When March 13, 2020 hit, we didn’t know what to expect. Some of the media pundits were saying it would only be a two week shut-down as we attempted to “flatten the curve”. My wife and I were not so sure. I even wrote a blog post a week before asking “How prepared is your school for a long-term shut-down?”
I had no idea what would follow.
Professionally I had left my school administrator role (a little background here) and had been working at home with my wife on our educational consulting and speaking business. On that fateful Friday the 13th, our jobs and roles as parents changed much like many others around the world.
My three daughters went through many different permutations of remote, virtual and hybrid school over the next year and a half. At first, it was asynchronous work that they had to complete and turn in at specific times. Then, it was completely remote, with the teacher working with groups over Zoom. When the 2020-21 school year rolled around, we knew the pandemic was going no where.
My oldest began her middle school career going to school completely remote for the entirety of 6th grade. My younger two also experienced 2nd and 3rd grade this way though as the school year would progress, more and more students would return to in-person school. This is where they entered the hybrid phase of learning which seemed like a good concept on paper, but was a nightmare for teachers trying to split their attention between online and in-person students.
While our local school district made great attempts at adapting at the ever-changing environment, it was what I call ‘educational triage’ at best. Our roles as parents had shifted from asking them how their day went to tutoring all three of them on a daily basis. I set up our house with enough wifi and internet to power a small school district as my wife took lead on keeping up on their tasks. It was far from ideal, but I know that our kids had probably one of the best at-home experiences given our backgrounds and the fact we both worked from home.
When this school year approached we had some decisions to make. Our oldest had received her vaccine but the younger two didn’t qualify yet. Should we send her off to school and keep the little two at home until they are vaccinated? Was this overreacting? One of our little ones has a medical condition and we regularly visit their grandparents who are both immunocompromised, which made the decision even more difficult. The numbers in Austin were at Stage 5 so we elected to try plan B – remote school.
The local district, even without state funds to support it, was offering a completely remote option with remote students learning from a remote teacher. This seemed like a great concept in practice, but in execution, it wasn’t working. Many of the teachers were either long-term subs or first year teachers and the classes were 40-60 students. They had to spend 5 hours a day in a synchronous Zoom environment which we felt wasn’t the best use of their learning time.
So once again, we had a decision. As a fierce advocate for public education, home schooling has always felt like my enemy. But now, I was faced with the fact that it might be our only option. With heavy hearts, we withdrew our two youngest and decided to create and plan our own curriculum. Using a variety of tools like STMath and Time4Learning as well as my background in elementary education, we were able to piece-meal a weekly curriculum that aligned with local and state standards.
One major side effect of this was that I finally saw what TRUE personalized learning looked like. My daughters wrote daily about things that interested them. We adjusted their math and grammar based on their own understanding. Science was an outdoor adventure on a regular basis. We took field trips to places like Top Golf to learn expanded notation. We traveled to local farms to learn about the life cycle. It was an amazing experience even though it meant putting our business on hold for a while.
But something was missing. The social and emotional elements of school couldn’t be easily mimicked in this home school setting. We would set up play-dates, but that wasn’t the same. They needed to feel some of the struggle but also the joy that comes from working with other students and different teachers.
So, this past week, after months of contemplation and with dwindling Covid numbers in the area, we decided to re-enroll our girls in school. It had been 585 days since they had stepped foot on a campus. With a mask mandate in place, there were few if any Covid cases spreading at school. For my youngest, now in 3rd grade, we shockingly realized her last complete year of in-person school was kindergarten. They were both nervous and excited to be back and the same could be said for their parents.
As I reflect, like many of you probably do, on this strange time in our lives I wonder what my girls will take away from this time during their youth. Will they look back and think how strange it was to be at home for 19 months? Will they look upon this time together as fondly as their parents do? As someone who worked 24/7 prior to the pandemic, I for one appreciated the extra time to help them grow, develop, and honestly, just be present.
For schools out there trying to make it work, I applaud you. You are facing financial and political pressure like never before. For parents out there still trying to make this work at home, I applaud you. This work isn’t easy even as an educator.
Getting kids connected to their Zoom calls. Manufacturing social opportunities. Trying to get your own work done when your kid has a project they need help with. Figuring out how to log-on to certain sites without a lot of information. All of these challenges and more can put an extreme amount of pressure on the family dynamic. The stress is real. The anxiety is real. The pressure is real. But I will tell you this, I wouldn’t trade in these past 585 days for anything in the world.