Excessive screen-time was once the common enemy in the Milne-Karn, Parenteau and Blum-Payne households.

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Excessive screen-time was once the common enemy in the Milne-Karn, Parenteau and Blum-Payne households.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home orders have given each family pause when considering each of their children’s relationships with computers.

Three families make different educational choices during pandemic

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Kenny works on an abacus.						</p>
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kenny works on an abacus.

Posted: 7:00 PM Sep. 18, 2020

Meet the Milne-Karns, the Parenteaus and the Blum-Paynes.

The Free Press is following these three families to document their experiences in the classroom, with remote learning and home-schooling amid the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic. 

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Students are now learning how to use video-conferencing platforms, including Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams to participate in lessons and discussions online. Homework is being posted in virtual-classroom portals, such as Edsby and Seesaw. Even after-school playdates have moved into a virtual sphere, as kids connect online to play Roblox, Among Us and other games.

Krystal Payne says her daughter’s online activities have been taking up much of the family’s internet bandwidth, but as maddening as it may be, she has learned to be forgiving about it.

"It just feels so wild right now. It really doesn’t feel like these are OK or stable times, and it’s really hard to know how to parent," Payne says, adding that virtual interaction is the only way the remote learner can socialize with kids her own age right now.

Three families deal with unsettling, ever-changing schooling

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Anna Milne-Karn plays with her pink Barbie mobile clinic toy after school.
Anna Milne-Karn plays with her pink Barbie mobile clinic toy after school.

Posted: 7:00 PM Nov. 20, 2020

Thousands of families in the Manitoba capital have received the dreaded letter — stamped with a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority logo in the top left-hand corner — since Sept. 8.

“Dear parent/guardian of students at (X) school, Manitoba public health officials advised (X) school today of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” states the template Dr. Heejune Chang, medical officer of health for the region, is required to sign.

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The increase in screen time and decrease in outside activity is having an impact on fitness levels for kids, teenagers and adults.

During the first lockdown last spring, ParticipACTION, a Canadian non-profit that promotes healthy living, surveyed nearly 1,500 parents about physical activity levels during the initial COVID-19 wave.

The study found five per cent of children and only 0.8 per cent of teenagers were meeting national guidelines for physical activity (an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day), sleep and sedentary time. Pre-pandemic, 15 per cent of students combined were meeting the recommended thresholds.

In order to improve those figures, the organization recommends parents be active role models, set limits on screen use and encourage outdoor time.

The wind chill complicates matters in Winnipeg, but the three families are layering up to take advantage of the frozen Assiniboine River.

Skating and fishing are on the Parenteau winter activity list.

Mother Anna Parenteau says she can tell her youngest misses hockey. Carter Parenteau, 9, is one of thousands of Winnipeg kids forced to sit out the season instead of playing in leagues. He is, however, getting a thrill out of cheering on NHL defenceman Zach Whitecloud of the Vegas Golden Knights, who is from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and one of his icons.

Emby Blum-Payne, 8, and her dad, Andy Blum recently did some father-daughter bonding in their front yard by building a quinzhee.

The Milne-Karn family plans to cross-country ski their way through the winter.

"We all feel like we’re in a holding pattern now," says mother Luanne Karn about halfway through the academic year.

Amid constant pandemic pivots, the families are finding normalcy in Winnipeg winter and their kids’ academic progress.

As evidenced by their lengthy reading lists, learning loss isn’t much of a concern for these three Winnipeg families. They remain more focused on how to regulate screen time.

Carter’s new-found love for reading and declaration that the Harry Potter books are better than the movies based on the series have excited his parents. The Isaac Brock School fourth-grader is determined to finish Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban so he can watch the next movie, his mother says.

Grade 3 student Anna Milne-Karn is also reading the fantastical series with her mothers. The Ecole Laura Secord student is proud to share that she has progressed from reading at a Grade 2 level to a Grade 4 level this year.

Emby Blum-Payne, who hopes to return to Ecole Sacre-Coeur for the fourth grade next year, just finished adventure novel My Side of the Mountain.

