My son started high school this year. I had envisioned his first year of high school as being academically demanding but socially thrilling. We are fortunate to have a great public school nearby with a challenging curriculum and loads of after school programs and clubs he could join. I imagined him standing groggily at the bus stop at dawn, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets. I pictured him decorating the inside of his locker at school with his own artwork. He’d have late nights of homework for his Algebra class and he’d shuffle flashcards to memorize his Spanish vocabulary. I would push him to give his academic performance his all, because here in Florida, if you get above a certain GPA, you can attend a state university tuition-free. My son looked forward to all of this too. He was excited, with maybe a dash of nervousness, to start high school.
Of course, nothing about my son’s first year of high school has played out like we expected. His bedroom is his classroom. His PC is the white board at the front of the class, and email is where he finds his teachers. He could have gone to brick and mortar school, but we decided together with his father, for a variety of reasons, and because his father and I are fortunate to be able to provide the necessary oversight whether he’s at Mom’s house or Dad’s, that our son would do virtual school.
I walked into this adjusted school scenario thinking I had a grip on the changes we were making. We may have changed my son’s schooling location and adjusted the types of visual input he received, but school is still school, I told myself. I still expected my son to work really hard and earn the highest grades he can. I still expected him to keep that scholarship in mind. With virtual school, you can repeat assignments and tests up to three times. I presented this as a great option for my son to make sure he keeps his grades up. Within this new normal, I thought, we will still strive for the same goals we had before.
I was wrong. As the semester wore on, my son fell behind. His grades slipped. My idea about repeating assignments to improve his grade became impossible. There simply wasn’t time. I found myself walking a line between disciplining my son for getting distracted by YouTube when he should have been focusing on school work and being understanding that staring at words on a screen and listening to videos and calling that school was very different from what he was used to. At one point, I was prepared to remove all his gaming privileges—the only social activity he has left—until he was caught up with school. I was frustrated that he wasn’t keeping up, and angry that he kept allowing YouTube to distract him.
We happened to have a well visit with my son’s doctor during this time, and as we discussed school, my son confessed to the doctor that he was really struggling. He spoke to his doctor, a neutral, safe third party, differently than he had spoken with me. “It feels so different,” he told his doctor. “That’s because it is different,” his doctor said. “Nothing about this is normal, so we shouldn’t expect it to be. We need to adjust our expectations.”
It was exactly what we both needed to hear. Our doctor gave us some tips for improving my son’s focus and adjusted the dose and timing of his ADHD meds so my son had a small dose in the afternoon when we had noticed a particular lull in attention. But most of all, he reminded us that none of this is normal.
Later, I had a heart-to-heart with my son about school. He explained that it’s much harder to focus on words on a screen than it is to listen to a teacher who is walking around as they speak, using hand gestures to keep your attention, writing examples on the whiteboard as they explain a concept. He told me how hard it is for him to focus, how unfair it is that this virus has taken so much from him, from all his friends, from all of us. My son is still fully on board with the plan we chose—he had a say in it too—but he misses in-person learning. He misses his true normal.
The more I talk to other parents, the more I see that others are having similar experiences, regardless of what type of schooling they’ve chosen. Kids in brick and mortar school are wearing masks all day, and though this is a necessary precaution, it is annoying and uncomfortable. Sometimes entire classes, or even entire schools, are sent home to quarantine for a week or two. Kids don’t always have the necessary tools at home to switch back and forth between in-person learning and e-learning. A laptop provided by the school is worthless without a reliable internet connection. There are so many barriers and variables interfering with our kids’ learning.
We all have to adjust our expectations—of our kids, of our teachers, of what we expect our kids to learn this year. Grades cannot be the top priority right now. Standardized testing needs to be put on pause for the time being. Teachers shouldn’t be evaluated with anything near the expectations we would have of them in a non-pandemic year. What would the standard even be for evaluating a teacher who is teaching in-person and virtual kids at the same time? With no template, no precedent for what “good teaching” even looks like in that scenario, it’s unreasonable to apply performance evaluations that don’t apply to this very not-normal scenario. Let students simply do their best but with mental health as a priority before grades. Let teachers use their creativity and whatever resources they feel are most helpful to keep their students engaged. No one needs added pressure right now. The pandemic adds enough stress on its own without layering impossible expectations of “normal” over top of it.
If you worry your kid is falling behind, I get it—I have that same worry. Except, no one is really falling behind because we are all in this together. Breathe. Be kind to yourself, to your kids, to their teachers, to the administration at your kids’ school. Reach out and offer help or a listening ear when you can. We are all doing our best in this difficult situation, and the expectations we once had for how this school year would go, no matter what grade level your kid is in, likely aren’t playing out the way you envisioned. And for now, it really is okay for that to be enough.