Nadine Riopel: online schooling

Nadine Riopel lives in Spruce Avenue with her husband and son, Sam. Riopel was a stay-at-home mother until Sam started kindergarten in 2018 and Riopel rejoined the paid workforce, doing contract work at the University of Alberta. When schools were closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Sam was in Grade 1. 

The final months of the 2020 school year were delivered online through Google Classrooms. For many families, especially with young children, the schooling was fairly relaxed and expectations of the children were not high. Riopel said, “It was a much looser version [of schooling], because they weren’t prepared. It was just a half-an-hour a day and I don’t remember there being any assignments.”

When the lockdown happened in March 2020, Riopel’s work contract at the University of Alberta (UofA) had two days left. When school resumed in the fall, there were no contract positions available. Not long after that, Riopel discovered that her department at the UofA had been completely eliminated, likely due to the 6.8 per cent budget cut to the university in 2020 and another 11 per cent in 2021, mandated by the provincial government. 

While the job loss was frustrating after just being back in the workforce for a year, Riopel took it in stride. “I had thought when this was over, I could go back. I was grateful to have that one posting under my belt as proof that I was good. I know a lot of people worked from home and supervised online learning, and I feel for them. Because even without the working-from-home part, it was very difficult. I wasn’t going to take that on unless it was absolutely necessary.”

At the same time, being thrust back into the stay-at-home mother role was uncomfortable for Riopel. She elaborated, “There’s so much pressure once you’re a mother to mainly be a mother. I didn’t want to be defined by my domestic role. I’ve been fighting to try and develop my other roles with varying degrees of success, and I had finally gotten to a place where I can see a way forward for me professionally, and then along comes the pandemic and boom, everything is gone.”

“It’s super frustrating to get jammed so thoroughly back into a purely domestic role. And looking after other people’s children—not just my child—but other people’s children. What a nightmare.” She stated, “I was so bored. So bored.”

At the end of the summer of 2020, the government suggested there would be several back-to-school scenarios, from full online schooling to full in-person schooling. They [the government] selected scenario one (full in person schooling) and Riopel said, “They seemed very committed to pretending that it wasn’t a problem and that they could just invest [in infection mitigation measures] super minimally.” Parents had the choice to enrol their children in distance learning, or have them attend school in person.

“I know not everybody felt this way, but in my mind, I was just like, ‘Are you out of your mind? What do you mean, kids don’t transmit Covid? Why? Do you really think elementary school kids are going to stay properly masked all day when grownups can’t do it for half an hour in a grocery store?’ Come on.”

“I know not everybody felt this way, but in my mind, I was just like, ‘Are you out of your mind? What do you mean, kids don’t transmit Covid? Why? Do you really think elementary school kids are going to stay properly masked all day when grownups can’t do it for half an hour in a grocery store?’ Come on.”

Along with one-third of Edmonton’s other families, Riopel chose distance learning for Sam. The easiest explanation was that her husband works as an occupational therapist at the Glenrose Hospital and his patients have multiple health issues and are in various marginalized categories. Riopel elaborated, “That’s something I say to people, like when I’m explaining why we made that decision as a way to soften, to try and seem less judgmental and be like, ‘Well, you know, we had to think about my husband’s patients’. But honestly, I just thought it was the right thing to do. I don’t like that I find sometimes the conversation slides to a place [where] we were paranoid about our personal security.”

“I’m pretty healthy and I don’t have respiratory issues,” Riopel stated. “It just felt like the right thing to do for the bigger picture community to limit spread in any way I could.” 

Riopel’s choice was clarified by the lack of government investment in contagion mitigation. She said, “There was no investment in reducing class sizes, no investment in ventilation, nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And I just thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ I was stunned to find that I was in the minority on this.”

She wondered, “Is school being good for kids—the structure, the socialization, the getting away from the parents, having a life outside the house—important enough [to risk spreading Covid in a pandemic]? If kids need school, then we should have made school safe.” Riopel shrugged her shoulders, miming her interpretation of the government’s response, “Well, what are you gonna do?”

