“All I know is that one day this boy was talking about coronavirus at lunch and then the next day we came home, and we weren’t allowed to go back to school anymore. I just don’t understand; I want to go back to school. I want to see my friends, Mommy. I miss going out and doing things.”
Those were the words that my sweet, innocent eight-year-old cried as I was tucking her in the other day. I held her tightly through sobs and sniffles, her little body limp like a rag doll, engulfed in sadness and desperation. Eventually she exhausted herself and we just sat there hugging as her breathing began to regulate and she calmed enough to lay her head on the pillow and fall asleep.
This was not the first time that she had experienced such a profound episode of grief, and I suspect it will not be the last.
I keep hearing just how resilient kids are. I do not disagree; they absolutely are. For the first few weeks, even months, it was easy to internalize this mantra. I held onto it with a vise grip to keep myself going day after day. But as the realization begins to set in that there is no foreseeable end to this, it grows harder and harder to convince myself that they will come out of this completely unscathed. And after watching my once effervescent and joyous daughter reduced to a state of inconsolable hopelessness, I am profoundly struck by the massive academic, social, and emotional toll this is taking on our children.
It’s important to recognize that while my children are not all right, they’re still better off than many. They still have a roof over their heads, food on the table, and access to the technology required for distance learning. There are a great number of children who are not all right because they only get one meal a day, do not have the tools required for learning, or they live with an abusive parent and cannot get access to help. Or, even worse, they are suffering the loss of a loved one due to this horrendous virus. But even within the context of our relative good fortune, it’s still hard for them.
My own children are vastly different from one another, so I am able to see the depth and breadth that the pandemic is having on them in a multitude of ways. My son, nine, atypical with severe ADHD, and all of the academic, social, emotional, and pragmatic challenges that come along with the diagnosis; my daughter, eight, academically and socially typical.
The educational impact on children with special needs is clear and undeniable. At the very least, they simply are not getting the academic support they require to thrive from distance learning. My son has an extremely specific set of criteria that need to be met in order for his brain to operate at its most optimal and his learning to be most successful. The requirements are written on a 504 plan; for others, they are written on an IEP.
Like any child with a specific learning disability, or other diagnoses that make typical learning a challenge, his needs cannot be met at the kitchen table at home with a parent who is not trained in special education. Despite our best efforts, and the school’s, his goals — academic, executive functioning, social/emotional, physical and occupational therapy, and speech, so carefully crafted and monitored by an educational team — are not being achieved. Children such as my son thrive from consistency and regularity, and distance learning is anything but. Only time will tell how far behind many of these children are falling.
It is not only atypical learners that are feeling the impact of distance learning. My daughter is just not self-motivated academically. She is intelligent and loves reading and math, but sitting and learning for the sake of learning is just not her jam. I would argue that there are very few second graders who wake up every morning excited to go to school to learn how to use a yard stick to measure classroom objects. No, they are motivated by the dynamics of the classroom, the group work, their friends and teachers, and the excitement of the school setting.
Learning from videos on an iPad screen is extremely hard for her. Without the consistent reinforcement she gets from her teacher and classroom, she is just going through the motions until the assignment is done. I’m sure she is gaining most of the basic curriculum to pass the second grade, but she is completely disinterested in the learning process and her ability to motivate to sit in front of a screen to learn is waning with every passing week.
Both atypical and typical children are suffering socially. The elementary school years (and even into middle and high school) are key for learning essential, strong interpersonal skills. Even after basic turn-taking and sharing skills are mastered in preschool, the dynamics of developing and maintaining strong social relationships in the elementary, tween, and teen years requires the opportunity to practice.
But socializing has gone online, which brings a host of challenges not normally seen at such an intense level. With the only opportunity to socialize being through electronics, I have seen one of my children begin to isolate, having little interest in interacting via Messenger Kids, while I have seen the other often misinterpret social cues because they are coming in the form of text messages. FaceTime is just not the same as in-person time, and navigating a complex social world on the internet is challenging for even the most socially adept children. Let’s face it, all of our kids are little, or a lot, lonely. They crave real quality time with their friends.
The emotional effects have not gone unnoticed in our household, either. My once vibrant, cheerful little girl is beginning to lose her sparkle. Her joyful and radiant personality is starting to dull. She does not meet each morning with the same merriment as she used to. She goes about her day, dutifully and, at times, in robotic fashion. She is like the groundhog who awakens every day to the same day and is unsure when she will begin to move forward within her world again.
When once she was occupied by school, friends and activities, she now calls me often throughout the day when I am at work (as an essential worker, I still go to the office a few times a week) to tell me that she misses me, and asks if I am being safe and when I am coming home. My son cried the other day when my husband went out food shopping; it was nighttime, and he was convinced that somehow the risk of getting the virus would be greater if out and about in the dark. He insisted on waiting up until Dad got home just to make sure he was alive and okay.
Neither of them quite understands why they are still at home and when this will all be over. The unknown is creating a palpable layer of anxiety within them.
So no, my kids are not all right. But all I can do is hold them a little closer, hug them more often, try my best to answer any questions and quell any fears they might have … and hope that when this is over, all it leaves behind are barely-visible scars.