Virtual School 2021: How It Started, How It’s Going

You know what I realized? Back in September – or was it August? – I mulled over school choices during this weird pandemic year, and landed on the conclusion that (1) all of the options were equally bad but in different ways, and (2) the least-bad option for our family would be to elect the fully virtual track provided by our local public schools, and do some homeschool activities for extra enrichment. And that was the last I said about it, so it’s time for an update.

Tech support.

How it started: Back when we first decided on the option we were going to choose, Steve and I decided that instead of dividing up the day – as we did early in the pandemic, with me wrangling both kids in the morning and Steve taking over in the afternoon – we would divide up the kids. Neither one of them was interested in wearing headphones during class, so having them both in the same room together would have been unworkable. We decided that Steve would take primary responsibility for Peanut and I would have Nugget; the hope was that with only one kid to worry about, we’d both be able to juggle kid needs and work.

“I want to look handsome for the first day of school.”

How it’s going: It’s… going. Honestly, staring down the barrel of a full year of virtual school with no childcare was daunting. In some ways, it’s been easier than I expected; in other ways, it’s been so much harder.

  • Both kids have adapted to the technology as I had hoped they would, which does make it easier for Steve and me to work side-by-side with them during the days. At the same time, there are still a lot of technical issues – some on our end, some not – and we are interrupted multiple times a day to provide tech (and emotional) support to our respective charges, which makes it hard to get into a work flow. I often don’t get through my work to-do list during the day and have to make up time in the evenings – even now, in March.
  • I was very worried about Nugget’s experience – more so than Peanut’s, really. I suspected that once Peanut got used to the technology she would appreciate the flexibility and the time at home next to Daddy, and she has. But Nugget is such a social little dude – it’s overdone, I know, but my real concern was with his mental health in not getting the social interaction he was used to from junior kindergarten in Alexandria. He does consider the other kids in his class to be his “friends,” but it’s not the same.
  • The quality of the academics the kids are getting from the public school teachers has been outstanding. I know that experiences vary by district – we intentionally moved into one of the top school pyramids in one of the highest-rated school districts in our state, and we are reaping the benefits of that. I’ve chatted with moms in other local school districts and have heard some serious complaints about the instruction; one friend told me that her children are getting twenty minutes a day of YouTube videos and that’s it. I am really grateful to be where we are, because both of the kids are sponging up world-class instruction.
  • Related: their teachers are so different. Peanut’s teacher is quiet and serene, but has the gift of capturing and holding the entire class’s attention. Nugget’s teacher is the most energetic, chipper person I’ve ever seen on a screen: “HI KIDS! WELCOME TO KINDERGARTEN! SPARKLE PONY RAINBOW! HERE’S A MATH SONG FROM MR. JACK HARTMAN!”
  • I had a long conversation with Nugget’s teacher at the beginning of the second quarter, and what was most notable was that she picked up on certain of Nugget’s little personality traits – his joy in sharing facts he knows, his love of animals, his preference for non-fiction books – that his junior kindergarten teachers had commented upon last school year. I was relieved to see both that virtual school hadn’t really changed him or dragged him down, and that his teacher was attuned enough to her kiddos to discover these things about Nugget even through a screen. It made me feel better – like he was in a good place, where he is appreciated for the precious little person he is.
Literally moved his workstation one day to be closer to the birds.

What I have not done is any of those independent enrichment activities I so ambitiously planned for the year. The nature journals and Wild Math curricula I bought the kids are gathering dust. But to be honest, we haven’t needed them. The kids are happy to read their books – Nugget, much like his sister before him, had a literacy explosion this year – and run around in the backyard with the neighbor kid. They’re heartily sick of each other, but they haven’t burned the house down or gotten themselves expelled.

Cutest, neediest officemate I have ever had.

Work has been… interesting. I’m privileged in that I have the ability to work from home and coworkers who are unfailingly supportive and understanding, even when my kids interrupt conference calls or stick their little faces into a Zoom meeting. That said, working next to a kindergartener, even with all the technology and support in the world, is – well, it’s not impossible, but it’s far from easy. Every few minutes I have to jump up from my computer to track down scissors or glue, find a worksheet, fix a Google Classroom issue (usually Nugget opening the same meeting in three screens simultaneously), fill a water bottle, or track down a missing kid after a screen break. It’s incredibly difficult to get into a flow and actually focus on work, and even when I have five uninterrupted minutes to work, I’m so mentally and physically exhausted that I find it hard to concentrate. (Somehow I’m managing – I posted 200 hours above my firm’s requirement in 2020 and got a universally glowing performance review, so I must be doing something right – but it’s at the expense of… something, not quite sure what.) I miss my standing desk, my double monitors, my quiet office, my friendly colleagues – and the sushi place down the street from my building. When September rolls around and the kids are (hopefully, please Athena) back at school, I don’t know if I’ll go back to five days a week in the office, but I’ll be really glad to get back.

Papers, papers everywhere.

The other surprising challenge – I have been honestly taken aback by just how stressed out I have been by the constant mess around the kids’ workstations. (Especially Nugget’s, because I spend more time there.) I am a naturally tidy person and I prefer to work in a very neat space, but I thought that after almost nine years of parenting, I had gotten sort of used to living in a mess (never liking it, though). But the mess has gotten me down much more than I expected it to. I feel calmer and more capable of facilitating remote learning and everything that goes with it when Nugget’s learning space (and my workspace right next to him) are clean, there are no dust bunnies under the dining room table, and all of the papers have a home and are actually in their home. Recently, I started making a point of tidying up his desk on Friday afternoons after he is released for the weekend, and on Sunday evening before the week (because he often hops into the reading software, plays with the toys in his break basket, or uses his school supplies for art projects over the weekend) – and that has helped, but I think I need to amp it up and get into a routine of cleaning the desk up every day. It’s just out of my peripheral view when I sit on the living room couch to read at night, and it’s a distraction.

We’re sliding downhill toward the end of the year now. I’ve given up on the idea of homeschool activities or “enrichment” time (who was I kidding? also, why didn’t you guys tell me?) and I’m really looking forward to getting back to an in-person routine – although now I’m starting to worry about what that will look like. In the meantime, I am trying to be grateful for the world-class education the kids are getting over their screens, the caring teachers, and the fact that I have a job that supports me working from home during this time. But I’ll still be glad when it’s over.

If you have kids in school, are they in-person or virtual these days? How’s it going?

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