“One of the most poignant moments of the pandemic for me was [from a statement made by a friend who is a] high school teacher. When the announcement came out that they were going to scenario one and not investing significant dollars [in mitigation of viral spreading], she looked at me and said, ‘It feels like we just gave up.’”

She continued ”I always remember that moment. That’s the moment that everyone went, ‘Oh well, I guess this is what we’re doing.’ Up until then, I really felt like we were all in it together and that most reasonable people were giving it their honest best, but at that point everyone took their cue from the government and went, ‘We’re not trying.’”

Riopel summed up the situation parents were in. “There were no good choices.”

She said, “I’ve had those moments where I’m like, ‘Am I wearing a tinfoil hat here? Am I crazy? Am I paranoid?’ Because I feel like the system wanted us to think we were paranoid because we weren’t going along. But I don’t think I was.” 

Riopel struggled to find other local parents who were not sending their children back to in-person schooling. “The end of August was a nightmare because I really didn’t want to send Sam in person. But I also really did not want to be the only person in his life. He needs other kids to be around at least part of the time.” Eventually, she found two families from outside the community who also wanted to do online schooling. 

“Two little girls, a first grader, and a kindergartener landed upon us and that’s who my son had for friends throughout the school year. I did my best to support them in their online schooling.”

The choice Riopel made to keep her child home and to do what she could to prevent the spread of Covid was a challenging experience. 

She said, “I hated it. It felt like when Sammy was little, but worse because then we could go on playdates or to the library.” Because Riopel was supervising online schooling, she couldn’t do anything else. “You can do a little house cleaning or cooking, but you can’t do anything that engages you because you have to be half paying attention all the time.” She concluded, “And it is boring as all get out.”

She had to find ways to fill the days, because there wasn’t much content to online school, particularly for the two girls in kindergarten and Grade 1.

Sam’s first online teacher only taught the class for one week. By the second week, he had a new teacher with only three years of teaching experience. “This new girl got hired over the weekend. She is wet behind the ears—probably 26 and is probably a perfectly capable teacher. In a classroom setting, I’m sure she’d be fabulous. But this was the Olympics of teaching. And they sent in the rookies.”

Riopel is friends with a teacher who works at their school. “She gives it to me straight. She’s like, ‘It’s a mess in here. We can’t even talk to each other. Team building has fallen apart. I don’t know what’s going on with my fellow teachers. I can’t do anything as a music teacher. I’m having to jump through all these hoops and do all these ridiculous things.’” 

Riopel found the online teaching system lacking in effectiveness. She said, “As a professional facilitator, I could think of 18 million strategies they could have used to set these people up better. They wouldn’t even have to cost that much money.” 

Riopel’s son had the most online time and did his school work upstairs in their home. The child in Grade 1 had the most trouble with online school. Riopel said, “She did not win the teacher lottery. By the end of the third quarter, she was expected to be at the computer for three hours a day, which was not good for her.” 

Riopel added, “She was very externally cheerful and bright. But she scratched her initials into my desk and towards the end, she started to chew through her clothes. She chewed a hole in her new dress.” 

Sam was also bored, finding online schooling to be unchallenging and unengaging. Riopel said, “He opens YouTube and never pays any attention. We tried strategies. We consulted with therapists. We tried all kinds of things to help him pay more attention and eventually concluded that he’s just doing his best and he just can’t [pay attention]; he’s so burned out.” Riopel said that despite this, “he’s really good about doing his work, reviewing the lesson slides, and doing the assignments.”  

Even with the difficulties, Sam won the class literacy award for the year. Riopel laughed. “The teacher had to pull him aside after the [Google] Meet. She had to have him stay late so she could tell him he won.”

Riopel said, “[In September 2021], Sam’s going in regardless. God, I know, I know it’s a roll of the dice.” 

Sam returned to in-person schooling in 2021. He contracted Covid in May of 2022. Riopel found a new job as an event planner at the University of Alberta International in November of 2021. 

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