Opinion: Schooling in Quarantine – A View from the Trenches

By Hasanah Saliman

From the Editor:

As full home-based learning starts today until 7 Oct for Primary and Special Education schools, families brace themselves yet again for the good, the bad and the ugly of having multiple children and adults learning and working from home. While more accustomed to such an environment, homeschool families still experience the brunt of heightened social distancing measures. After all, getting out of our homes for common classes as well as physical and social activities has always been the highlight of our schedules. Full home-based learning is challenging for us too.

We empathize with families facing the immense pressure that is brought upon by the conflation of educational, career and homemaking pursuits under one roof. That was why the homeschooling community rallied last year and rolled out several initiatives to share how we educate at home. With rising concerns on mental health this year, our community also ran webinars to create spaces for sensitive dialogues on family practices. Our inaugural theme for this Opinion Section hopes to textualise some of these thoughts and tools.

At the webinar on “How to Build a Holistic Education System for our Children at Home” by Dawn Fung, I was intrigued by some of the suggestions offered by fellow homeschooling mother, Hasanah Saliman. Her suggestions ranged from the very practical to the common sense yet radical ones. Think: not even having a sofa in the living room to counter spatial limitations. What some might consider as an act of imprudence was an outcome of her constant reflections on the real needs of her family, which served her family well during their recent experience under quarantine. Read Hasanah’s article for her candid sharing and tips.

Hasanah Saliman is a mother to four children. Before making the leap to being a stay-at-home-mum and venturing into home education, she worked in the education management industry. She has been homeschooling for over eight years and looks forward to more adventures with her little ones.

Opinion: Schooling in Quarantine – A View from the Trenches

By Hasanah Saliman

As I write this, sipping my already-cold coffee, I reminisce about the rushed mornings of having to push my children (figuratively and sometimes literally) out the door to make it in time for co-ops, playdates and various homeschool events. It seems like a lifetime ago that I would over-schedule our routine in the hope of expanding our learning repertoire beyond what we do at home. Our pace has slowed down so much since Singapore first rolled out its Covid-19 measures via the Circuit Breaker. My children and I miss our friends and the many fun outdoor activities we used to engage in. However, being home more often now has urged me to think about what really matters – our family.

This is it.

Our efforts (in mostly staying home this past year) are going to be put to the ultimate test.

hasanah saliman

Last month, our family of six was issued with a quarantine order and we were allowed to serve it at home. “This is it,” I said to myself when I read the notification message from the Ministry of Health. “Our efforts (in mostly staying home this past year) are going to be put to the ultimate test.” 

Serving the quarantine order meant no trips to the parks or libraries as a family and no skate-scooting or roller-blading in the neighbourhood for the children. For me, I could not go out for a short morning run or conveniently pop out to the store for an ingredient or two. My husband had to forgo his weekly mountain biking ride on the trail near our flat. These have always been the little things that helped keep our heads and hearts balanced throughout the various phases of Covid-19 social distancing measures. They have given each of us some sense of normalcy and avenues to unwind. Yet, we had to give them up, albeit temporarily. First world problems, huh?

Then it struck me that I should not be thinking about the things that we could not do. Instead,  I should seek out all the things that we could do. Looking back into our experience of schooling in quarantine, here are some lessons that I have learnt through this trial by fire. 

Embrace the Marriage Challenge

Despite the nationwide Circuit Breaker last year, the nature of my husband’s job did not allow him to work from home. Therefore, we have not undergone the issues that many families had encountered in coping with the demands of working and schooling at home simultaneously. Having my husband home throughout the day for a fortnight was not something that the children and I had experienced in our 13 years of marriage. So our quarantine was not only a test of our ability to not pull each other’s hair out, but it was also a test for our marriage. Yet, I firmly believe that every obstacle would strengthen us and build our future ability to overcome similar situations. 

