The new normal through a parental lens

Ardra Balachandran

“We’ve been strongly reminded of the fact that we’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, but with a thousand obligations. We must put our feelings aside; we must be brave and strong, bear discomfort without complaint, do whatever is in our power and trust in God. One day this terrible war will be over.”

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
(P 253, The Definitive Edition)

Anne’s words from April 1944 are prescient of another April, the one of 2020. Many young girls and boys (also the not-so-young) may have jotted similar words in their journals this year. It is still a world war, only the religion became humanity and the enemy, a virus. In the wake of unprecedented events leading to the world shutting down, human beings across the world are likely to have faced existential dilemmas in one way or another. For a parent, some of the most fervent of these thoughts would be about children, whom we consider our future.

Covid-19 conversations
One of the most challenging aspects of parenting is answering questions in terms suitable to every age. Add to that the challenge of being confined in a house with a child (or two, or more) who is not allowed to step out, the lockdown period proved a truly testing time for many parents.

Ramya Krishnan is a Mumbai-based service delivery lead in the finance industry and was working from home 17-18 hours a day during April-May. She lives with her nine-year old son, Pranav. It was initially difficult for Pranav to understand what was going on. He is a livewire who loves to play football (he’s a Liverpool fan), and he cried until kingdom come for not being allowed to go outside and play. But Ramya says any goal can be achieved through proper communication.

Six-year-old Hayden Johnson saw his parents working as Green Kochi volunteers distributing food packets to the needy, every day, during those two months. Neena Menon, a popular RJ, and her husband Johnson Peter, a dentist, would take precautionary measures of covering up appropriately and washing hands meticulously, throughout. When children see concepts in action, it is so much easier for them to assimilate. So, it did not take much effort for Hayden to understand that this virus is dangerous. Now he walks around the house with a small bottle of hand sanitiser, reminding everyone to use it.

But listen to Tony Jose, a senior journalist with Malayala Manorama, speaking about his teenage daughter: “Madhumitha is not dealing well with social distancing. Although she is a receptive child, it is a time of big changes for a 14-year-old, and she breaks down often saying that she has had enough of this. She wants to meet her friends and teachers.” Madhumitha just started class 9 at Mar Baselios Public School, Kottayam.

Plans gone kaput
What humans had proposed, in a swat, the virus disposed. Martin Antony and his family were all set to move from Mumbai to Essen, an industrial city in western Germany, this summer. His wife Aswathy V. had landed a plum job offer there and they had decided that Arya, their three-year-old daughter, would start kindergarten once they got there. But at this point in time, these are all plans hanging in the air. They had not taken a school admission in India and for now, Martin, a freelance professional, has made it his personal project to make Arya thorough with the alphabet. While the project goal was to make her learn until the 13th letter in two months of lockdown, they are lagging a little and are resting at the letter K.

Martin says: “Explaining calculus to a grown-up child is so much easier than this. Making little children understand basics is a tough job, best done by teachers. Right now, I feel like a lawyer who has been asked to do a surgery.” When the world is open again, they will move to Germany where Arya will start formal classes, and by then, hopefully, she will be armed with all 26 letters.

Learning in the new normal way
While the virus was out on the prowl and social interactions came to a halt, it is technology that came to our rescue. Zoom calls became a norm and we realized that children may soon be doing their lessons through these platforms too.

While most private schools have already started online classes using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Webex and the like, government schools cannot afford to do the same mainly because not all students have access to the internet. The Government of Kerala, for example, started its virtual class initiative called ‘First Bell’ on June 1st via two modes. There is a timetable based telecast of classes on television – on Victers channel run by Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE) – and the classes are soon uploaded on their YouTube channel too. Furthermore, local self-governments have arranged TV sets and computers with internet in common facility centres like anganwadis, reading rooms and clubs to ensure that not a single child is left outside the learning net. Sure, they are not as interactive as the classroom simulation offered by digital platforms, but in these extraordinary times, it is certainly one way to keep learning going.

It is quite a delight to watch some teachers impart lessons with animated expressions and an affectionate disposition for an imagined class one audience! Some of them, like Sai Swetha of Muthuvadathoor VVLP school in Vadakara, have even been hailed as super stars on Malayalam social media.

