A large box, filled with boy’s size 10 khaki and navy polo shirts and pants, sits by our front door, unopened. Our dogs often run into it in our small home while they’re leaping around the room, chasing each other. Whenever I come back inside from taking out the trash, I give it a kick back into the corner and out of our way, shaking off some of the accumulated dust — leaving it to acquire more. About six weeks ago, as COVID-19 infections declined in our little corner of Oakland, California, I indulged a fit of optimism. The school my son is starting this fall, a small bilingual school, requires school uniforms. As if hoping would make it so (I understand this now, if not then), I dutifully measured and researched uniform sizes for my son, ordering single samples to try on, then a set of three or four pieces once I’d hit upon the right fit. In my defense, the school had recently emailed parents that it would be reopening in-person in August and included a detailed list of guidelines and procedures for families.
Then came Governor Gavin Newsom’s press conference a couple of weeks ago, announcing that any county on the state watchlist (including our own, with its particularly enduring presence) will not be able to open schools, even if they meet distancing and safety criteria required by the health authorities. With that, my briefly-held delusion came to an end. Though I wasn’t surprised, I enjoyed the comfort of my delusion, like a warm blanket. Life is colder and less comfortable without it. But if I’ve learned anything during the last five months, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. Wait a few days and things are bound to change.
Distance learning for my 10-year old last spring was a painful mess, with little actual learning. As our public school district shuttered campuses, teachers valiantly tried to shift gears. My son’s teacher, a veteran educator in her early sixties, gave everything she could to her students during that period: her heart, her time, her passion. Unfortunately, she spent at least half of the hour-long live check-ins with students fumbling with the technology, being frustrated, and trying to troubleshoot technical difficulties. There was little to no live or video instruction, usually just a set of assignments for the students to complete independently, each one behind firewalls with a patchwork usernames and passwords. With little guidance and no support, my son began daily meltdowns by the second week.
There’s no doubt that we are privileged in many ways. My husband has a good, if all-consuming full-time job, that he can do from our basement. We have our own family home, wi-fi, and a computer for my son to use. However, I am medically disabled with chronic conditions that render me unable to work and at least 70% housebound during regular times. I can remain somewhat functional only by carefully balancing my life and energy output. With my son in tears daily, descending into a more enduring depression, I threw myself into helping him. I became his teacher’s aide, his scheduling assistant, his technical supervisor, his math tutor. In doing so, I lost my balance and began to fall into sickness. I endured autoimmune flare-ups and a series of entrenched bacterial infections. These sent us to urgent care, after-hours calls with doctors, and searches for the few late-night pharmacies to pick up antibiotics. I became mostly bed and couch-bound. I was no longer able to help my son and take care of the household. Instead, I became the one needing care, needing to have my meals prepared, my clothes washed, and my medicine administered. Sometimes, by necessity, this care came from my 10-year old.
We lifted ourselves out of those miserable days only by giving up on distance learning. We gave up on the idea that our son would keep learning at home. That he would complete all his assignments without support. That he would only participate in learning or educational activities during school hours. Slowly, my son regained his equilibrium, began to smile more, began to lift his head toward the sun. And I, too, grew stronger, regained most of the health I had lost.
Though my physical limitations may not be typical, the distance learning struggle is universal. Each home has its own challenges, whether they be parents who work outside of the house, non-English speaking guardians, or no money for computers and internet connections, to name a few. Even among our relatively well-to-do friends, every family is struggling. About half of my mom friends have confided that their kids are depressed: lying on the sofa, napping for most of the day, showing no interest in anything. Others who used to enforce strict limits on screen time find their kids addicted to video games, obsessed with playing for hours on end, constantly sneaking and breaking the rules to log on every time their parents’ attention is diverted.
Despite commonalities, however, there’s little sense that we’re all in this together. It feels like every household is on its own, subject to the constraints of our own resources and ingenuity. One of my mom friends pulled her three kids from school to homeschool them. Others switched to private schools, which may respond with more agility to ever-changing safety and distance learning requirements. One of my son’s best friends is moving with his family to the east coast, to team up with his cousin’s family in a scenario where only one parent has to quit his job to supervise the schooling and the remaining three parents can continue working. And then there are the family pools. I came across a local post on NextDoor recently, advertising a position for a micro-pod instructor. Job requirements included a teaching credential, technical savvy across multiple platforms, full-time availability, and a willingness to work with a stable group of six “bright” and “engaged” multi-aged kids. The total compensation, a portion of which was covered by each family, was $60k per year.
At least for the short-term, our family’s solution is to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, as my mother would say, and send our son back to the small bilingual private school he attended before he switched to public school. It seems the school is able to provide a more supportive, smaller group, remote learning experience than our public school (which has seen its own outflow of students and one-third of its teachers resign or retire). We’re borrowing against my son’s future education, against any sort of financial security, and against the kind of better judgment that we would have employed in normal times. We thank providence we have even that option. But make no mistake; there’s no long-term plan here. We’re covering our ears, closing our eyes, and yelling “na na na” into the abyss — all in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the spring learning season.
So what does back to school look like this year? My son is beginning to clean off his desk in the corner of his bedroom, shoving toys into drawers and under the bed. He has picked out a puppy poster to hang on the adjacent wall and lined up some of his participation trophies for inspiration. We’ve set up a clock radio for him, with an alarm he can set himself to remind him to return from learning breaks, or what used to be called “recess.”
That dusty box of uniform clothes was obsolete before it even arrived, evidence of my temporary hubris. A few days ago, I finally picked it up and shoved it into a bedroom closet, unopened. Onward now, whatever that entails.