One of the things that I learnt was how important it was for us to spend time together as a couple and make time to engage in our interests. So we made a plan to take turns for one of us to do an activity with the children while the other would retreat into our bedroom for a short break. Parenting can be an emotional rollercoaster. We need to refresh ourselves before giving attention to our loved ones. Having constant communication with each other and expressing our needs clearly would help avoid any misunderstandings. 

Take up novel projects 

Much of the activities that my children and I used to do revolved around their learning goals. We did not direct much time towards tasks and projects that could improve our lives as a family. During the quarantine, we finally fixed up a room for our 5-year-old daughter. She finally has her own bedroom instead of bunking with her brothers like she did before. The children also helped me scale down and reorganise our homeschool materials. In other words, being quarantined spurred us to face our ever-expanding to-do list! Working on projects together allowed us to bond through the satisfaction of completing a daunting task as a team.

Sewing a solar system mat (Photo courtesy of Hasanah Saliman)

Take charge of time

Our heavily scheduled lives pre-pandemic limited our opportunities to do things as a family. With all the time freed up, I revamped the family’s routine to make our days more manageable. Soon, my children realised how keeping to a timetable allows them to do more of what they enjoy. We rediscovered toys that had long been ignored, revisited incomplete craft projects, and indulged in more frequent movie nights. Our projector that had been sitting in storage finally got its day in the sun. The children’s expressions as they watched corn kernels pop on our stove in anticipation of the movie screenings were priceless. 

Create spaces – Both physical and emotional

The spatial challenges of accommodating working and schooling activities for six family members under one roof could not be more mind-boggling. Spaces must be allocated not only for physical activities but to fulfil emotional goals. When we decided to do away with a sofa and coffee table years ago, a near-empty living area allowed the kids to build obstacle courses, blanket forts and have dance parties. Having small, movable furniture, such as a foldable table and chair, allowed us to move our children into separate spaces so they could attend a Zoom session undisturbed or solve Math word problems peacefully. Having quiet corners where one of us could retreat to had allowed us to take a break from the rest of the family to regroup our thoughts and emotions. 

Who says that writing can only be done at the table? (Photo courtesy of Hasanah Saliman)

Talk it out!

Having my husband present during mealtimes was one of the silver linings that came with our quarantine. As someone who works long shift hours, he seldom experiences the chaos and the laughter that peaks at dinnertime in our home. Communicating our thoughts and feelings during family mealtimes helped us understand each other a little better to prevent future conflicts. Even in quarantine, we still had our regular duties and activities – whether it was cooking, reading or playing. Therefore, mealtimes gave the best chance for us to get together daily. As we reached the end of our quarantine, we discussed as a family to list out all the things we looked forward to doing outdoors as a way to keep our spirits up.

Embrace the teachable moments

There were also moments of distress, boredom and anxiety. And it was during these moments that I found myself the most challenged. I encouraged my children to expend their energies towards activities they enjoy like art, drawing and reading. 

As a highly sensitive person, I am also aware of how our surroundings impact our moods. It became a priority that I instil in my children – the habit of keeping their personal spaces neat and ensuring adequate quiet and comfortable areas to work. Being in quarantine magnified our need for such spaces and spurred me to extend our chore chart for the children. In our discussions, I gave my children a hand in deciding who does what. These motivated them to follow through with their chores. Even the littlest one got involved, armed with a duster in hand, dusting every surface he could find! 

Beyond learning the importance of keeping things in order, I hope that taking care of our home also teaches them to be mindful of their environment. After all, a calm environment helps keep oneself centred and focused. Such teachable moments were opportunities for us to see how we would fare when obstacles come our way. 

This pandemic and our recent experience serving a quarantine order as a family taught me to prioritise what I had always known but seemed to forget – us.  Our fortnight in quarantine together was not perfect, but what is life if it is not riddled with imperfections? It was a valuable and enriching experience. The ability to adapt and accommodate could not be more crucial in these trying times, so I am thankful that we survived it in one piece! In the wise words of the late Jimmy Ray Dean, 

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.

jimmy ray dean