Struggling together, learning together
Old ways have quickly turned into rubble. Arjun Kolady, a digital media professional based in Mumbai, says that online learning is a difficult affair for all three parties involved – children, teachers and parents. However, he emphasizes, “It is the toughest on teachers. They have had to rework their methodology for the new medium; they have to keep unruly children under check from beyond a screen; the security of their comfort zones, the classrooms, has been taken away; they also have to deal with additional surveillance from parents.” While many schools insist that parents should not pry around the children while classes are on, we all know that is not how it works in many households. Arjun’s son Shiv is a 3rd class student at Billabong High International School, Mumbai and he notes that many of Shiv’s classmates are accompanied by their mothers; some of whom are judging the teachers’ pronunciation / teaching method, etc.

Vandana Devan, mother to Nanda Menon who wrote her class 12 board exams this year, teaches physiology at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi. She says that even parents of grownup MBBS students intrude while online classes are progressing. One can then imagine what parents of younger children would do! Arjun adds, though, that in the case of younger children, it is definitely difficult to hold attention without the teacher’s physical presence. They will invariably get distracted and indulge in mischief; so, some amount of parental check is indeed necessary while doing this from home.

Ann Mary Thomas chooses to see the bright side though. She is a teacher at National Public School in Indira Nagar, Bengaluru, where her 11-year-old daughter, Joanne studies. She says that the new normal has been a rewarding experience. “In one of the first sessions, a naughty fellow kept muting me. It was another student who made me notice that everyone was in presenter mode. He helped me change settings such that everyone except me became an attendee. What a delight it is to learn from your students!” she beamed. Arjun recalls how he caught Shiv sitting frozen in front of the desktop. Worried, he checked on him and the brat chuckles, “Oh, I just want them to think my system is stuck and loading.” Children ace the ‘tricks of technology’ far easier than teachers, of course.

Battles with space and schedules
Although lockdown was lifted at one point, many parents still continue to work from home, and with children too learning from home now, there is an obvious shortage of ‘space’. Aadi Krishnan is a class 9 student at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram, and as a 14-year-old, he knows that his parents should not be disturbed while they are at work. His father occupies their bedroom while Aadi and his mother Smitha Radhakrishnan have set up their desks in two facing spaces in the dining room. When Smitha raises her voice while communicating to her teammates during a meeting, it is often Aadi who requests his mother to keep quiet. So, now it is his ritual to remind her five minutes before he goes in for his class: “Please bahalam vekkalle” (please don’t be noisy).

Anu Mathew, a homemaker, really misses her personal space too. “Obviously, I prefer Chris going to school. Once he leaves, I would have half a day to myself,” she says. Her husband is a Commander in the Navy and their child attends the Navy Public School in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. That said, she is clear that she will not send Chris to school even if it reopens right now.

But for Ramya Krishnan, her ‘work from home’ days are coming to an end soon. Her job involves a lot of travel too, apart from regular office going. She is a single mother, but plans to take Pranav’s father’s help (he lives close-by with his parents) in taking care of their son for the time she is away.

Hayden’s time after kindergarten hours used to be spent at his grandparents’ house. Neena and Johnson would pick him up on their way back from work and head home. With online classes having begun, they now have to ensure that one of them is with him during its course. The grandparents do not have the knowhow to deal with any tech trouble / questions that may emerge. They have arrived at an arrangement where Johnson starts his work a little late, after Hayden’s morning class of an hour is done.

Let us shift focus now to a frontline warrior in the Covid-19 battle. Seema Siby is a cleaner who works for daily wages at Kottayam Medical College. Her daughters Amala and Anakha just started with class 10 and 8 respectively at St. Paul’s Girls High School, Vettimukal. They got their faulty television fixed just ahead of the commencement of ‘First Bell’. But in two days, the appliance gave up again and the children had no option but to catch up on classes on YouTube. But there is a problem – there is only one smartphone in the household and that belongs to Seema who is often gone for long hours to the hospital. During these months, their shift timings have been reorganized such that they can work longer shifts in one visit and earn two days’ wages. Amidst all this, Amala and Anakha’s classes wait. Their father is an auto rickshaw driver and is mostly at home now because of lack of work, but he doesn’t have a smartphone and doesn’t interfere in study matters either.

Their elder sister Akhila, a second-year nursing student, is currently at home too. The three sisters have taken up cooking and cleaning duties so that their mother can rest when she is back after a tiring work shift in the barely-breathable PPE kit. For many, the battle is not just of space and schedule, but of other resources too.

