I don’t find the time much anymore to write blog posts, and since the idea of a blog was really to keep folks informed on our goings-on, and since we don’t have many of those that rate more than a mention on Facebook, trying to find the time hasn’t felt terribly pressing for the last couple of years.
That was until March 13, 2020 when the Fairfax County Public School system closed schools in response to Covid-19, temporarily at first, and then for the remainder of the year when it became clear that the Coronavirus was going to be a total douchenozzle about everything.
At the same time, naturally, CPI, the preschool where my aiding shifts had gone from “We’ll call you if we need you” to much more frequent had to cancel its year, and around this time Katherine’s company told everyone to work from home.
So there we were, like nearly every other American, in lockdown, scared, trying to make sense of it all and figure out the next steps. The next steps for us being: educating two kindergartners. As was every parent and student out there, we were caught unaware and ill-prepared. Although as it would turn out, NOT as ill-prepared and unaware as Fairfax County Public Schools in general or our school in particular.
I got right into it as best I could, trying to level up the boys’ knowledge while K worked upstairs. We started out pretty heavy with hands-on learning; science experiments, baking, LEGO builds, painting, and so on, with some printed worksheets and purchased workbooks filling in the cracks while we waited for the school to start providing some work, or at least some guidance.
See, the school, remarkably, did not have a contingency plan in case half the year was suddenly cancelled. Because why would they? If anyone had proposed they plan for an immediate emergency cessation of on-campus learning with a full conversion to distance learning “just in case” something happened, they would have been looked at as a paranoid doomsday prepper insisting schools need to design a remote learning curriculum to focus on trapping game, ham radio operation, and attaching weapons to muscle cars.
Three weeks (counting spring break) went by before we started receiving things from the school to help before our kids forgot the alphabet under my tutelage. The first thing we got was a “packet” in the mail. Actually, we got two different packets for the first few weeks: one for pre-k-2, and one for k-6.
The packets were…rough. “A” for effort. We appreciated the work that went into them, but there wasn’t a lot we found useful to our situation in them. We did a few “assignments,” but mostly to be polite, like eating that one dish your partner always makes that isn’t great but bless ‘em they tried so hard.
The packets were also a sign of things to come, something that we hadn’t really thought of or planned for until then: the Lowest Common Denominator. Commentary on American public education aside, in this emergency situation, class and privilege came rushing into the fore. Students that had family situations like ours, where one or both parents were able to work from home, which are financially stable even in this crisis, where there is an educated adult to continue some semblance of education, where there is some sort of technology to use to access distance learning materials, and where there is dependable internet, were automatically at an advantage. That’s not to mention all the things that provide an advantage during a normal school year, like food security, family stability, safe homes, and so on.
Once you start peeling back those privilege layers, you have to send out a program that teaches to the LCD. No internet or devices? Here’s some stuff in the mail. Parents can’t help? Almost none of this work will require guidance. Parents have to or choose to put you in front of a screen? Have we got good news for you!
This is all the only way it makes sense to do it, of course, but it means many kids weren’t learning at grade level, let alone getting challenged.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The online learning began (“began”) three weeks after school ended. At last, we would have proper instruction, such as it was. The boys would be able to interact with their peers and teachers again! Hooray! Only…
…Middle schoolers happened.
See, the platform FCPS was using for online learning was Blackboard, which is like Zoom, only it sucks in different ways. And also all the same ways. It took exactly one use for kids to find and exploit the security flaws. It also only took the first session for kids to be swearing and harassing each other, because of course it did. Kids are shitty to each other in the best of times, but bored kids trying to process a global catastrophe were of course going to do all the wrong things the first chance they got. Little parental supervision? Anonymity? Boring classes? You can’t even really blame them. The rest of distance learning week one was cancelled. The school district immediately sent out letters of apology and new statements on students’ responsibilities as online citizens.
The next week they tried again, but this time they were plagued by technical difficulties. The rest of that week was cancelled, too. Blackboard was designed for smaller groups and individuals, not for the tenth largest district in the country to start using it all at once. They couldn’t handle the capacity. That’s not to mention the bandwidth issues as well as all the teachers and students trying to learn to use this technology on the fly. The district now sent out a letter informing us that they had hired a law firm to help them get out of their contract with Blackboard and find something new. Okay, more delay, but they have a plan. Great.
But then they worked things out with Blackboard, so JK, we kept using it.
Finally, on the Monday of the sixth week after classes were cancelled, we started doing live classes with the boys. In our particular case, the four kindergarten classes decided to team up, so any chance for peer or teacher interaction went away immediately as up to 100 kindergartners could potentially be logged on at a time (classes averaged around 50-60). The classes were offered M-Th, and each day was led by a different teacher, and the focus was either math, language arts, social studies, or science. Class lasted an hour, and each day ran something like this: greeting, music video about a word, slideshow or video, teacher talking at students about subject, video, read a book, video.
Aside from the fact that the kids were too numerous to really interact with the teachers, I was mainly disappointed that they spent an hour a week more or less on one subject. Monday was math, and if the teacher was talking about story problems, they’d have a little lesson about that, and watch a video or two about it, and that was the end of math for the week, aside from whatever extra stuff family taught them. I don’t have any idea what would have worked better, but so much of our online session time was spent playing Jack Hartmann videos and YouTube videos of people reading books that I feel like a little more attention could have been paid by the live humans, and that maybe a little math (science, et al) could be done each day instead of just getting it all in at once. Maybe those are terrible ideas that wouldn’t work and the teachers knew this. What I’m saying is it wasn’t ideal for our situation.
After the “main” class, there was another hour of online learning most days, divided up among the “specials,” including p.e. and music and the like. These were even less targeted, as they were all aimed at k-2, and depending on the teacher, the classes tended to err too much in favor of the younger kids or older kids, because the developmental difference between a kindergartner and second grader is pretty substantial.