"I’m really impressed by her ability to comprehend and think critically about the novels that we’ve been reading," Emby’s mother says.

Early assessment data from school divisions in Manitoba suggest COVID-19 learning disruptions have affected literacy levels most significantly among third-grade and younger students, given many of them are not yet independent readers.

As evidenced by their lengthy reading lists, learning loss isn’t much of a concern for these three Winnipeg families. They remain more focused on how to regulate screen time.

 

 

Lessons from the land

Carter Parenteau, in grade 4, does schoolwork at his home in Silver Heights with his parents, Anna and Jason Parenteau.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Carter Parenteau, in grade 4, does schoolwork at his home in Silver Heights with his parents, Anna and Jason Parenteau.

In nature’s classroom, bundled up around a hole drilled into the frozen Red River, the roles of student and teacher flip.

Last weekend, the Parenteaus set out for what would prove to be a successful ice-fishing trip in Selkirk — not because they caught any channel catfish nor walleye, but because Carter Parenteau, 9, beamed as he taught his mother how to angle.

"Out there, you don’t even think about all the worries of being in a pandemic. That’s probably the best part for me, and for Carter, too," Anna Parenteau says, recalling the family field trip.

Sunday marked Anna’s first time ice fishing so Carter showed her the lines; the fourth grader explained that because they were using frozen minnows, she needed to jiggle her rod to lure fish to the bait.

"It’s his element, when he’s out on the land," she says.

Josiah Parenteau, 17, has been doing in-class, remote and land-based learning throughout his senior year at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.</p>

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Josiah Parenteau, 17, has been doing in-class, remote and land-based learning throughout his senior year at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.

The ability to connect and reflect on what it means to be Anishinaabe has proven to be one of the only constants for the Parenteaus this year, as COVID-19 continues to pause outings to school, ceremonies and swimming lessons.

It feels good to be able to uphold treaty rights and observe how the land is ever-changing, says Jason Parenteau, an experienced ice-fisher, who has been organizing cultural activities for Anna and their two sons all year.

The family braced for pandemic pivots in early autumn, but had always planned to ensure Ojibwe lessons were at the forefront of Carter and 17-year-old Josiah’s education.

Their cousins, the Kennedys and Patricks were also involved, until the recent breakup of their home-school bubble, owing to the second COVID-19 wave.

The families are uneasy about the prospect of returning to school — let alone their original 2020-21 academic setup.

Carter Parenteau, 9, took pride in teaching his mother how to ice fish when the family took a trip to the frozen Red River in Selkirk to connect with the land earlier this month.</p>

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Carter Parenteau, 9, took pride in teaching his mother how to ice fish when the family took a trip to the frozen Red River in Selkirk to connect with the land earlier this month.

They have learned first-hand how painful it is to lose a loved one during a pandemic and be unable to attend a funeral, community feast and gather around a drum.

Three relatives from Roseau River First Nation died after contracting the virus.

In recent days, Anna’s father, an elder and traditional wellness worker in Roseau River, received his first vaccine dose. While she says she’s excited for him, safe family gatherings are still a long way off.

Anna, Jason and cousin Dawnis Kennedy, however, are also hesitant about the vaccine rollout, citing the government’s history of non-consensual experiments and forced sterilization on Indigenous people.

Kennedy says she had hoped the families were being overprotective when they mapped out a home-school plan last summer and expected a vaccine would bring normalcy.

Now, she is unsure what it will take for her to feel safe about Kenny, a third grader, returning to Ojibwe Immersion at Isaac Brock School.

In September, the boys called their home-school bubble "fake school." The nickname later evolved to "our school."

Carter and his parents have been focusing on academics and land-based learning.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Carter and his parents have been focusing on academics and land-based learning.

Kenny and Carter, who would have been in a Grade 3-4 split class together if they were in school, connected with their teacher and classmates on video calls during the optional two-week remote-learning period after the holiday break.