When the world shrinks to oneself
All stakeholders in education (except the students, perhaps) know that the most important learning happens outside the four walls of classrooms, during peer conversations and activities beyond the books. With this crucial element of education cut off in this period, parents are concerned about their children’s social skills.

Ann Mary Thomas recollects how her son Ivan used to be enthusiastic about going out to play with other kids in the apartment complex. He is all of four years old and used to love going to his Montessori school. The other day he got a peek of their neighbour boy just outside the door and he immediately asked Ann, “What is he doing there, Amma? Ask him to go inside.” Ann says: “I was shocked, frankly. With his entire family holed up here for two months plus, the child is slowly getting used to his shrunken world.” But Ann believes that online classes are a boon for her daughter. “She is anyway online – chatting with friends and attending virtual birthday parties. Then why not use that screen time for learning?” she asks. She has hired a full-time nanny to take care of Ivan while she, her husband and Joanne are locked up in three different bedrooms through the day.

Learning versus health
With children being born into a world of gadgets, ‘policing screen time’ is now perceived as a key responsibility in modern parenting. Apart from the problem that children glued to screens will miss out on social interactions and thus a wholesome growing up experience, uncontrolled screen exposure also has obvious health repercussions, particularly on the eye.

This is a key concern raised, in the context of full day online learning, by parents like Jee Chirackal. She is a movie director based in Kochi, and her 11-year-old daughter Esther is a cancer survivor. As a parent who has watched a child go through a patch of bad health, she is vehemently against the idea of extended screen engagement.

Esther’s online classes started in full swing on June 1st and soon, Jee noticed fatigue and stress in her daughter. If Jee had her way, she would ban online classes entirely for lower classes, and she is of the opinion that the least the schools can do is limit classes to one or two hours per day. “Radiation can cause issues; their retinas may get affected and there may be other effects that we don’t even know yet. Why should we expose our children to many more health risks worrying about one – the coronavirus?” she asks. So, while #RightToLearn, a parents’ collective in Karnataka, conducted a tweetstorm on June 21st appealing to the state government to lift the ban on online learning for students below class 5, Jee was trying to form a collective of parents to petition against prolonged online classes for their wards.

(While the Kerala government has not given a state-wide directive on the number of hours or the age of children, many others like Maharashtra and Karnataka have. Private schools in Kerala have autonomy in conducting classes as they deem suitable while all government schools and aided schools come under the ‘First Bell’ umbrella.)

Family time – the silver lining in the virus cloud
While the lockdown phase has been a disruptive time as far as families are concerned, it has also been a time to reconnect. Sreedevi Gopakumar, Shiv’s mother, a children’s book author and a homemaker, says: “Initially it felt odd. I missed not having the house to myself by 9 am. I kept wondering why everyone was hungry all the time. But having been able to do lunch together and play ludo in the evenings, every single day for two months plus, feels like such a blessing now.” With online classes having commenced for Shiv and with Arjun set to continue working from home until December, her blessing is lasting longer for sure.

Anxiety amidst the new normal
It is quite normal for parents to feel anxious about this new normal. There is general uncertainty about how life will pan out, long-term, in the new world order, and there is more specific and short-term worry about how this will affect their children’s education. “Will they cope?” “Will they fail?” – these doubts are integral to this journey.

Martin Antony succinctly contextualizes these thoughts: “Everybody has to recalibrate life expectations in general. In Canada, they gave out an advisory to employees that ‘you are not simply working from home; you are working from home during a pandemic.’ Nobody should expect to be as productive as during a normal time and the same goes for children. Two letters less learnt, one academic year lost, or anything in between – it is all okay.”

While this may look like settling for a lower bar at this point, the fact is there is no race to be run or won. If there is one perspectival shift that this pandemic has given us, it is this. We need to slow down for our own sake and for our children’s sake because we are all humans with flaws and fears. The best learning for our children from this tough phase should reflect in the stories they will narrate about this time, years later; not in their grades.

The author is a post-graduate in Mass Communication from the University of Hyderabad and an M.Phil. in Gender Studies. A Kochi-based media professional, she is mostly on stage as an emcee, and during other times, she writes on her favourite topics – gender, education, food and entertainment. She can be reached at [email protected].

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