In the early days of the country’s unplanned foray into online learning last spring, Toronto mother Zabrina Rego got chastised by her child’s teacher for blurting out the answer to a question.

The gaffe was especially mortifying for Rego – who is herself a teacher working remotely. She knew better, but thought her daughter’s microphone was muted.

“It was embarrassing and then she was super mad at me for shouting it out,” Rego said.

As many Canadian students learn remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic – numbers that have recently ballooned owing to post-holiday school closings – teachers and families are navigating the dynamics of a new world in which parents have a front-row seat to their children’s education. Now, instead of school being a black box, parents can watch their kids’ teachers every minute of the day.

For some parents, staying quiet during class is proving difficult. Teachers say parents have been disruptive, interrupting lessons and interfering with their teaching. Other educators report feeling constantly monitored and critiqued, citing a barrage of e-mails and phone messages from parents overstepping their role.

Some parents have taken to Facebook groups with rants about their children’s teachers, detailing everything from poor grammar and inaccurate material to rudeness and scant actual teaching.

Several school boards have issued written rules for parents, including that they must not disturb classes, stay off the chat function, refrain from taking photos or recordings and avoid complaining about teachers on social media.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School board wrote to parents last month to remind them not to meddle in classes after “a number of incidents of inappropriate parent/guardian interference and disruption in the online learning environment.”

The York Catholic District School Board went so far as to invoke Ontario’s Education Act in a letter in the fall, noting it is “an offense for any person to willfully interrupt or disquiet” a class.

Boards’ directives on parental behaviour are an effort to protect the online learning environment for students, just as bricks-and-mortar schools do not allow parents to sit in on classes, said Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral researcher in equity and e-learning at York University.

“I think that those boundaries are important,” she said. “I think there’s a sense of, in order to learn, you need to feel secure, you need to feel like you aren’t under surveillance, and you’re not being watched by anyone other than who’s in that space.”

For many parents, determining what, if any, role they should play during their children’s virtual schooling has been challenging.

Some teachers, especially those in the early grades, rely on caregivers to help young children manage technology and oversee activities. Others have been clear that parents should not be involved.

However, many parents have found they need to supervise their kids in order to help them stay focused on their lessons while juggling their own work responsibilities. The result is that some parents sit in on the whole school day – off camera, but listening with half an ear to the teacher.

Jennifer Doherty, a Mississauga, Ont., mother, vented on a Facebook group after her son’s teacher suggested that the students go to bed earlier because they seemed tired. The comment touched a nerve because the teacher didn’t acknowledge the long hours of screen time and lack of breaks, she said.

“Sorry I could rant all day let me tell u,” she wrote.

Doherty also took issue with the teacher’s high expectations of the split Grade 4-5 class, saying she was putting too much pressure on students and often mentioned curriculum standards they must meet.

However, for Doherty, being able to observe her son’s learning has been invaluable in helping her understand how far he is lagging behind his peers and that he needed extra assistance.

“It’s really opened up my eyes,” she said in an interview.

Beyond her early slip-up, Rego, a special-education teacher who helps children with reading, said one of the realities of e-learning is that just as parents can watch their kids’ online teachers, educators also have a window into their students’ home lives. One of her pupils cares for his baby brother during lessons, balancing him on his lap as he reads. She can hear families talking, TVs blaring, pots and pans clanging.

Rego said a silver lining of online learning is that her students’ parents are picking up her strategies, even mimicking her as they coach their kids.

“It’s like we’re working together,” she said. “They know what I’m doing because they’re there with me. So I feel like they can more easily help their child at home because they know what’s happening in school because it’s happening in their living room.”

The Globe and Mail, January 19, 2021