Olivia Benson: coming of age in the pandemic

For children, this pandemic will colour the rest of their lives. They are the first generation to come of age in a pandemic in the last 100 years.

Adults have a lot of fear around what the pandemic will do to children’s view of the world and their mental health. Anecdotally, more parents saw their children struggling. For some children that is true, but for others, spending more time with their families and avoiding the pressures of school was more of a positive experience.

Oliva Benson was 10 years old in 2020 and in Grade 3. She spent Grade 4 at home doing online schooling.

Olivia shared what she remembered from the beginning of the pandemic. “I just got back from Mexico and then we looked on the news and we noticed that a pandemic had started. So we noticed that we got back just in time.” Olivia and her mother spend two holidays a year with Olivia’s friend Quinn and her family in Mexico and Salt Spring Island.

For Olivia, not being able to see her friend has been hard. “I miss my friends. Because I haven’t seen my friend in maybe two years now. Oh, like she’s so far away.” Olivia and Quinn can connect on Zoom, but it doesn’t feel the same.

On March 21, 2020, immediately after spring break, all schools in Alberta switched to online delivery. Oliva was in Grade 3. In September of 2020, children could go to school either in person or online.

Olivia and her mother made the decision that Olivia would stay home together. Olivia looked to her mother and said, “You did ask if I wanted to go back to school. So you’re like, ‘Olivia, do you want to go back to school or do you want to stay at home and do online?’ And I was like, ‘I’ll do it. I want to be safe.’”

In a rather amazing feat of organization, Edmonton Public School Board set up both online and in-person classes. One-third of families opted for online schooling. Online classes were composed of a mix of children from several different schools. “There are maybe one, two and three, maybe four kids from my school.”

Olivia was happy with her decision to stay home. “I’m glad I chose to stay online because now I can wear PJ pants,” she laughed. Her mother said, “She comes out with a normal top and her hair done. She’s wearing pyjama pants. She’s fancy at the top.”

Olivia’s mother had a seamless switch to working from home. She worked for a company which had disaster planning in place. She said, “We were already set up because of our business continuity plan. We practiced every year. We took our laptops home everyday for years. As much as we complained about it, it paid off that one day.” Both Olivia and her mother have been working and doing online schooling from home since March 21, 2020.

Olivia explained how online school is different from in-person school. On the technical front, going to school in person is not “as way laggy,” she said. “Online, it’s a bit glitchy and stuff.” With regards to human interaction, Olivia said, “My teacher is a bit new, so it’s getting used to her. She’s a new teacher. I mean, I do like her because she’s a good teacher.”

Classroom management is different in online schooling. If a student is misbehaving, “Miss Travellish can actually make them leave the call and they can’t rejoin—it’s like leaving the classroom.”

Education in the pandemic really spotlighted the different ways in which people learn. For some people, not having human interaction and face-to-face talking made it very difficult to grasp concepts. For others like Olivia, not being in a classroom setting helped her focus.

When learning in-person, Olivia said she would get distracted by other people talking and would have a hard time doing her work. With online school, she doesn’t get distracted by the other children’s pace of learning. Olivia said she likes hearing the teacher talk, but when other children need clarification about information that makes sense to her, it distracts her.

When Olivia attended school in person, she didn’t like it because there were too many people there and that made it hard for her to focus. “I usually like to talk to people and I do.” She also got distracted by the environment. “The colours are really bright in the room. Like there’s too many things on the wall. And there’s lots of books and pictures and windows.”

Attending school from home and her increased ability to focus resulted in higher grades for Olivia. She said she was “just passing” science before, but now got full marks.

Attending school from home and her increased ability to focus resulted in higher grades for Olivia. She said she was “just passing” science before, but now got full marks.

Olivia’s mother appreciated the structure. “They [the teacher] actually have sessions with us to just keep us up to date.”

There were still breaks during the school day. There is a break at 10:15 a.m., lunch, and another break in the afternoon. Olivia also liked not having to travel to school. She got up at 7 a.m., started school at 9 a.m., and was done by 3:15 p.m. The lunch break was longer. During in-person school, they had 20 minutes to eat and 20 minutes to play versus a whole hour for a lunch break during online school.

Oliva and her mother generally ate lunch together, but sometimes her mother had a meeting with the Toronto office. If she did have a meeting, she pre-prepared for Olivia. “I’ll make a peanut butter sandwich or she’ll make her own lunch.” Other times, Olivia’s brother took over.

Olivia’s brother is 25 and in university. Online schooling did not work for him. He was studying computer science and did not return to school in September of 2020. Most post-secondary schooling remained online (even as many school children returned to in-person schooling.) Oliva’s mother said, “He didn’t go back this semester because of Covid 100 per cent. He misses the routine.”

Olivia said she did not get lonely during the day, even with only her mom and brother to talk to. She explained, “We get break-out rooms once in a while. Breakout rooms are where we get to go into groups with a couple of people.” While they were meant to be talking about school, Olivia said they also had fun. She explained that she could run to her room to grab a toy to show her friends. She said, “I’m allowed to have fun.”

She did state that it was sometimes if she was placed in a room where she didn’t like the other people or if they were talking about an uninteresting topic. For example, she said, “I don’t like camping.” Just like in in-person schooling, there are people you don’t enjoy spending time with or who do things that are annoying. Olivia shared, “This guy is named Marcus? He would turn his camera off and on.”

Olivia asked for a break during the interview so she could go to play in the park.

When she returned, we discussed what kind of behaviours from Covid she might carry on through her life. I was curious what kind of things this generation of children will do, and not even necessarily know why they are doing it. Olivia’s mother suggested it might be wiping things. “Wiping the play equipment,” Olivia agreed. “I would usually do it on the playground because I am with my mom.”

Olivia said that she doesn’t like wearing a mask. “Well, I mean like I can’t breathe. You barely breathe.”

I asked Olivia if she knew what mental health was, and what affect Covid had on her mental health. She was aware that for some children, the pandemic may have made it worse, but says for herself, “it’s probably true for a lot of kids, but I feel like Covid is just like usual. I haven’t been having trouble.”

Olivia’s mother said, “I think she’s loving having me around more. It’s kind of a plus for her.”

Her co-workers now know Olivia and she popped in online every once in a while. If Olivia’s mother couldn’t be interrupted, she said, “I put up my finger like this. And she knows to back away.” She emphasized, “I think our situation is pretty lucky to have that.”

Olivia still had a social life outside school. She named the number of friends she plays with regularly, “Trevor, Darien, and Eleanor are all in the neighbourhood.”

I asked Olivia what she misses about before Covid. “I could travel a lot.”

I also asked what she will miss about Covid when the pandemic is over. “I might miss that I get to stay at home. Because I do like some privacy.”

My last question to Olivia was what she thinks she will tell her children and grandchildren about the Covid pandemic. After thinking for a minute she answered, “The pandemic wasn’t the best thing, but it was a bit nice because maybe you got a bit more safer, more sanitized, and you had to be a bit cautious.”

She concluded, “It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me.”

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