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Marathoning Blind: What Virtual Learning with No End In Sight Feels Like

Our series, Family Tales, is an honest peek into the daily lives of families across the country who are on this crazy ride we call parenthood! From divulging childcare costs to breaking down family finances to managing a virtual school year with multiple kids, we tap into the Red Tricycle army of parents to find out how they’re making it work. This series is a judgment-free zone.

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Remote Learning Works as a Band-Aid Because We Have No Choice, But For Real—What’s the Plan?

 

Name and occupation: Shelley Massey, Atlanta Editor at Red Tricycle
My partner’s occupation: attorney
City: Atlanta, GA
Grades my kids are in: son in 6th, daughter in 4th, son in 1st, and daughter in preschool (age 3). They go to 3 different schools, and 3 are in a fully virtual curriculum. Our school district did not present parents with an option to choose.

Our Situation

Our school district announced that they would begin the school year in a fully virtual mode, in addition to pushing the start of school back by two weeks in order to prepare for the virtual environment. We’ve just been updated by the district that they deem the community spread still too high to return, so we are looking at a virtual environment until late October, at the very earliest. We know the district hasn’t given us a “WHEN” answer, but the lack of a “HOW” plan is what really has us rattled. Assuming it’s their goal to return children to the classroom in 2020-21, it would be helpful to hear which grades would return first, how, and with what precautions. Knowing you’re not going back until a threshold of community spread is reached is fine, but it’s the not knowing if there even is a plan—and if so, what that plan looks like—that makes this state of limbo feel a bit like being dropped in the middle of a marathon with no sense of how many miles you’ve already run, nor how many you have left to go.

The start to the school year was a scramble, because with 3 kids at very different computer literacy levels, I’ve spent entire days racing from one room to the other to troubleshoot log-ins, Zoom glitches, and schedules. My oldest son has 6 teachers, so he is constantly logging-in and out of Zoom meetings. My other son is in a Dual-Language Immersion program, so part of his day is experienced in Spanish (which he doesn’t understand), and since he’s 6, he needs a lot of hand-holding just to find the right workbook. Luckily, my oldest daughter only has 1 teacher and is able to navigate her day independently, but my youngest daughter is a toddler who doesn’t understand why she has to be quiet and patient as I help the others (or work, or manage the household). Honestly, she watches way more television than I’m ok with. We’re now in our 4th week of school, so things seem to be working into a bit more or a routine. However, I’ve hired a sitter to sit with my youngest son two mornings a week, just so I can work and take care of household tasks. It’s expensive, and I’m lucky to be able to hire someone. I know that many parents are coping with just as many kids at home with no remote option for their job and not enough disposable income to hire help. I keep telling myself that we’re the lucky ones. But luck in 2020 comes in the form of a four-leaf cactus, not clover, as we’ve all found out.

Pre-Morning

My alarm goes off at 6:15 a.m. and I go for a run. With the rise in crime in Atlanta, I’ve reconsidered my routine, but if I don’t fit in some sort of exercise I’m not my best self for my family. I should probably order some mace. Does Amazon sell that? I’ll have to look into it. The 6-year old comes downstairs as I’m pulling cereal out of the pantry (his class starts at 8 a.m.), and while he eats that, I cook a hot breakfast. My kids will eat a big breakfast, so I try and make the most of it. My 9-year old comes down next (her classes start at 8:30 a.m.), followed by my 11-year old (his class starts at 9 a.m.). While I get the 6 year-old started on his computer—we actually have to set up two, since the Chrome book provided by the school doesn’t have a working camera and I have to use an old laptop just for his Zoom meetings, while he works off the applications in the Chrome book—my 11-year old goes outside and plays basketball. I’m not sure what my 9-year old does. The 3-year old is still in her crib, possibly awake, but I don’t get her until two of the other kids have started classes. I drink a cup of coffee while my youngest eats her breakfast. My husband pops into the kitchen sometime during this production to grab some coffee and a bite to eat, then heads downstairs to his office to work. We don’t see him until around 7 p.m. most days.

Morning

By 9 a.m., my 3 school-aged kids are online, and I have dropped my 3-year old off (if it’s Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday) for the start of her 3 hour day at preschool. If it’s Wednesday or Friday, the 3-year old and I start a load of laundry, then tackle any outdoor projects together. We’re in Atlanta, so afternoons are still in the 90s in early September. If she’s at school, I’ll run a quick errand to the grocery or elsewhere after preschool drop-off. With my husband physically at home most days, I feel comfortable squeezing in a few stops on my way home. He may not be able to help someone hop back on a call if they get bumped from Zoom, as he’s on his own calls most of the day, but he can get them out of the house in case of an emergency.

