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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Covid-19 school closures, working from home and family challenges: A novel solution

Jodie Pinnell, University of Portsmouth Alex Sabine, University of Portsmouth Catherine Carroll-Meehan, University of Portsmouth

Covid-19 presented a set of challenges for UK universities, and where ‘business as usual’ was expected, staff working practices intensified. The impact of this has not been equal, with the burden doubled for working parents, resulting in an overwhelming demand on mothers specifically and a further blurring of family boundaries (Yilidrim & Eslen- Ziya, 2020). As academics, staff have felt that the lockdown has only added to current pressures in a role that has already been described as ‘basically incompatible with tending to children’ (Minello, 2020, p. 1).

Working remotely, combined with home schooling children, can lead to a breakdown of family relationships and an ‘exacerbation of problems’ (ACAMH, 2020). Trying to complete schoolwork as a family is associated with behavioural and emotional changes, leading to parental stress, anxiety and tiredness (Bayar & Zontur, 2020). This heightens the risk of child irritability and aggression, with attempts at home schooling associated with negative impacts on family life. As children miss contact time at school, parental anxiety is compounded by concerns about children’s learning, with time at home slowing, halting or even reversing academic progress (Thorell et al., 2021).

Combined with these challenges, undergraduate childhood studies students were unable to meet compulsory work placement requirements due to school closures. Professional experience is of paramount importance to the sector and provides value for employment prospects. During lockdown, some students were urged to abandon university accommodation and therefore work experience plans (Wall, 2020, p. 3), which has led to only those with ‘positional advantages’ getting experience, and further widening attainment gaps (Allen, et al., 2013, p. 432). Contingency plans were deployed for the shortfall in available opportunities for work experience with children, but it was clear there was no viable substitute to live encounters for developing the skills needed in the UK childcare sector.

‘While contingency plans were deployed for the shortfall in available opportunities for work experience with children, it was clear there was no viable substitute to live encounters for developing the skills needed in the UK childcare sector.’

As we entered the third lockdown, demand for a novel solution was apparent. In response, we created the Study Buddy Club. The project provided respite for parents working at a UK university by engaging their children (aged 8–12) in online activity sessions of 90 minutes (three per day). Due to safety concerns, plans to host the service on campus were put on hold, and sessions were facilitated via Zoom video conferencing, with supervisors in the main ‘room’ and undergraduate students as paid ‘study buddies’ running the sessions.

The project aimed to engage children by managing cognitive loads and chunking learning activities, being mindful of attention spans and the potential challenges of an online environment. Engaging children online proved that participation alone was not enough, with considerable effort needed to retain attention and take feedback. The study buddies did not attempt to replicate typical classroom activities, knowing that online learning heavily relies upon visual and auditory means in place of ‘direct hands-on experiences’ (Miulescu, 2020, p. 216). Examples of activities included: finding objects for ‘show and tell’; watching live footage in UK zoos and undertaking research; and planning hypothetical events with budgets, timescales and resource lists. The children were encouraged to participate in collaborative activities where possible, producing shared work products; interaction between children was central to the sessions.

Interim survey feedback via a Google Form with mixed-methods content was plentiful and positive, with parents stating that they enjoyed the novelty of their children engaging in video calls as they worked from home, side by side. The university was open to a solutions-focused approach in this challenging context, and the Study Buddy Club provided a viable strategy that reflected a family-friendly working approach. A solution was needed and, by deploying online approaches, the whole project was turned around quickly with internal surveys revealing that the Study Buddy service enabled staff to focus on their academic workload and teaching, knowing that their children were in socially structured play activities. We hope to continue the project post-lockdown, mindful of the benefits to families and the great opportunity for our students to develop their digital skills with children – a skill set more in demand than ever before in the sector.


References

Allen, K., Quinn, J., Hollingworth, S., & Rose, A. (2013). Becoming employable students and ‘ideal’ creative workers: Exclusion and inequality in higher education work placements. British Journal of Sociology and Education, 34(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2012.714249

Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health [ACAMH]. (2020). Helping parents manage challenging behaviour during the COVID19 lockdown: Some pointers for practitioners. https://www.acamh.org/blog/helping-parents-manage-challenging-behaviour-during-the-covid19-lockdown-some-pointers-for-practitioners/

Bayar, G., & Zontur, E. C. (2020).  ‘Lockdown may cause behavioral changes among children’: Toddlers and preschool children in particular may not feel safe because of new and uncertain routine: Experts. Anadolu Agency. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/latest-on-coronavirus-outbreak/lockdown-may-cause-behavioral-changes-among-children/1843070

Minello, A. (2020, April 17). The pandemic and the female academic. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01135-9

Miulescu, M. L. (2020). Digital media: friend or foe? Preschool teachers’ experiences on learning and teaching online. Journal of Pedagogy, 2020(2), 203–221. https://doi.org/10.26755/RevPed/2020.2/203

Thorell, L. B., Skoglund, C., de la Peña, A. G., et al. (2021). Parental experiences of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic: Differences between seven European countries and between children with and without mental health conditions. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01706-1

Wall, K. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic: Impacts on the work placements of postsecondary students in Canada. Statistics Canada. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED605407.pdf   

Yildirim, T. M., & Eslen‐Ziya, H. (2021). The differential impact of COVID‐19 on the work conditions of women and men academics during the lockdown. Gender, Work & Organization, 28, 243–249. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12529

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