School’s out, forever?

COVID at Home: Day 81

My kids are constantly running around the house while I’m on the phone with clients, I usually wind up making apologies to whomever I’m speaking with. Everyone’s been understanding, usually with a sympathetic “I know”. So it’s clear I’m not the only one struggling to work from home while trying to run a daycare and elementary school. I want to get a sense of how other families have been coping the last three months, and share my thoughts on where we go from here.

There are two things that have been made perfectly clear to any parent who has been forced to pull their kids out of day care. One, teachers and day care providers are not paid anywhere near enough what they should, and two, the education system as we know it is completely ill-suited for today’s day and age. I’m limited about what I can do about the first problem, but I do have some thoughts about how we’re going to deal with the second one.

Our daily life

I’ve got two kids, a second grader, Elder, and a rising pre-schooler, Younger. Elder has been finishing out her public school classes via Zoom meetings, which usually run from an hour to ninety minutes in the afternoon. She’s also involved in the gifted program, which is one day a week in the morning. Based on what I’ve seen, the conferences are a mix of the teacher and students chatting, a math lesson, maybe a physical activity, followed up by a reading lesson. I don’t get much of a sense that the focus is on academics, which is fine. The kids need the interaction. Elder’s attention on the lesson varies from day to day. Sometimes I’ll see her sewing, or working on a typing lesson while the class is going on, and I’ve caught her playing video games on several occasions. I usually make her start on the computer a half hour early to do whatever assignment the teacher has, and let her have some free time to play a game after class is over.

The teachers use Class Dojo to communicate with the parents, and Google Classroom for assignments and archived Zoom videos. When the Great Lockdown started, the schools here sent out work packets for all kids. We were originally told that the kids were supposed to bring them back when school reopened, so Elder actually did a lot of them at first. After the second order came out closing schools for the rest of the year, more packets went out, but they’ve mostly languished on a shelf with the rest of the scrap paper. Especially since we figured out how to use DocHub to edit the math PDFs and turn them into the teacher via Classroom.

Younger requires more of a hands on approach. We’ve got flashcards and printable worksheets for letters, although I rely primarily on Khans Academy Kids on the iPad to keep her busy. It has a ton of interactive lessons on letters and words, numbers, stories and such, with rewards for completing them. She likes it, when she gets to browse through the library to pick what she wants, but I prefer that she follow the pre-selected lessons for the day. I presume there’s some sort of algorithm that’s tracking her progress, but she’ll often complain that it’s ‘too hard’ and fall back to picking and choosing stories and songs. I try to keep it balanced, and let her switch over to PBS Kids videos after she’s done twenty or thirty minutes of Khans.

The rest of the day is mostly free time, although I do have a number of chores the kids do, and I try to limit their free time with the television to two hours a day. We live on a quiet street with a big back yard, and plenty of things for them to play with both inside and outside the house. So long as they’re not fighting or destroying things I pretty much leave them be. I try to fit in a bike ride every day, or spend time playing football or soccer, wrestling or other horseplay. If it’s raining I pull up GoNoodle, for some dancing activity, or Cosmic Kids for some yoga. My wife, fills in when she can, and usually does some sort of craft activity with them, while I tend to focus more on their meals and making sure that they’re doing their chores.

Public and private education options

It seems a lifetime ago that Missus and I were looking over summer camps and dreaming about sending Elder off for a week of fun with the Girl Scouts, and plotting which of the grandparents we thought were most likely to take Younger for a few days so that we could have a break of our own. Alas, it is not to be. Since the kids have only been spending a couple of hours a day during the week on “academic” work, my wife and I don’t see any reason why we should change things up and are going to continue their education over the summer.

man using silver iPad

Tobi Lukte, the CEO of Spotify, made a really good point on a recent podcast appearance about the velocity of learning that struck me. He said there’s no limit to how quickly people can learn if they just have the teachers to help them. It is a factory model system, designed to produce workers, not citizens, and to “educate” children as a group, making sure they have the basic skills that they’ll need to perform their factory assembly line jobs.

I’m generalizing, of course. Today’s schools have lots of steps to provide resources and opportunities for both “the gifted” and those with special needs. And there seems to be a trend spreading around the country for academy-type schools with a focus on industry-specific skills. Still, we are still a long ways from wholescale self-paced learning in schools, and there’s plenty of evidence that students perform best when they are able to proceed at their own pace, at their own direction. The public education system is still locked into this factory farming style of learning. They’re trying to change, of course, however the pace of political change at the local, state, and national level, makes this a slow process.