Our house was built about a hundred years ago, and it has about a hundred stairs. I spend much of the morning trotting up and down stairs, helping various kids, sorting various piles, putting away various toys and clothes and emptying various trash cans. I’ve tried to be more intentional about the time I’m on my phone or checking my email, setting-up my own screen time to align when the fewest number of kids are on break. The two oldest do school in their rooms, while the 6-year old is set up just off the kitchen. He’s working on my great-grandparents’ kitchen table, which is a tiny little thing but has a perfect drawer for his pencils, charger, and math cubes. I work from the kitchen table, while my husband’s office is more of a “cloffice,” or a closet-office in the basement. It’s literally where we would go in case of a tornado. He doesn’t mind it though, but I’d love it if it weren’t off the playroom.

Afternoon

With staggered start times, my kids all break for lunch at different times (and somehow, exactly when I should be picking up my 3-year old on her mornings at preschool), so I try to make lunch around 11:45 and leave it out for them to eat as they trickle into the kitchen. I’ve found that my oldest is pretty cranky by lunchtime, so having food ready for him (he grew 6 inches and gained 30 pounds this year!) when he breaks is clutch. They don’t get a ton of time for lunch, so I’ll try to persuade them to go outside for a bit before getting back on a computer. But sometimes, they’re just tired and I am, too. I know my 6th grader pops onto video games during his breaks, which I don’t love, but my goal is to win the war, not the battle.

The school day wraps for my 6-year old first, around 2:30, and for the older two at 3. Then we’re off to the races. My 11-year old goes to tennis, followed by football on Mondays, golf on Tuesdays, and football on Wednesdays. My daughter goes to tennis on Mondays, cheerleading on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and soccer on Fridays. My 6-year old has a Spanish after-school program on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and soccer on Wednesdays. I debated whether to sign them up for youth sports this season, but figured they really needed some socialization and exercise after a long day on a computer. All activities are outdoors with Covid precautions in place, and I can’t imagine the toll this pandemic would be taking on my kids if they didn’t have some social and physical outlet after all that screen time.

Evening

With scores of activities scattered across town, my ability to get people places is yoked to the strength of carpools I can set up. I drive my “bus” every day, with multiple riders who are not my own, while some of my kids hitch a ride on another mom’s “bus.” I’m grateful for my tribe of friends who help one another make the magic happen. We do everything from haul one another’s children to practices to feed whoever lands at our kitchen table around mealtime. We also read text chains (for the 11-year old crowd) and give each other a heads-up when we see something that needs to be addressed, and reassure each other that we’ve got this whole puberty thing under control. But I digress. My fleet of friends with large cars and I ferry one another’s brood to various rec fields around town, and then crash land at home in time to make dinner and do bedtime.

Dinner is pretty basic these days, and I have a rotation that makes shopping easy, predictable, and fast. Luckily, our teachers haven’t assigned much homework (Is it lucky? Are they learning what they need to learn? These are things you can be grateful for but uncertain about, for sure.), so after dinner, they hit the showers and start the slow roll towards bedtime. We aim for 7:45 for the 3-year old, 8:30 for the 6-year old, and around 9 for the older two. Last night, I was helping my 6th grader with Spanish homework until 10 p.m. My husband is usually up from his office for dinner and bedtime, then we both get back on our computers and crank out work after we get the kids to bed. We haven’t had a date since February. It’s probably time. We still like each other a lot, but this season of life, layered by a pandemic, just doesn’t afford a lot of free time.

Hacks

When the going gets rough, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.

  • I love to cook. Like, really, an enjoy-trying-new-recipes, putting-out-a-full-spread, changing-things-up kind of love-to-cook. That’s the first thing I jettison. I try to only order out or pick up dinner once a week, if that. The rest of the time, it’s Meatball Monday, Taco Tuesday, Whatever I Can Whip Up Wednesday, Throw Something On the Grill Thursday, etc.
  • I try to load my car up with golf clubs, tennis rackets, soccer shin guards and cleats, and water bottles the night before, so that we don’t hit the Wall of Panic trying to leave for our afternoon activities. I keep snacks in my car, so transitions to that part of our day are easier.
  • I do laundry every day, and try to fold it and deliver it to rooms for the kids to put away during bath and shower time.
  • I despise runs to Costco, so I outsource that every other week to Shipt.
  • I keep a stash of keep-her-busy activities, like tons of chalk and playdough, on-hand for my preschooler during the times when I’m occupied running tech support with the bigs.

There’s no magic bullet that makes this easier. I’m not going to lie. The only thing that works every time is giving yourself some grace when things hit the fan. Some days, if all you’ve done is kept everyone alive and not done anything that will land the kids on the psychiatrists’ couch sooner than necessary, you’ve done a good job. It would just be so much easier if we knew how our school system planned to get our kids’ educations (not even life in general) back to the classroom.

Interested in telling your story? Start by filling out our questionnaire here. All stories are anonymous.

—story and photos by Shelley Massey

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