Tuesday, May 25th was the last day of school for us, not counting the weird 2-hour optional day on Thursday. The kiddos finished 6th and 4th grade. I was absolutely elated for them to be done, much more than in a “regular” May. In my role as an educator, I found this year to be tough. That said, I found that parenting school-age children was even more difficult.
Our school district provided two options for each quarter of the 2020-2021 school year: attend in-person with masks and distancing or participate virtually. Having experienced the struggle of working/parenting/monitoring the children during last March-May, we decided to send them in-person, stocked with a backpack of reusable and disposable face coverings.
August through October went fairly smoothly. Both of my kids were happy to be back. The new norm did consist of pockets of classmates out for quarantine due to a single-case exposure, but no secondary outbreaks. Tennis — the perfect pandemic sport — became a hit for my tween, and both adapted to the additional COVID measures surprisingly well. My kids never made a single negative remark about wearing masks. This was surprising, given that they typically complain about everything.
In November, the learning interruptions began. Since that point, we rarely had a full week without at least one child at home. First, a surge of cases prompted the elementary school to close as a precaution for two weeks. Then the superintendent called off Thanksgiving. Asynchronous days were added to the calendar. Less than two weeks after Thanksgiving, we were notified (on day 7 after exposure!!!) that tween was in quarantine. Four days after she went back to school, the district abruptly and understandably shut down in-person learning until mid-January.
Once the kids returned in person, the remainder of the year was choppy. We were grateful for the DL mode when tween’s health issues kept her out of school from mid-February through spring break. She returned to school only to have five scheduled asynchronous days for standardized testing from April 23rd to May 3rd. With one week left, the middle school called us on May 17th about a possible COVID exposure. Tween finished the year on quarantine, joining Zooms to watch her peers celebrate the end of school, but thankfully, never got sick. It certainly was a pandemic ending to a pandemic year. Meanwhile, little sis finished in-person and was thrilled to go to a nearby park for the year’s only field trip.
Completing school this year felt monumental. I’m sure the teachers and staff agree. I fully understand the challenge of quickly learning new technology and teaching hybrid courses, while worrying about the risk of transmission — the difficulty magnified because of the pandemic context. I applaud the teachers for having to create their multi-modal forms of instruction.
As a parent, this year has been a struggle. In-person, then online on Zoom, then online, but asynchronous, then one in-person, one online: repeat, repeat, repeat. The mix of asynchronous and synchronous days brought confusion, as I tried to help my kids navigate the numerous made-up-sounding platforms, programs, and forms of communication (7 teachers for 6th grade, 4 for 4th grade). The gamification of education only made everything more tricky to decipher.
Of course, we were among the lucky households. In the last year, the pandemic-induced approaches to schooling nationally and internationally have magnified inequalities. Success in the virtual/hybrid model wasn’t about student responsibility for “buckling down” and focusing. Instead, what was often lost was the foundation that enables learning in such an environment. Even if a device was provided, not every student has access to consistent WiFi and functioning printer.
And (this is a big one), not every kid has an adult available who can monitor and assist with distance-learning. Some might argue that “kids have to be responsible for keeping track of their schoolwork.” I would somewhat agree with this statement in a regular, in-person environment, in which assignments are distributed, completed, and then returned. However, virtual learning during a pandemic is a far-cry from the conventional setting. When students and teachers are not physically at school, it is so much more difficult to identify deadlines, find assignments, know how to turn them in, have the technology to turn them in, and ask questions. Plus, virtual learning strips away the support of classmates. My kids are pretty motivated learners who love technology, yet they often needed my help to decipher the system.
We’ve all had to make-do, push through, try our best, etc. and can hopefully look forward to better times (hopefully, soon) in which all kids can get vaccinated. But I do worry about overly optimistic articles that claim that this year’s educational approaches were somehow superior to an in-person experience. Yes, there are a few positive takeaways. It is fantastic to have so many amazing online talks, seminars, and tours. Online classes also have a place in education (I’m teaching one now). As is, a hybrid model doesn’t work in general, though, especially without resolving the many additional obstacles that block or hinder learning. This experience has hopefully made me a better instructor. At the very least, I am more mindful of students’ access and outside challenges that impact their achievements.
Pandemic education has shown us the value of regular school. It is so much more than acquiring repositories of facts, memorizing equations, or producing worksheets. School isn’t just a building or a set of objectives. What we are celebrating isn’t simply an end to a challenging year, but an optimistic return to a predictable learning community. For now, we’ll enjoy summer.