Virtual school — a mid-semester check-in

Behold! The virtual learner in its natural habitat… Careful to not disturb her. (Or at least not before making sure her camera isn’t on. No one needs to see Mom walk by in her PJs at 1 p.m.)

We’re halfway through the year, and I had been planning on writing about how virtual school is going. But then our school district pulled the rug out from under everyone by (SURPRISE!) announcing that they’re opening schools on February 1. This huge announcement kicked off a flurry of texts back and forth between neighborhood moms. (Ahem. Mostly initiated by me.)

We’re pretty sure we’re keeping our kids virtual. We’re 100% sure that we’re tired of playing armchair “infectious disease” experts. This year is exhausting.  I’m tired of making all these decisions that I’m not equipped to make.

My kids just took MAP testing, which is a computer adaptive test that includes material the kids haven’t yet been taught. This left both my kids, who are not used to being flummoxed by their teachers, in a state of panic.

That’s how I feel about this year — it’s like an ongoing MAP test that asks parents like me, who are experts in neither education nor science — to make decisions about the health and education of their children. The stakes are high. We are groping around in the dark, trying to predict how this pandemic will affect our children’s health, education, and social and emotional development.

I’m flummoxed.

My kids haven’t been inside a classroom since they came home from school on March 12.

That means I haven’t had to pack a lunch or haul all my kids to the bus stop since March. MARCH! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sacked out on the couch in the evening and thought, “Man, I’m SO GLAD I’m not looking for a lost permission slip or throwing together a costume for favorite book character day.”

Virtual school definitely benefits my lazy side. But that aside, it’s honestly been just fine for my kids. They’ve actually kind of liked it. After one semester, I can confidently say that it’s not all bad.

In fact, one of my kids has even had their best year yet.

Maybe the growth in confidence and initiative I’ve observed would have happened anyway, on its own timetable. But I think learning at home, without the pressure of a classroom full of peers, is helpful for some kids, mine included.

What I’ve seen in a semester of watching over my kids’ shoulders is a bunch of kids who have adapted remarkably well to technology and social challenges. I’ve seen teachers who have achieved the impossible — inspiring and motivating kids through a screen. And also teaching them how to mute.

(Before I go any further, I should mention that I don’t mean to be glib about what is amounting to an educational catastrophe in our country. I’m writing this from an extreme place of privilege. Virtual school works in part because we have abundant Internet, a parent who is available to help, etc. I absolutely realize that virtual school is a terrible challenge for a lot of families.)

It’s also just kinda nice having them home. On their breaks, the kids play with their siblings. They run outside and chase chickens, and they show me the PowerPoint slideshow they’re working on. I think the four of them have strengthened their sibling bond this year, and even though having them all home is a lot of work for me, at least once a day I reflect on how nice it is having them around.

Plus, this has been a stressful year. It’s been the most stressful year I can remember in terms of the political and social climate. When things are going sideways and people are scaling the walls of the Capitol, I’m glad everyone is close.

When I decided to redshirt David for kindergarten, I said that I felt like I robbed a bank — like I’d stolen a year with him and gotten away with it. I kind of feel the same way about having my big kids underfoot again.

Anyway. That’s my update. It hasn’t been awful, and there have even been some really bright spots.

Remember when the biggest controversy about school openings happened when it snowed? “I can’t believe there’s a delay! The roads aren’t even wet!”

Simpler times!

But back then, we didn’t really know because we hadn’t driven on all the bridges that had frozen over in the night.

This is the same. I don’t really feel qualified to have an opinion about school opening because I don’t really know. I don’t know whether the school opening is good, dangerous, or even necessary for the sake of struggling families. This is MAP testing. No one really knows because we haven’t done this before.

All I know is how this is affecting my family. And I don’t even know how it’s affecting the kids in the long-term. I don’t know what the social or educational implications of this year will be on my kids. All I can do is take stock in today.

This pandemic is asking us to make impossible decisions, all of which are backed with plenty of research and, when that fails, anecdotes. But the truth is that no one knows what will happen. Perhaps, years from now when we know more about COVID-19, we’ll look back at this year of school closures as unnecessary. Or maybe they’ll go down in history as one of the many things we did to save lives. Maybe this will usher in a new era of educators using the internet to teach. Who knows?

This little blogging exercise I created for myself –reflecting on the first semester — it’s actually been pretty helpful. If anything, it’s a reminder that virtual school looks different for every kid and every household. Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t worry too much about trying to understand communicable diseases and education projections.

Maybe we should do the simpler thing — take stock of the year, and do what’s best for your family.

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