These classes also brought up the equity in learning problem again. I know that when planning art or STEAM projects for kids to do at home, teachers need to take a shot at picking something that families will likely have the supplies to make, and that can be challenging. Not everyone has assorted tissue or construction papers, for example, so you need to pick a project that does not absolutely require those. Coffee filter project? Not every household has basket-style coffee filters, so if there isn’t an alternative material, it might not be the best project to pick. Again, it’s tough, because some kids are going to be left out no matter what.
Between the specials and the regular classes, we had two hours of online learning at least three days a week, and at least one hour the last day, and none of it provided much actual education or engagement.
The specials were the first to go. The boys weren’t at all interested or engaged in some (counseling, library), preferred others in real life (music), the classes were usually too advanced (art), we didn’t have the required materials (STEAM), or there were way better real-life things to do (p.e.). I started screening these classes after they posted the recording, and if they seemed like the boys would benefit, I’d play them the video, but for the most part we just skipped them.
Speaking of screen time, the following is a list of websites/apps we used – at the school’s suggestions – during the distance learning period. This is just what I could remember off the top of my head: Google Classroom, ABCya, YouTube, SafeYouTube, Math Splash, MyOn, Dreambox, Starfall, Tumblebooks, CODE, CUBE, FlipGrid, BrainPop Jr., Wixie, ABC Mouse, PBS Kids, ORIGO, Pebble Go, Scholastic, Bookflix, Chrome Music Lab, and Splat. Some of these like, YouTube and PBS Kids, are straightforward and free. Others, like Dreambox and Tumblebooks, are available to us through the boys’ school profiles. Some we were “assigned” to try once, like ABC Mouse and Math Splash, but we would have had to create accounts or pay for a subscription to use them more than once or twice.
In a distance learning situation, there is going to be a lot of screen time, of course. We were just surprised ultimately at how much passive screen time there was. MyOn, for example, is a reading website where the kids get to pick books that interest them. Then the books are read to them. It’s like an audio book mixed with an e-book. Does that help them learn to read? More so than if we read to them? I understand that some families don’t have the resources to read to their kids every day, but we do. Still, we were told to get them on MyOn every day. The teacher explained that this is so she could track how much they’re reading each day/week. Cool, cool. But was she? If nothing was at stake (no grades were being recorded), there wasn’t much motivation to see which kids were “reading” each day, especially considering the fact that some wouldn’t be doing it at all. And does it even count, since the kids are not themselves reading?
That brings us to the homework. During the second week of online learning (the one that got cancelled due to technical difficulties), the kindergarten teachers started sending out a Google Slide containing “assignments” for the week. They averaged around 40 tasks; about half of those were videos, and if you count books being read aloud as videos, then over half were videos.
I’ve talked a lot about the negatives of distance learning, but we did have one positive: after a few weeks, the boys’ teacher set up meeting times for students. She would meet online with each boy, one-on-one, for half an hour each week. She read them a book and did basic reading comprehension afterwards. We had two such sessions, and then received an email stating that the boys were doing well enough that she wanted to stop the meetings so she could focus on the kids who needed more help.
We had some mixed emotions about this. If she was going to spend that hour a week helping students in need…great. But we also wouldn’t have minded if she just stepped-up the boys’ learning. If “Bear Goes to the Moon” is below their reading comprehension level, read them something more complex.
These meetings were the one time the boys got to interact with, well, anyone, and to end it after two sessions because they’re doing “too well,” bummed us out.
Speaking of one-on-one sessions, we did have speech therapy sessions. There weren’t a lot, but we had them, and they seemed helpful. The asynchronous work we were sent home for speech wasn’t as helpful, largely because we aren’t speech pathologists and because we are so used to hearing the boys speak that while we hear the disabilities, it doesn’t always sound a loud enough alarm for us to stop them and correct it.
So that’s what FCPS did do, didn’t do, did right, did wrong, or just plain did and who the hell is to say if it was right or wrong because this is brand new territory. But what did we do?
Like I said, in the beginning, we did our own thing. Store-bought workbooks, science experiments, lots of reading and story writing, Mo Willems doodling and Cincinnati Zoo Home Safaris. Even during spring break, we kept up with some sort of learning every day since we knew we’d be facing an education deficit at the end of the year no matter what.
I never saw myself doing the homeschool thing (or “crisis school,” per the homeschool Karens on the internet), and I’d rather if the year hadn’t been cancelled, but all things considered, I think we adapted pretty well. There is much to be said for teaching your kids at home. You can teach to their level and to their interests. You can provide individual attention that is simply impossible for a teacher to provide in a class of 24, you can let a kid take a long time to read a book if that’s their pace, and you can tweak math and science lessons to help keep them engaged and learning.
For example, when the school had a unit on money, we incorporated money into their math work. When it came to reading, we explored children’s books, classic and modern poetry, comic books, classic literature, and non-fiction of every stripe. In science, we did a deep-dive into whatever topic their teachers picked for the week.
That’s a recap of the last three months or so. Now we have the future to deal with, and it’s looking murky at the moment. While we will be continuing learning throughout the summer (not too much; we’re not monsters), next year is still a question mark. As of my writing this, the Fairfax County Public School district has narrowed down the choices for next year to either one or two full days at school each week, or all distance learning. Neither option is ideal. Distance learning so far has been beset by technical difficulties, and lacks the social components. Going to school is better on the surface, but is being in one room all day, with limited interactions with their peers for just one or at most two days a week better than, say, organizing social activities with families outside of the school? Regardless of what the school decides, I’ll be pretending to be an educator somewhere between three and five days a week.