2020 | Opinion

Opinion: Struggles of virtual school include tears, technology, teachers’ toil

12 observations of the life of learning at home

As a PTA president and mother of three kids in elementary and middle school, I’ve heard a lot about how all-virtual school is going this year. These are my top 12 takeaways:

There are a lot of tears. Many of my friends say their kids frequently erupt in tears. During the seventh week of online school this fall, all three of my kids cried at some point about
 school. The math problem is hard, the link doesn’t work, the directions weren’t clear, it’s too much, I hate school, I miss my friends, and I thought I already submitted that assignment. Most kids are not experienced at advocating for themselves.

Everyone is trying their best. I am not blaming the teachers at all — they are doing an impossible job that they did not sign up for. Teachers had to learn a new set of online systems and deal with the unpredictability of teaching online.

Some kids don’t have a desk at home. A kindergarten student was sitting on the floor at home, so the teacher asked if the PTA could help get them a desk. We are fortunate that when we put out the call for desk donations, several families offered to donate one. You can help make sure every child has a desk by supporting the local organization Desks by Dads, which builds very basic desks.

Normalcy” is key. Nothing feels normal right now. But anything the schools can do to keep things “normal” is very important: virtual sports, morning announcements, instrumental music, student government, and clubs.

We are headed for a real mental health crisis. So many kids are suffering. For some, school is where they receive meals, emotional support, and speech therapy. For others, being in Zoom classes each day is not fun. Kids are sad, angry, frustrated, and hopeless. Nine months feels like forever. They’ve missed school events, recess, field trips, classroom parties, and just laughing with friends. The isolation is especially acute for children without siblings.

The rates of child abuse, suicide, and domestic violence have exponentially increased, and the typical intervention strategies are greatly limited while children are not in school
 buildings. School counselors have a typical caseload of about 600 kids, instead of the recommended 250. When we return to school, students will need extensive support to deal with PTSD, learning loss, and more.

Do you know where your child is? First-quarter report cards came online Nov. 24, and I suspect there were some surprises. Did you know your child missed (or skipped) some days of school? Were there some grades of “M” for missing data? Some schools did not hold parent-teacher conferences, so parents’ opportunities to connect have been limited. But teachers seem very willing to discuss your child’s progress or challenges, so parents should not hesitate to ask for a meeting.

Navigating multiple programs and platforms. MCPS students are learning to navigate dozens of programs and platforms. There’s StudentVue (aka ParentVue and Synergy). And there’s Canvas and MyMCPS. And Benchmark, Kahoot, Nearpod, Pear Deck, Quizlet, Epic, Brainpop, PowerPoint, Powtoon, and Kami. Kids have to check modules, announcements, and emails. For weeks, one of my kids wasn’t opening the emails in which teachers were reminding about assignments.

Maybe I should be grateful for all of the online resources, but I wonder how our kids are learning to use them and how the teachers keep track of it all. My kids have school-issued Chromebook tablets that could be “written” on with their finger. But I’ve observed my kids creating text boxes during math equations to write their answers. Sometimes the on-screen navigation — doing long division, for example — leads them to lose their place and make a mistake. (Make a text box, type the equation, make a text box, divide first number, multiply, make another text box, etc.)

Screen time limits are hard to enforce. If you’ve been monitoring your child’s screen time, good for you. But if you have, say, a job that requires you to leave your kids to their own devices (literally), it’s hard to monitor what goes on. Some kids are playing video games on their school-issued Chromebook during class. (Note to kids: Yelling “Let’s Go! You die, you die, you die!!!“ is a dead giveaway.)

Bedtimes are so 2019. Experts say a regular sleep routine is essential for educational success. But school starts at 9 a.m., so going to bed doesn’t seem like a priority. A friend’s teenage daughter talks to friends by phone past midnight. Do any kids still have a bedtime and is it possible to enforce this? I give myself a C- on this.

Quiet space is a premium, and a luxury. In my townhouse, all five of us have a dedicated spot where we do our work. And we still have those moments when there’s a loud phone call, a home repair, loud trucks or leaf blowers, or it’s time for percussion class. I have gone into my car a few times to ensure I wouldn’t be interrupted on a phone call.

Many families don’t have the luxury of dedicated space for each student, or are not available at home to provide support. At the beginning of the school year, some families hired a private teacher or formed a learning pod. That’s great for them, but not affordable for most 
families. Educational inequity is not new, but virtual learning has made things much worse. Equity hubs at schools can help.

Food insecurity is real for many families. MCPS deserves credit for its numerous local sites where families can pick up free meals for all kids under 18. But many families are experiencing food insecurity (being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food) for the first time and are reluctant to seek help.

You can help by donating to Manna Food Center in Montgomery County; the Capital Area Food Bank, which notes that 1 out of 10 residents in the Washington metropolitan region is food insecure; or Feeding America at the national level.

Resilience, sacrifice, and gratitude as curriculum. “Learning loss” is real and it will be challenging to get kids back on track academically. But for many, 2020 is about overcoming adversity, being resilient, understanding viruses, and making sacrifices. And maybe we will all emerge from this pandemic with greater appreciation toward teachers, first responders, and our elderly parents who we haven’t seen in nearly a year.

Other families have different concerns: the lack of opportunity to play high school sports (and the potential impact on college scholarships); the challenges faced by English-language learners; lack of services indicated in individualized educational plans; the extra burden of families on the front lines; and the physical and emotional toll of battling COVID itself.

My daughter says she can’t remember life before COVID. Maybe that’s a not a bad 
thing.

Hopefully, our kids will return to an education system reimagined, with an emphasis on individualized learning, tailoring lessons to the various learning styles (some kids are thriving in remote learning — will it remain an option?), repairing the social and emotional damage done during the pandemic, and providing an increased level of support for the heroic teachers and school counselors out there. This will take a great deal of resources, but is essential to the success of our students.

Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied of North Bethesda is the founder of Speak Up Advocacy, which is dedicated to helping people and nonprofits advocate effectively. She serves as PTA president at her local elementary school and chairs a committee on virtual learning for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The views expressed here are her own.

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