Winnipeg mother of 8 wants help from teachers, government as family struggles with English, technology

A newcomer mother in Winnipeg is calling for help as she prepares to be home with eight children later this week when schools switch to remote learning.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, and Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced Sunday that kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in Winnipeg and Brandon will move to remote learning on Wednesday, due to COVID-19 cases in those environments. 

Sophie Wazilondeala, 36, usually spends the daytime looking after her two toddlers. But as of Wednesday, she will have to help her six other children — who range from five to 19 years old — learn from home for at least several weeks.

“I’m realizing the kids are having a hard time learning online,” said Wazilondeala, who spoke to CBC News through a translator.

“They’re not so used to English. So, many times, I find they really need to be closer in-person or to the teachers.”

Sophia Wazilondeala speaks in Swahili with translation from Elodie Furaha, who works with Hospitality House to re-settle refugees in Winnipeg, on challenges for her children with remote learning. (CBC/Walther Bernal)

Wazilondeala came to Canada with her family as refugees nearly five years ago. She is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, but came to Canada through Malawi, another African country.

Her first language is Swahili and she is still learning English, so she can’t help the kids with their learning either, said Wazilondeala.

“That’s a very big challenge that I have,” she said.

Teachers are starting to send online links that direct parents and students to where they can find learning materials, but Wazilondeala’s children are having trouble navigating the technology, she said.

Only two of the six kids were given a laptop for coursework, so those will have to be shared, she said.

“It feels like they’re not learning as they’re supposed to,” she said. 

Wazilondeala says it would help if teachers slowly explained the lesson and how to get to the material.

Wazilondeala is concerned about the quality of education her children are receiving, given the language barrier, she said. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The pandemic is creating other struggles for the Wazilondeala household too. Wazilondeala’s husband is having trouble getting hours as a health-care aide, and most places are closed so the children are stuck inside most of the time and eating a lot of food, she said.

School more prepared than last time

Meanwhile Elwick Community School, a kindergarten to Grade 8 school in the Seven Oaks School Division, is more prepared for the shift to remote learning compared to last spring.

Parents weren’t necessarily shocked given the rise in COVID-19 cases, but they still have questions about how learning will work, such as learning packages and whether devices will be required, said principal Loralei Bunkowsky.

“We want to meet families right now where they’re at,” said Bunkowsky. “If families need a special accommodation to be able to come in person, we’re going to try our best to meet that family’s needs. If a family has a situation where they’re really depending on our school for their nutrition programs … we offer that.

“We’re trying to make the best of this situation and offer families what they need to get through it.”

Right now, remote learning is only supposed to last for three weeks. But given the time of year and how many school days are left, Bunkowsky wonders where students will be finishing their schooling this year.

Justine Lamorena, an Elwick student, is “kind of happy” about not having to be in school, but she’ll likely just be staying at home and doing schoolwork, she said.

The last time Lamorena was learning at home, she would call her friends after class was over. She enjoyed that, she says.

Vaaman Sethi, 12, sees the shift as a safe thing, but will miss being able to see his classmates in-person at Elwick.

The Manitoba government is planning to open COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to people 12 and up before the end of the month.

Sethi says he would get the vaccine if his parents allowed him to, in order to stay safe from contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The provincial government hopes to have students back in classrooms in June.

Wazilondeala hopes that’s the case, as her oldest daughter, who aspires to be a nurse, is starting to see her grades slip, and says the classroom is a better learning environment for her.