Education in the Time of Corona: Lessons from a Working mother’s perspective

Nadia[i] is a thirty-two-year-old ENT Specialist and mother of an eight-year-old boy. She works at a large public hospital in Lahore. As an essential worker, she has continued to work since the beginning of the government lockdown in Pakistan. When asked if and how the nature of her work had changed because of the spike in Coronavirus cases, she replied:

‘Work is work. This may be controversial to say, but I honestly don’t find it to be that different. We took care of sick people before and we take care of them now. I suppose there is an additional fear of getting sick now but that comes with the job. Actually, I’m more worried about what my kid is doing stuck at home all day.’[ii]

Musa (age eight) has been at home full-time since schools closed in mid-April. His school did not initially transition to online learning. The school, a private institution in Lahore for pre-nursery to grade six, encouraged parents to use this time to review the curriculum that had already been covered but no new material was shared. When it became clear that the lockdown was to continue indefinitely the school shifted to remote learning. WhatsApp groups were set up as the primary mode of communication between parents and teachers. Teachers were responsible for sharing learning materials daily. If there was any homework, it was the parents’ responsibility to work with their children to complete the work, scan it, and send it to the teacher within the specified deadline.

In conversations with Nadia regarding the transition to this new mode of teaching and learning, and how well she believed it was catering to the needs of her child, two themes emerged.

Stimulation, Engagement and the Learning Environment

Nadia believes having some schoolwork to complete during this unprecedented time is better than nothing, but she does not think the material the school is sharing is as challenging or intellectually stimulating as what was being covered prior to the lockdown. She feels there has been a regression in the difficulty of both mathematical concepts and reading levels.

‘Before the schools shut down, he (Musa) was comfortable with his multiplication tables. I could ask him anytime and he could tell me something like 7×8 on the spot. Now I’ll be surprised if he remembers his five table [sic]. But how can he be expected to remember? All the worksheets are asking him to perform single-digit multiplication and addition which he was comfortable with even last year. Yes, revision is important but for how long? If this is how things are now should we not also be moving forward and learning new concepts? If this isn’t possible then why do they insist on testing it?’

She also has concerns regarding keeping Musa motivated and engaged with his schoolwork.

‘It takes him maybe thirty minutes to finish the assigned reading and maths for the day. No other subjects have any work. I try to get him to do worksheets that I find myself on the internet and to read other books, but he resists. He thinks it’s unfair that I give him extra work after he finishes what he gets from the school. All he wants to do is watch YouTube videos. His tantrums have definitely been harder to manage, but I don’t know how to make it more interesting for him.’

© Saad Sarfraz Sheikh/IDEAS Pakistan

Another aspect that contributes to a lack of engagement is the learning environment. Without his usual routine in which he interacts with his friends and teachers, it is hard for Musa to imagine that he is in school.

‘Mama says school is at home now but what kind of school is this? My school has a playground with a slide, and I play football with my friends. I also have my own desk, which is the tidiest one in the classroom, even the teacher said so. At home it’s just boring stuff. I can’t even beat Arsalan (referring to his closest friend) in the tests.’

Musa misses interactions such as playing and competing with his friends, and objects such as his desk and a slide.  He sees these as representative of a ‘real’ school environment. Without these representations, he has difficulty time accepting that his home is now also his school. This indicates that children remain motivated and engaged in learning, and ascribe value to schooling, not just via the academics inside a classroom, but also with the other activities, objects and interactions that constitute a typical school day.

The Gender Lens: Managing Professional and Domestic Responsibilities

In addition to her work, Nadia feels that she has inadequate time and support for her son’s schooling because of her domestic responsibilities have also increased. To adhere to quarantine Nadia no longer has domestic help come to her house. As a result, all the female members of her household are expected to take on additional household responsibilities.

‘My husband is working from home. He works long hours but even if he didn’t, you know how things are, the men aren’t expected to do the cooking and cleaning. I tell him – if you don’t want to do that stuff fine but – at least sit with Musa during the day when I’m gone and help him do his (school) work. But even that seems to be a woman’s job. The cook is the woman, the cleaner is the woman, the babysitter is the woman and the teacher is also the woman, I guess. Musa knows this too, by the way. He knows Papa time is playtime and Mama is the bad guy that will make him do his schoolwork and chores’.

These gendered expectations and distribution of work within the household are what a lot women in Pakistani households navigate daily. All twenty-seven members of the WhatsApp group for Musa’s class are women. Alongside additional pressure in terms of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities, mothers also seem to be the primary point of contact between students and teachers.

Given all these difficulties, Nadia concluded:

‘I’ve given up with the school now, I don’t take it as seriously as I used to in the beginning. And they don’t take it seriously either because even when I don’t send back assignments they don’t follow up. But that’s okay. I believe Musa is happier and learns more when he sits with his dado (grandmother) and listens to the stories she tells him about the Prophets. He also likes to take care of the garden with his Chachi (paternal aunt) and that teaches him about to grow plants and vegetables. Even I’ve gotten creative now and we have a game where he’s in charge of making the budget for grocery shopping and double checking that everything adds up on the bill afterwards.’

Implications for Policy

Nadia and Musa’s experiences provide valuable insight into the challenges of remote education service delivery. For young children, the distance between teachers and students has increased, both in terms of physical space, and the number of intermediaries between them. Young children are connected to educators through intermediaries such as parents and older siblings, without the possibility of being in the same classroom for the foreseeable future.  These intermediaries are also managing newfound personal, academic, and professional responsibilities and challenges.

If efforts in remote learning are to be successful, the perspectives of these stakeholders and intermediaries is vital.  Policymakers need to identify the systematic and recurring gaps in the chain of delivery. By knowing who in the household is responsible for relaying the material shared by teachers, policymakers and educators can tailor the content and mode of delivery to mitigate the constraints of these individuals. Knowledge of who these intermediaries are and how they experience and interact with infrastructures for remote learning also opens opportunities for capacity building initiatives that are tailored to their needs.

Nadia’s insights should also prompt policymakers to confront a higher-order question: What constitutes learning? Can the ways in which we have conceptualized learning and success in the past continue to be the same in Corona time, or even post Corona? Nadia felt that Musa learned more and was more engaged when routine household activities like grocery shopping, gardening, and informal storytelling were tweaked to include overt educational components. Through incorporating challenges, questions and prompts routine household tasks became important sites for learning and inquiry in a unique and novel way that piqued her son’s interest and curiosity.

All this begs the question, is the best way to take learning from the school to the home through worksheets, online assessments and lectures, which necessitate putting children in front of a t screen for extended periods of time? Or are history and politics better learned through the lived experiences of grandparents? Could the routine servicing of a car be a lesson in science and mechanics? Can an everyday chore such as separating and taking out the trash be a chance to learn about recycling and sustainability? Everyday life is rife with opportunities for children to learn across a spectrum of subject matter. The challenge for policymakers, administrators, teachers is to re-conceptualize and mobilize education service delivery in a way that recognizes and capitalizes on these opportunities. Rather than trying to reconstruct or impose the routine and rituals of a ‘regular’ school in the home, perhaps this pandemic should shift the focus of educators to reassess the tools, modes, and milestones that characterize traditional education, and subsequently work towards reimagining curricula and lesson plans to make them easier to integrate with home life. This could be the key to ensuring that children continue to feel engaged with their learning and parents feel equipped and able to work with their children and invest in their continued development.

[i] The names of participants have been changed. Names and identifying characteristics of any institutions mentioned have been omitted.

[ii] The quotes that are included in the text are translations. The actual conversations took place in a combination of Urdu and English.

Safa Kashaf is a Senior Research Assistant at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS).