Like most kids in the states, my daughter is officially “back” in “school” as of last week. Our district is all virtual or electronic or remote or whatever you want to call it for at least the next month, probably the whole semester. Nobody in our household was happy to see the summer come to an end. Definitely not me with my mountain of worry about the impact this year is going to have on my daughter’s social and emotional well-being. Definitely not my daughter who misses her teachers, misses her friends, and misses school the way it used to be. Definitely not my husband who is supervising at-home school on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis.
We tried to preserve some of the old back-to-school activities like shopping for new school supplies and replacing the sneakers she grew out of in the spring and picking out a new outfit for the first day of school. Our seven-year-old hasn’t been in school long enough to recognize these as traditions, but they are familiar to me and my husband and seemed like a reasonable way to build a sense of happy anticipation into an otherwise bleak time. My husband and daughter took a trip to Target in their masks and she picked out a long-sleeved shirt with a poodle on it, one of those shirts with the flippy sequins that little girls can’t enough of that and that, stupidly, are always all-white. She got a few notebooks and a new set of colored pencils and at least her fifth set of safety scissors. They did a drive-by to pick up her school-issued iPad. On the last official day of summer vacation, I took her to our local ice cream shop for cones and watched her drip chocolate all over the brand new poodle shirt.
One back to school tradition we completely forgot about was class assignments. I’m old enough to remember my mom driving me to school at the end of summer to find my name on a list hanging on the wall but my kid is young enough that everything having to do with her schooling still feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting the letter with her class placement for the upcoming school year to show up in my inbox in the middle of August. I remember that information being kind of a big deal when I was a kid, with the potential to make or break my whole year, but as the working parent of an only child and being relatively new to the school, I didn’t have enough context to generate a reaction to the placement. Maybe in a normal year I’d start asking around about the teacher, trying to figure out of we knows any of her classmates, but staring up the steep hill of the upcoming year and not knowing whether my daughter will ever even set foot in her classroom, I couldn’t muster up the motivation. Is Ms. ____ a good teacher? Do kids like her? Does it even matter?
My husband had gotten the email too and neither of us mentioned it for a few days. Eventually, we realized we should tell our daughter who her teacher was, see if we couldn’t drum up some excitement for her, but we kept forgetting to do it and, when we remembered, we realized we also kept forgetting the teacher’s name. Our daughter adored her first grade teacher, but the way virtual learning went in our district the teacher more or less dropped off our family’s radar when the school shut down. It was hard to imagine how a teacher we might never meet would be any kind of significant presence in our daughter’s life.
Last year, my husband handled e-learning in a manner that inspired awe and envy in our friends. It as like he’d been running a home school for years. The resources from the school were minimal and our daughter could have blown through them in under an hour but he had a six hour schedule blocked into a mix of instructional time, individual work, rest, and play. He shifted the whole school day back an hour to start at ten instead of nine. Our daughter was reading the chapter books he kept ordering for deliver and doing math workbooks he’d found to supplement the worksheets from the school and researching whatever animals she wanted and launching model rockets and using the 3D print design studio for art and, yes, finishing all the assigned work and showing up for the handful of video calls set up by the school. We ate lunch together as a family most days. They had outdoor time every day. Meltdowns were minimal, and my husband was confident, competent. I’ve never been more grateful to have a stay-at-home partner in my life.
By the end of the first day of school this new year, he was a mess. To its credit, the school is trying to create a more engaging environment for the kids. This is critical. Not everybody has an at-home parent who is able or inclined to step into the role of teacher, fine arts instructor, lunch lady, recess aide, principal, nurse, and janitor for six hours a day. As well as last year went, he was hoping for more involvement and resources from the school. Faking it til you make it for a few months is one thing; making up a curriculum for a year with no end in sight and doing it from scratch with no guidance, desire, compensation, or training is another thing entirely. My husband was looking forward to being a little more hands off this year.
A week in, it is apparent that while my husband will be ceding all his autonomy and influence over our daughter’s day to the school, he will also be in no position to take his hands off any aspect of what’s going on in our home any time soon. She’s too young. He spent the first day of school sitting at the kitchen table getting her in and out of back-to-back zoom conferences, interpreting inconsistent and unclear instructions, trying to deal with broken zoom links and other tech issues, navigating the unintelligible learning platform our district selected for K-2 (fucking Seesaw), printing off assignments that are unreadable on the iPad, corralling her into doing as much of her assigned work in the five- to ten-minute blocks allowed by the impossible schedule, and trying not to freak the fuck out. There was no time for recess and they didn’t step outside once. From my office downstairs I kept an eye on the email traffic from the teacher and opened up an email with the subject line “Tech Help information.” It was empty. When I stepped out of my office to do a load of laundry, I heard the teacher critique the kids for not spending enough time on their work, not putting enough detail in their drawings. “You’re second graders now. You can do more when you were in first grade.” I tried to keep an open mind, consider how my daughter might benefit from a little push from someone other than me. When I asked my husband about it in the evening, he exploded. “It’s the first day of school and they’re drawing on the fucking iPad.“
There is, in fact, no better symbol for e-learning than the school-issued iPad. It’s aspirational for many families, including ours. We’ve never owned an iPad and our daughter never had a device until the school forced our hand last spring. Its compact form seems to promise that we won’t be adding much to the landfill of elementary worksheets and kid art that amassed in our house in kinder and first grade. Its corporate sheen throws light on how a year or more of learning alone at home is preparing our kids for a future in late capitalism: working in front of a computer, showing up to meetings on time, interfacing with colleagues for a screen, and then getting right back to work. These kids will be maximally efficient. At the end of the first day of our life for the next however long my husband went to plug in the iPad. The battery was shot, dead, totally drained. He rummaged through the box of supplies from the school. They hadn’t given us a charging cord.
That was my husband’s first day. It might have been better for our daughter. During the last video call of the day, which they’re calling Sunset Circle, the teacher asked the kids to share one or two things that they learned that day. Six months of video calls have taught my daughter how to use her voice and I could hear her shouting into the microphone all the way in another room. “Today I learned that I have a nice class and that you’re a good teacher!” I could end this post now and leave my friends and family feeling hopeful about the possibility that this year will be okay for us. I could leave you feeling hopeful that maybe this year will be okay for you and your kids, if you have them. Instead, I’m going to tell you my daughter broke down crying in the bath at the end of the second day of school. She said she hated e-learning. She said there were too many calls and she didn’t have enough time to do anything and her teacher was too strict and her papa got too frustrated when things didn’t work. She said she just wanted to go back to school.
I don’t know what to do with any of this. It’s only a week in and I’m hopeful things will improve, but but surely some of what we’ve experienced would be valuable for the school to know as it moves forward with this new way of learning. The school set up a helpline for tech issues but has not designated a person or place for feedback about the virtual learning in general. I don’t want to dump all my feedback and fears on the teacher. I don’t want to go to the principal and invoke the defenses of the administration or say anything that will come down on the teacher. I don’t think I’m unreasonable in wanting more than what we’re getting. I’ve already given up on academics. I don’t care if my daughter learns anything this year and I don’t expect her to. All I want is for school not to inflict further trauma on her or on our family. Is that too much to ask?