Their families’ shared priority is staying connected to Ojibwe programming at Isaac Brock, so they have opted for home-school lessons and check-ins with Ojibwe teachers rather than fully participating in the Winnipeg School Division’s virtual English program, thus far.

Kennedy’s son has been asking about when they can return to "our school" again. She doesn’t know the answer, but she says she looks forward to the day they can gather again.

Learning on the land affects the boys’ self-esteem and how they carry themselves, she says — for the better.

 

 

A few ruts in the ice

Krystal Payne helps Emby Blum-Payne lace up her skates.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Krystal Payne helps Emby Blum-Payne lace up her skates.

A morning sun dog gave way to a blustery -20 C afternoon, but Emby Blum-Payne was still keen to show off tricks and twirls on her ice skates.

Krystal Payne helped her eight-year-old daughter suit up at the edge of their front yard skating rink in Elmwood, one of several features of the family’s homemade winter wonderland, which includes a snow fort that doubles as a miniature tobogganing hill.

Sporting hot pink-and-white skates, Emby effortlessly glided around the glossy surface to burn off some energy after a virtual school day.

Payne and her partner, Andy Blum, share in their daily goal to get Emby to participate in at least 30 minutes of exercise — an idea a child psychologist prescribed when the parents voiced concerns about their daughter’s remote-learning frustrations.

Emby takes a twirl on the family’s front yard rink.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Emby takes a twirl on the family’s front yard rink.

They have been encouraging Emby to walk the dogs, skate in the yard, and watch and follow along with kid workout videos to meet that target.

"On the days when we fail to facilitate that, there’s definitely a lot more frustration and trouble sleeping," Payne says.

As the school year nears the halfway mark, the parents have learned how to navigate Emby’s emotions amid constant uncertainty in education and life, in general. Their third-grader was assigned a new online classroom teacher — the third one she’s had since the first day of remote learning in September — earlier this month.

The only progress report Emby has received in 2020-21 to date was more blank than usual; instead of numbers, there were "incomplete" notices next to every subject, alongside comments about strengths and next steps.

A daily goal for Emby is to participate in at least 30 minutes of exercise.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A daily goal for Emby is to participate in at least 30 minutes of exercise.

"There have been continued disruptions in terms of her losing work and losing access (to different apps) and sort of starting from scratch again. It’s super-frustrating," Payne says.

For instance, with every change there has been a reset of Emby’s progress on Raz-Kids, a program that gamifies learning by giving users points when they finish reading levelled books and answer related comprehension questions.

Despite the hurdles, Payne says transitions have become easier over time and remote learning feels a lot different than it did last March.

Emby attends two 40-minute video-call classes, which start and end with a French song to encourage students to sing and dance, during the school day. In between sessions, she works on independent assignments and completes home-school book studies with her mom.

Emby was assigned a new online classroom teacher — the third one she’s had since the first day of remote learning in September — earlier this month.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Emby was assigned a new online classroom teacher — the third one she’s had since the first day of remote learning in September — earlier this month.

The family is searching for a math tutor to supplement the setup.

Given Emby hasn’t been able to hang out with friends in months, she’s been connecting with them online, often playing group games on one device and messaging on another. Payne says she’s had to re-evaluate her hesitations about screen time because it’s the only way Emby can socialize.

In the Blum-Paynes’ basement suite, Emby’s grandfather Edward Payne has also been spending much of his time staring at a screen. The provincial COVID-19 briefings are part of his daily routine.

He hasn’t visited the library, gone for a haircut or left the house much since the pandemic was declared. Being immunocompromised, he is taking every precaution — as is the rest of the family, which is why Emby is learning at home.

"That’s just the way it is right now," says the man of few words, in contrast to his chatty granddaughter.

Like Emby, he has been reading lots of books this year. His preferred genre is mystery, while his granddaughter favours graphic novels.

 

 

Party can wait, cake wouldn't

When given the choice to learn remotely or have Anna return to school after the holidays, the Milne-Karns stuck to their regular routine.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

When given the choice to learn remotely or have Anna return to school after the holidays, the Milne-Karns stuck to their regular routine.

