When our school district announced that they were shifting to remote learning back in March, I had a minor panic attack at the prospect of even a few weeks of “homeschooling” my kids. Little did I know, four months later, I would voluntarily sign my kids up for the remote learning option. Yet here we are.
That’s right. My husband and I have decided to choose remote learning when our kids go back to school in late August, even though the school district is planning all-day, in-person schooling as the default.
In some ways, the decision was incredibly difficult, but in other ways, it wasn’t difficult at all. Here’s why.
Like all parents, I’m worried about my kids. They have been separated from their friends for several months, with their only social connections happening over FaceTime or an Xbox game. They are lonely, and spending too much time in front of screens and too little time with IRL interactions. Learning is facilitated much better when students are physically present than when they are learning remotely. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that in-person learning is the goal. And with my husband and I both working from home, it can be damn near impossible to manage Zoom classroom calls with conference calls, much less focus on getting a project done when kids are whining for snacks or fighting over who’s turn it is to take out the garbage.
Working from home while “homeschooling” kids (and really, it isn’t homeschool as much as it is crisis learning) can make parents feel like we’re failing everyone all the time. We’re failing at our jobs. We’re failing at home. And most of all, we’re failing our kids.
When my husband and I told our kids that we were choosing the remote learning option the school district is offering, they sobbed. After all that our kids have given up already, it’s hard to tell them that they need to give up one more thing – especially when they might be one of the only ones giving that up.
When we talk about why we’re making this decision, my teen says it’s because “Mom is paranoid about coronavirus.” But that’s wrong. I’m not paranoid; I have the appropriate amount of fear of coronavirus – which is to say, I’m taking it very seriously. But I’m not “paranoid” – at least not about my kids contracting the virus. The number of cases in our state have dropped significantly, and I’m cautiously optimistic that it will stay that way. We have started to expand our “bubble” to a few friends and close family members. We don’t have any underlying medical conditions and no one in our household is high risk. So the chances of my kids getting seriously ill from coronavirus are quite low. But they aren’t zero, and there is still a lot that we don’t know about the illness.
Many people would probably say that since kids are generally low-risk and our area isn’t a hot spot that the benefits of sending my kids to school outweigh the risks. And I suppose that is true – but only if you look at the individual benefits and risks. The collective risks still far outweigh the individual benefits. And that is why we’re choosing remote learning.
Even though kids are at a low risk of getting seriously ill, they can still pass it on to others who may be in higher risks groups. And what about the teachers? Federal data shows that nearly a third of teachers are over the age of 50, which means they are at a high risk of serious illness. And every person physically present in school — teachers, students, staff — has a network of people they are also coming into contact with. The fewer kids in classrooms, the safer it is for everyone – including those students and teachers who need to be present in brick and mortar schools, as well as everyone they come in contact with.
Bottom line: we don’t live in a vacuum and our actions impact many other people.
The individual risk-benefit analysis is precisely why we are in this mess. Far too many people are making choices based on what is good for them, rather than what is good for others. It is American independence at its absolute worst. I’m not at risk, so why should I have to stay home? Masks make me sweat so I don’t want to wear one. My kids are driving me bonkers and I can’t wait to send them back to school.
But the sooner we realize that we all need to make sacrifices, the better off we’ll be. What those sacrifices look like are different for everyone. And yes, sadly, some are being asked to sacrifice more than others.
The simple reason my husband and I are choosing the remote learning option for our kids is because we can do so without a serious impact on our family, while benefiting our community. In other words, this is a sacrifice we can make. Others may not be able to, but because we can do so, it is our responsibility to make it less risky for folks who need in person learning.
Believe me, I am aware of the privilege that we have to even be able to make this choice. Many families simply don’t have the luxury of choosing to keep their kids at home. Single parents and those parents who need to work outside the home right now rely on school for child care. Children with special needs and developmental challenges that require in-person instruction more than others. Some kids are food insecure or live in unsafe home environments, and school provides a safe refuge during the day.
None of these situations apply to our family. My husband and I are both able to work from home for the foreseeable future. We coordinate conference calls around each other, and when necessary Minecraft and Fortnite step in. It’s not ideal, but it works. Our kids are tweens and teens, which means they don’t require as much hands-on supervision through their school work, and they can be left to their own devices without fear that they will set the house on fire. These are all factors that might not apply to other families. Or maybe they do.
Much of the discussion around school during the pandemic (or really anything during the pandemic) focuses on what we are losing. Parents are losing out on their ability to focus on work responsibilities, employers are losing their employees’ sole attention, which is now shared between work and kids. Children are losing out on social development, they are suffering emotionally, they are falling behind academically. And sadly some kids are losing the safety and health benefits that school provided.
But let’s put this in perspective a bit. Experts are cautiously optimistic that a vaccine will be available by early next year, and if not, every month that passes, we learn more about the virus and how to treat it. As the saying goes, this too shall pass.
If, instead of focusing on what we’re losing, we readjusted our expectations, perhaps we could come together to weather this storm better. Yes, our kids are falling a little behind in their educational progress, but is it really the end of the world if they are a few months or a year behind in their math skills or reading level? Will the world fall apart if they spend a few more hours on the iPad or Playstation? Will parents’ employers collapse if parents’ productivity isn’t quite what it was for a little while? Of course not.
To be clear, I am not referring to the very real losses that many people are enduring. For some kids, the lack of in-person schooling creates losses that are too high – loss of food, loss of safety, or a loss of employment for their parents without the child care that school provides. I am not talking about these situations.
But for many of us, when we take the long view – of childhood and a life in general – any potential downsides to remote learning look relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Dare I say, there may even be some benefits to it as well. For one, it allows us to control the ways we are expanding our bubble. We have started to see my parents (wearing masks and maintaining social distance), and I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing that if my kids were exposed to hundreds of other kids every day. Also – and just as importantly – I hope that the decision to choose remote learning will teach our kids how to think of others when making decisions, rather than focusing on their own needs and preferences. Honestly, that lesson alone is worth it to me.
While I am disappointed that our school district didn’t encourage more families to choose the remote learning option for the safety of others, I’m grateful they are offering it and I would encourage other families who can do remote learning to consider doing so as well. Is remote learning possible for your family? Is it something you could do (even if you don’t necessarily want to)? Would your kids staying home protect others in your community? Would fewer kids in your school protect teachers – those same teachers you were signing the praises of back in March when you realized all the things they did for students? Would remove learning open up resources for students who need more directed in-person learning?
Let me be very clear: I do not want my kids to be remote learning. I want them to be in school with their peers living life like they did pre-COVID. None of this is easy. None of it. I do wonder if we’re making the right decision. But every decision comes with uncertainty right now, and I would much rather err on the side of protecting others and inconveniencing my own family than put others at risk so that my family can benefit. So next month when some kids are packing up their backpacks and donning face masks, my kids will be opening their Chromebooks and logging in for a day of e-learning. It hasn’t been an easy decision, but for our family it is the right one.