A few ruts in the ice

·3 min read

A morning sun dog gave way to a blustery -20 C afternoon, but Emby Blum-Payne was still keen to show off tricks and twirls on her ice skates.

Krystal Payne helped her eight-year-old daughter suit up at the edge of their front yard skating rink in Elmwood, one of several features of the family’s homemade winter wonderland, which includes a snow fort that doubles as a miniature tobogganing hill.

Sporting hot pink-and-white skates, Emby effortlessly glided around the glossy surface to burn off some energy after a virtual school day.

Payne and her partner, Andy Blum, share in their daily goal to get Emby to participate in at least 30 minutes of exercise — an idea a child psychologist prescribed when the parents voiced concerns about their daughter’s remote-learning frustrations.

They have been encouraging Emby to walk the dogs, skate in the yard, and watch and follow along with kid workout videos to meet that target.

“On the days when we fail to facilitate that, there’s definitely a lot more frustration and trouble sleeping,” Payne says.

As the school year nears the halfway mark, the parents have learned how to navigate Emby’s emotions amid constant uncertainty in education and life, in general. Their third-grader was assigned a new online classroom teacher — the third one she’s had since the first day of remote learning in September — earlier this month.

The only progress report Emby has received in 2020-21 to date was more blank than usual; instead of numbers, there were “incomplete” notices next to every subject, alongside comments about strengths and next steps.

“There have been continued disruptions in terms of her losing work and losing access (to different apps) and sort of starting from scratch again. It’s super-frustrating,” Payne says.

For instance, with every change there has been a reset of Emby’s progress on Raz-Kids, a program that gamifies learning by giving users points when they finish reading levelled books and answer related comprehension questions.

Despite the hurdles, Payne says transitions have become easier over time and remote learning feels a lot different than it did last March.

Emby attends two 40-minute video-call classes, which start and end with a French song to encourage students to sing and dance, during the school day. In between sessions, she works on independent assignments and completes home-school book studies with her mom.

The family is searching for a math tutor to supplement the setup.

Given Emby hasn’t been able to hang out with friends in months, she’s been connecting with them online, often playing group games on one device and messaging on another. Payne says she’s had to re-evaluate her hesitations about screen time because it’s the only way Emby can socialize.

In the Blum-Paynes’ basement suite, Emby’s grandfather Edward Payne has also been spending much of his time staring at a screen. The provincial COVID-19 briefings are part of his daily routine.

He hasn’t visited the library, gone for a haircut or left the house much since the pandemic was declared. Being immunocompromised, he is taking every precaution — as is the rest of the family, which is why Emby is learning at home.

“That’s just the way it is right now,” says the man of few words, in contrast to his chatty granddaughter.

Like Emby, he has been reading lots of books this year. His preferred genre is mystery, while his granddaughter favours graphic novels.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press