If any silver lining can be found in turning nine years old at a time when birthday parties are illegal, it’s in the Milne-Karn family’s fridge — an abundance of leftovers from a four-storey Funfetti cake.

Heather Milne and Luanne Karn surprised their daughter with a gigantic gateau decorated in pink, purple and orange fondant flowers Tuesday to celebrate the special occasion sans friends and group party games.

Since the first COVID-19 lockdown, Anna Milne-Karn has expressed concern about the pandemic interfering with the celebration.

"This is going to screw up my birthday party," she told her mothers about 10 months ago.

Since then, Anna has attended Zoom and park celebrations for her friends’ birthdays, and accepted the postponement of her party until summer.

The plan is to meet friends at Kildonan Park and have a pool party there, she says, adding that despite the change in plans, she still welcomed her birthday this year — "because I get cake!"

The constant change in Anna's class, which has expanded to two rooms and collapsed again as other families have opted in and out of remote learning, has been confusing for Anna, Heather Milne says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The constant change in Anna's class, which has expanded to two rooms and collapsed again as other families have opted in and out of remote learning, has been confusing for Anna, Heather Milne says.

Sharing treats at school, however, isn’t currently permitted. Public-health directives also ban indoor singing, silencing schoolchildren who would typically belt out Happy Birthday to honour a classmate.

In music class, Anna has been working on percussion with Boomwhackers — colour-coded hollow plastic tubes that produce different tones — and learning Do, Re, Mi and the rest of the tonal scale by humming the sounds aloud with her peers.

"I am amazed at what teachers do to find a compromise," Karn says.

When given the choice to learn remotely or have Anna return to school after the holidays, the Milne-Karns stuck to their regular routine.

The constant change in her class, which has expanded to two rooms and collapsed again as other families have opted in and out of remote learning, has been confusing for Anna, Milne says.

She adds that it’s difficult for the third-grader to understand why some of her friends are in school and others are not.

Anna checks out her favourite fish in the school's fish tank.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Anna checks out her favourite fish in the school's fish tank.

A total of 3,433 students between kindergarten and Grade 6, approximately 21 per cent of the K-6 student population in the Winnipeg School Division, enrolled in the two-week distance-learning option to start the new year. It was mandated for the province’s Grade 7-12 students.

The Ecole Laura Secord family made the decision after taking into account daily COVID-19 case counts had started to drop, Anna’s ability to socialize at school, and Milne’s hectic work as a university professor preparing and delivering remote lessons.

"It’s hard to work when there’s a kid in the house. The energy changes," Milne says.

Even though Anna enjoyed playing Harry Potter-themed Clue with her mothers and going on walks with their new puppy throughout the break, she welcomed the return.

She is a big fan of her teacher, her teacher’s five stuffed sloth toys and art class, in which she is currently tracing, drawing and painting landscapes.

In other subjects, all of which are taught in French, she is studying fractions, changing seasons and world geography. Anna has also been setting goals for herself as part of the school’s home-reading program.

Anna is a big fan of her teacher, her teacher’s five stuffed sloth toys and art class, in which she is currently tracing, drawing and painting landscapes.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Anna is a big fan of her teacher, her teacher’s five stuffed sloth toys and art class, in which she is currently tracing, drawing and painting landscapes.

Her mothers share in their belief that Anna wouldn’t be thriving as much in French immersion this year were she doing it remotely. Neither Karn nor Milne speaks French.

A self-declared perfectionist, Milne says she felt like she was "failing as a parent" because she couldn’t help Anna at all with her French schoolwork.

One of the things the mothers miss most about pre-pandemic schooling days is the ability to visit the school and meet Anna’s teacher in person.

In autumn, a video-call replaced the typical introductory conversation that happens on meet-the-teacher night at Laura Secord.

"There’s something about seeing other kids and seeing other families and being in the building," Karn says. "You get a better handle of what’s going on."

 

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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