I’ve been reluctant to break away from the public schools for several reasons. One, my wife and are both products of it, and “we turned out great”, as Missus like’s to say. Recently though, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize that is not quite the case, and now, as a parent and engaged adult, I’m more aware of the issues inherent in the system. And besides, the world is not the same as it was thirty years ago. Secondly, private school is expensive. We’ve been spending a large percentage of our annual income on day care for the kids at a “learning center”, and we’d been looking forward to Younger entering public schools so that we could save that money. The savings there during the lockdown have been immense, and are one of the prime factors driving me to home school. It’s for that reason that we’ve ruled out Montessori. Too expensive, and in our case there are too many logistical issues about getting the kids there and arranging care outside of their hours.

And also, there’s a political factor to choosing public school. In my hometown, and in many areas across the American South, many of the private schools are segregation academies, opened in response to Brown v. Board of Education so that white parents didn’t have to send their kids to school with black ones. And home schooling for me has long been associated with religious fundamentalists, who pulled their kids from school to prevent them from being taught evolution or sex-ed. Attending public schools taught my wife and I a working-class, dare I say liberal education, and sending our kids there has been an act of solidarity with the working class. Choosing public schools has been a political act.

COVID, current and future

Of course, COVID has changed how we think about these issues especially within the context of class economics. Not only are the poor being hit hardest by the lockdowns, but it also seems to be making more affluent families such as mine more well off. The disparities between economic class correlates directly to the types of people most affected by the pandemic: aside from front-line hospital staff, essential workers like those in grocery stores, shipping warehouses and meat processing plants are the ones most exposed to the disease and others, such low-wage workers in food service, have joined other furloughed employees on unemployment. Meanwhile, tech and other knowledge workers like my wife and I are mostly uneffected, working from home remotely. And since we’re not forced to go into work, as some are, we are literally saving hundreds of dollars per week in daycare costs. I imagine the same is true for others in higher income brackets.

Beyond the economic effects, I wonder about increasing academic inequality. There’s no shortage of broadband or computers in my house, so Elder has no problem accessing her online schooling, unlike some of her peers who may be limited to using their parent’s cell phone. Then there’s the technical support that I am able to offer to her, and assistance I can provide to her teacher when needed.

And yes, I realize how fortunate my family is.

I already expect that we will be dealing with COVID for another year, likely until a vaccine is available for mass production. A second wave is almost an certainty now that lockdowns are easing, and may force states back into shutdown as cases and deaths rise. Our blue-state Governor seems to be handling it rather well, but I fear others are not. And I am not optimistic about public schools reopening next year, either. There are too many logistical issues around how to maintain social distancing during busing, instruction and lunch times. As one commented remarked, whoever wrote the safety guidelines for the schools apparently doesn’t have kids.

Daycares are currently under capacity restrictions, one teacher per nine children; two for infants. I suspect that most of the spots are being taken by the children of essential workers, or WFH parents who just need a break from the kids. We’re maintaining, and I’m considering keeping the girls home, even if restrictions are eased up enough or we can figure out a way to deal with the logistical issues. If I had to guess, I would wager that the schools will offer parents the option to home school their children, keeping them home, but allowing them to participate in class time via teleconference.

And if not, then I suppose that I’ll be sending Elder off to school, and her sister back to day care as well. Or perhaps not. This summer will tell how well the kids handle themselves. My wife is skeptical that I’ll be able to keep it up permanently, especially if she has to return to work, but to be honest, I’m enjoying keeping the kids at home. I understand the appeal of the home school crowd to have more direct control over their children’d upbringing, and watching them play every day is magical. It’s not all roses though, it is hard. I lose my temper at them and we fight about how much screen time they can have, what they eat, and their chores, but nothing beats spending more time with my kids and watching them grow up. As I’ve remarked often, it doesn’t make sense to work so hard, to spend so much money to pay others to raise my children.


With resources like Khan’s Academy, Code.org, and others providing math and knowledge resources, work from home parents have tons of tools available for homeschooling. How many parents like me, forcibly exposed to homeschooling by the pandemic, are going to choose to opt out of the traditional public school system, even after things return to “normal”? Will we once again count on public workers to watch and teach our kids, or we we instead choose to maintain this more direct role in our children’s education and upbringing? For me it’s exposed us to the joys of what some might call unschooling, and we will be reassessing things as the summer goes on, before the kids are called back to school.

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