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Coronavirus: Ontario parents, children dealing with stress of virtual learning

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WATCH ABOVE: For at least the next month, students in Ontario will remain at home in virtual classrooms as part of the province’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. The restrictions can be difficult for children and their families. Caryn Lieberman reports on the emotional toll of online learning – Jan 14, 2021

With schools shut down across Ontario as part of the provincial government’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, children are spending hours each day in front of tablets and computers, engaged in virtual learning.

“It was an immediate impact on them when we told them they would not be going back to class,” said father of three, Claude Flint of Pickering, Ont.

Two of Flint’s children have special needs, but virtual learning has been challenging on an emotional level for all three of them, he said.

“One of the kids is Autistic, he has Autism Spectrum Disorder, he has oppositional defiance disorder, and another has ADHD as well as anxiety disorder, so those are amplified immensely when they’re taken out of their social structure and put in front of a screen for hours and hours on end,” he explained.

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Read more: Calls for mental health supports grow in Toronto as coronavirus pandemic continues

Flint and his wife also work from home.

Like many working parents across the province, the Flints are feeling the impact of juggling remote learning with their own full-time jobs.

“It has led to a lot of discord in the home. It’s led a lot of snippiness and fighting and poor sleeping habits,” he said.

Parminder Singh, Managing Director of Clinical Services at Think Research and co-founder of HealthCare Plus, said he too is a parent trying to balance the needs of his children and his work.

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“Getting overwhelmed would be very easy, but we just need to make sure we don’t burden ourselves so constantly remind ourselves that we are doing the best that we can,” he said.

Singh is also a mental health advocate who pointed out taking breaks from the screen during the day, or finding a space in the home to take deep breaths and do yoga, can help the body and the mind.

Working mother Gladys Fernandez has a four-year-old son enrolled in junior kindergarten in Toronto.

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She is questioning whether it makes sense to keep him in virtual school.

Read more: A survival guide for parents struggling with virtual learning

“One full hour that they have to sit in front of the computer, it’s impossible … my son refuses to sit in front of the computer and I don’t want to force him,” she said.

Her son is feeling stressed, she said, and so is she.

“It’s the stress for work, the stress for ‘am I good mother? Am I a good dad? Because if I don’t do anything then my son is going to miss out on something at school and am I going to lose my spot?’ That’s the other thing because they clearly say it’s mandatory,” she said.

When it comes to the mental health of parents and their children, psychiatrist Dr. Ian Dawe said, “It’s just a tremendously difficult time right now.”

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He added, “Parents should not assume they know how their kids are doing. Instead, families should be opening the lines of communication with their children and asking them ‘how are you feeling?'”

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“It’s about sharing the realities that we are all in this together, as much of a cliché as this is, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what we’re feeling, but we are together as a family we are going to help support that’,” said Dawe, Program Chief and Medical Director of Mental Health at Trillium Health Partners.

In the Flint home, pressure is at an all-time high.

Read more: Mandatory online learning in Ontario leaves single parents with impossible choice

“It’s a pretty big strain on myself and my spouse,” said Flint.

He fears there may come a day when he will no longer be able to keep his three children enrolled in virtual class “as their distaste for it grows daily.”

According to Dawe, one thing that could help both children and their parents, is sticking to a “positive healthy routine.”

“Making sure that they’re going to be exercising and sleeping … that will just keep them and us as healthy as we can be,” he said.