As the mother of six kids I had reservations from the beginning about virtual school.
The first two weeks of online learning were rocky. Having five people on Zooms brought our already feeble internet connection to a glacial crawl. You could have breakfast, brush your teeth, and take a shower in the time it took to log on to your Zoom. At lunch when I asked what everyone had learned the response was unanimous: Nothing!
Getting started was the hardest part, and each child had their own struggles. For my second grader it was simply logging on. He and his fellow seven-year-olds were given school laptops without knowing the meaning of the words “browser,” “curser,” or “x-out.” As for my verbose fifth grader, the most frustrating thing was getting muted by his teacher, and my middle schooler bemoaned the fact that no one in her classes would turn on their cameras so all of her friends were impersonal dark squares. For my two musical seniors the greatest loss was that virtual school could never compensate for the joy of in-person band and choir.
It soon became clear that not only was online school inefficient, it was an invasion of privacy. Having five live cameras in my home meant my household was always on stage. It wasn’t uncommon for one sibling to yell at another for being too loud, only to find out they were unmuted. I often appeared in Zooms with smeared makeup, bedhead hair, and a baby clutching my neck as I helped my crying second grader find his assignment that “disappeared.” And then there was that time I overheard my son’s teacher ask him to please go put on a shirt.
Meanwhile, my older daughters doggedly persevered in “band” and “choir.” This was achieved by playing along to a recording the teacher played over Zoom. No one can actually hear each other because all of the students have their mics turned off so the class is spared the cacophony of unsynchronized bandwidths.
At times I felt like it was all “pretend” learning, and that my kids were just taste-testing school instead of really experiencing it. Case in point: for PE my second grader does jumping-jacks to techno music. He could have been playing Capture the Flag or Parachute or a million other fun games with his peers. When I watched this feeble attempt at what could have been, my heart was torn in two directions: it was pathetic to see my little seven-year-old doing PE when his teacher—a former woman’s college basketball player—was on the other side of a screen. At the same time, my heart swelled with gratitude for what his teacher—a former women’s college basketball player—was doing for my son.
One evening, my fifth grader went on an impassioned rant about how sick and tired he was of looking at screens all day. We made a bargain: he could take a day off all screens. No school, but also no other screens, including YouTube, movies or pilfering my phone for ESPN scores. He was blissfully shocked at my proposal and immediately started making plans for all the things he was going to do the next day. The next morning when he opened his laptop, I reminded him that he didn’t need to get on his school zoom. “But I have to be there for Reading, Mom,” he insisted, “and I can’t miss Music because Ms. Tafoya is my favorite teacher.” He ended up going to most of school by his own choice.
A few days later my seniors told me that their band teacher announced they were all to have a fire drill in their own homes. So at the appointed time we grabbed the baby and everyone left the house (in an orderly manner, of course). We waited outside by the mailbox until it was “safe” to return. We couldn’t stop laughing.
Virtual school is not as good as the real thing, but we are doing it because of the teachers. Their efforts to engage and bond with their students is inspiring. Their tenacity to continue teaching despite the hurtles is not unappreciated by me or my kids, and over the weeks they have won our loyalty.
If they can do it, so can we.
We’ve settled into a comfortable routine now. Everyone is savvier about muting themselves. The boys get on their Zooms without having to be reminded and are fully clothed. We still have internet issues, but the kids have found ways to use the time productively during the lulls. To boost morale, sometimes my seniors will make popcorn and bring it around to everyone.
I enjoy walking down the hall, observing each Zoom session like a satisfied principal. I listen to my second grader learn about the Everglades, I see my fifth grader taking geography quizzes. (He brags that he hasn’t gotten in trouble one time this year!) My middle schooler loves her English assignments almost as much as she loves her English teacher’s little daughters that pop in and out during the Zoom, and at 1:00 I try to be under the stairs to eavesdrop as one of my seniors reads her creative writing assignments to her class. Across the hall, my other senior is doing her vocal warm-ups for choir. Every now and then, from behind a closed door, I hear someone laugh outloud.
The other day one of my seniors came downstairs for a break, her cheeks flushed, the hint of a mouthpiece dent on her lips, and something that almost looked like joy beaming from her eyes. “Where have you been?” I asked her, even though we both knew she hadn’t left the house. “We were sight-reading a new piece in band!” she said, “and it was so fun!”
You’d never guess she had been in a room all by herself.