Because of the COVID-19 shutdown in San Francisco, I’m learning to be a school parent again, and I hate it. A neighbor family in our building has four children distance learning, too many for their apartment, so two of them are taking classes in our apartment.
One, Jasmine, is in kindergarten, and I sit with her during Zoom sessions and help her use the other platforms. Jasmine is a high-energy kid, smart and strong, but with some learning glitches. Here is what I have learned:
The first thing kids have to learn in school is to sit still
Keep watching the teacher, even when you already know the material, aren’t interested, or are bored. School prepares children for work life by teaching them to tolerate boredom.
Although the children are encouraged at times to draw pictures, nearly all the content is letters and numbers. I know kids need to learn to read, but some younger ones like Jasmine aren’t ready. She wants to understand the meaning of words but finds letters irrelevant. Because she’s an artist, she goes along and tries to make her letter “b”s as perfect as possible, but resists doing line after line of them like the teacher wants.
Children’s comfort doesn’t matter
Jasmine’s 11-year old sister Shauna sleeps poorly and is tired in her morning classes. A couple times she has tried to lie down with her computer during class. The teacher saw her, called her disrespectful, and told her to sit up or leave. Of course, her behavior would be too disruptive in a classroom, but at home, why not?
Distance learning sucks
For most kids, online learning is way worse than in-person. Jasmine loves other children and used to be excited to go to preschool to play with them. Without social contact to engage students like her, it’s up to the teacher to keep 23 children entertained and engaged, and it’s too much. Most kids and parents seem frustrated and bored, and teacher looks exhausted and stressed.
I’ve talked with a few other teachers at middle school level, and they are all struggling with learning various platforms and different ways of teaching. Older teachers can barely use them at all; younger ones do better, but they all hate it. Seeing students only on a screen, it becomes much harder for a teacher to identify when a child is floundering and to give them 1:1 attention when needed.
The tech industry and its political representatives such as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York have been promoting online learning for years, but it doesn’t work very well. All the education in virtual classrooms is top-down; the students have little opportunity to learn from each other. Shauna’s sixth-grade classes include breakout sessions where students can talk, but mostly they just listen. They don’t see each other between classes.
For parents, grandparents and surrogates like me, virtual classes are time-consuming and tiring. We have to try to keep kids focused, when most of us would be working, keeping house, learning, or doing for ourselves. I realize older students might not need as much supervision, but many families can’t afford to give hours of school-time attention to little kids. School has been day care for them and socialization (and sometimes meals) for their children.
Update — this is worse than I thought
Today, Monday, was the worst yet. When Shauna came over, she was crying, because she desperately didn’t want to come. She’s exhausted by 7 hours of class online each day. She managed to break her computer by dropping it, which really says to me, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ Where she was a straight A student before shutdown, she’s failing half her classes now. She struggles with the technology and with organizing her work.
I remember when I got a bachelor’s degree at age 48 from State University of New York online. I noticed that nobody under the age of 40 finished the program. Younger students had too much else to do or weren’t organized enough. So, the idea that children could manage virtual learning seems ridiculous. After four weeks, my wife and I believe that most younger students would need 1:1 all-day help from an adult to succeed.
I also think closing schools isn’t mostly about public health. Very few kids get COVID-19, and of those who do, very few need hospitalization. This feels like part of a longstanding agenda to cripple public education, a long-term goal of the right wing and tech sectors. This shutdown is like a war on kids (and through them, on parents.)
Kids need to move
Kids are physical and need to move. Most schools, real or virtual, do not include nearly enough movement. I have read that schools that provide more physical ed hours have lower suspension rates, better academic performance, and less problem with fights.
Jasmine’s kindergarten includes five minutes of dance each hour, and we let Shauna and Jasmine jump on a trampoline between classes, which seems to help. Sometimes my wife shuts down the computer and takes Jasmine on a long walk or bike ride.
We need social contact
Virtual school has also revealed how important social contact is in learning and development, and probably in the rest of life. Kids live in a physical reality, of which other people are the primary part. Our tech overlords’ dream of a virtual world does not fit their needs.
I recognize that some children are bullied at school and actually prefer learning by themselves from home. Perhaps virtual school might be an option for those children, but in my opinion, not for most.
Likewise, outside of school, the maximum separation of people from each other during Corona shutdown does not fit who we are. It doesn’t serve anyone’s health or quality of life. People can zone out in front of screens to get through a day, but for happiness and growth, we need social connection.
My takeaways so far, and it’s only been a few weeks, are these: the school shutdown needs to stop ASAP; it’s hurting a whole generation. And schools need to become less rigid, places where children can learn the wonder of the world, move around, connect with each other, not just memorize things and tolerate boredom.