her subjects when the introduction of HBL threw an unexpected spanner in the works. With everyone so new to the e-learning world, I truly did not know what to expect.
Many of us faced similar concerns over HBL last year. But rather than lament and remind ourselves of the nightmarish aspects of last year’s experience, we need to focus on how that episode has prepared us better for this year.
Fast forward to today, I am circling back into the 2021 edition of “HBL parenthood” with considerably more experience in technology, some benchmark of what to expect, and a lot more optimism.
I now know how to set boundaries for my kids’ screen time so that they don’t spend too much time in front of the computer. This means ensuring their leisure time is not filled with playing computer games or watching YouTube videos, but in other off-screen activities.
I also know how to structure their learning around our work schedules so that there are enough IT devices to go around.
And instead of second guessing how my kids are coping with and learning from HBL, I have realised it is better to reach out to their teachers for feedback.
It is also fortuitous that there is clear recognition of its challenges, the plan to ringfence affected schools if need be, and a desire for schools to resume face-to-face instruction if it is safe to do so.
At yesterday’s press conference by the multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19, Mr Chan pointed out that “HBL over a prolonged period has certain limitations and to the extent possible we would want to extend physical schooling for our children”.
WE ARE READY THIS TIME
Today, MOE and its schools are much more intentional about integrating HBL into its main curriculum. In a press release issued last December, the ministry announced plans to launch “blended learning”. It aims to do so by educating students through a mix of home-based and in-school activities.
This supports Mr Chan’s point: That to continue learning and living in a COVID-19 world, we must remain agile and adapt accordingly.
This “we” includes parents as well. As we brace ourselves and our children for the next iteration of HBL – and it may come again – we must be prepared to view education beyond the confines of its location, whether physical or online.
Likewise, whether in a classroom or at home, we must have faith that our children can thrive and we need to give them the support they need to toggle such a hybrid learning environment.
As we inch closer to the 2021 version of HBL, let’s draw from the lessons and experiences of last year to approach this period more confidently and optimistically.
Rachel Tey is an author and editorial consultant based in Singapore.