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I’m Surprised by the Unexpected Benefits of Distance Learning. Here’s Why It’s Working for My Kids.


Name and occupation: Allison Sutcliffe, Seattle Editor at Red Tricycle
My partner’s occupation: sales
City: Gig Harbor, WA
Grades my kids are in: son in 7th and my daughter is in 4th. I’ve also got a two-year-old.
School set-up in 2020: In June our district had plans to start the school year in-person, but our county COVID numbers were on the rise in August, so they had to change course. My two oldest started with full-time distance learning after Labor Day. There’s a plan to bring kids back using a staggered approach, and to be honest I’m not sure what my family will do when it’s our turn to return. Guess we will cross that bridge when we get there, as we’ve been doing with all things coronavirus so far.

Like most things in 2020, our school year started off differently than it usually does. We didn’t make our annual first-day pilgrimage for donuts with our neighborhood friends, and I genuinely missed the bus stop fanfare and parent gab sesh that marks the day the kids finally go back to school. But we’re doing the distance learning thing, for better or for worse, and I took what I learned last year to be better prepared this year. So far it seems to be working. My two oldest are in fourth grade (elementary school) and seventh grade (middle school), and I’ve still got a toddler at home. This is what our typical (if there is such a thing) school day looks like, pandemic, wildfires and all.

Morning: My husband and I run zone defense to get everybody fed and ready

We’re not big into alarms at our house because toddler. Like clockwork she crows “mama” around 7 a.m. each morning and that’s our call to start the day. My husband’s not a morning person and I’ve learned to be one, so he usually stays in bed with the baby while I get up and check my email before waking the big kids.

Since my elementary-aged kiddo and my middle schooler are on different schedules, I run two breakfast shifts (TBH this is a total distance learning bonus). I rouse my son 30 minutes before class starts so he has enough time to down a plate of scrambled eggs and strawberries (that’s what he’s into these days), get dressed and brush all the things before logging on to his first class at 8:15 a.m. Once he’s successfully Zooming, I move my fourth grade daughter through the morning paces so she’s ready to log on and start school by 9 a.m. While all of this is going on, my husband and the baby are getting breakfasted and dressed just in time for him to head to work around 9 a.m., but not before I’ve had a shower. There’s no denying his flexible work schedule makes everything easier.

By 9 a.m. both kids are in class, so I head out to get my morning coffee with baby in tow. I do it everyday. I’m nothing without my latté and a bit of downtime to listen to a podcast (shout out to all the Murderinos) before the day’s juggling act begins.

Morning School: Each kid has their own space & it helps them focus on learning

Here’s where the lessons we learned from last spring’s emergency schooling come in to play. At that time, I had the kids working side-by-side at the dining room table, while the baby played nearby in the living room. I kept my laptop on in the dining room, trying to get work done, while bouncing between the three kids. (What was I thinking, I know.) I knew we needed a change for the 2020 school year.

Now, the oldest two work at desks in their rooms, and we made a big deal about getting them set up for success before school started. Although the school district provided Chromebooks to all students in the district (kindergarteners got iPads), we bought new computers, powerful enough to handle simultaneous Zooms, for each kid. A new WiFi range extender was part of our strategy too, and so far both kids (and mom) can be online without getting kicked off or dealing with seriously laggy load times that were a problem last spring. The final piece of the being-prepared puzzle was getting each kid a gaming headset. They were stoked and I was fine with it because wearing them lets the kids hear better and blocks out noise from the house (What can I say? Toddlers are totally noisy.).

Since the kids are at two different schools, we’re on two different schedules, but both use Schoology to access their materials and classes, and I’m thankful for that. My middle schooler is pretty independent, and can generally get where he needs to go (virtually) without prompting. He has three periods each day in addition to pack (think: homeroom), lunch and study time. In between classes he’s usually in a Google Hangout with his friends (I think I’m okay with that) or working on the assignments that are due the next day.

My fourth grader needs reminders as she toggles between live Zooms and independent work multiple times a day. Her daily schedule is on the white board above her desk, but I peek in often to make sure she’s where she needs to be. Our district is flexible with attendance and that helps. So even if one of my two misses a Zoom, they can still complete the classwork and be counted as “present” for the day.

Wednesdays are the anomaly, and the day we all look forward to. Normally a late start day for my kids, the district now has it set aside for independent work and one-on-one time with teachers. What this translates to is no Zoom time for my middle schooler and a brief morning meeting at 10:25 a.m. for my middle. The day is ours to do with as we please, and I have big plans for hikes, museum visits and general around-the-town adventuring as the year goes on. So far, the wildfires are slowing down our plans.

Morning: I Pl-ork (that’s WFHM-speak for “play + work”)

I spend most of the morning hanging with the two-year-old reading books, building marble runs and keeping her out of the kids’ rooms while they’re in class (she’s notorious for Zoom bombing in our family). Normally, she and I would spend mornings at story time or tumbling class, but even if there were classes, the two of us are tethered to the house because of the big kids. Theoretically this is also when I keep up with the laundry, dishes and general house cleaning, but I’d be lying if I said I was consistent with these tasks.

Morning is also when I try to get some work done. I’m lucky to have a part-time job that was work-from-home before it became the mandated norm. I’m also lucky that a lot of my work can be done in short bursts and from my phone. Since I work for Red Tricycle and most of my colleagues are parents, folks aren’t surprised (or bothered) when they hear my toddler being a toddler in the background. So while my two-year-old jumps on her trampoline (we’ve been spending a lot of time doing outdoor activities inside because of the wildfires), I return emails or make quick calls that need to happen during business hours. I definitely take advantage of the big kids, who briefly reappear downstairs during recess, passing period or work time, asking them to hang with the baby if I need to write a longer email or make a quiet call in the office. Although this work style may seem chaotic, I prefer to think of it as organic.

Mid-Morning: My shy daughter is thriving & I have distance learning to thank

My fourth grader spends the better part of each morning live Zooming with her class in 45-minute blocks with breaks in between. The afternoon is self-managed (that means I’m on duty), until the end-of-day check-in around 3 p.m. I was skeptical about this format early on (it seemed like a lot of screen time), but now that I’ve watched it in action, I feel reassured. It’s surprising, but it’s helped my daughter, who’s usually shy, stand out and be heard. The extra time she has to process and reflect on her learning is making a big difference. She feels more confident in class and enthusiastically interacts with her classmates, in a way that’s different than it is IRL. Distance learning also means more personal attention from her teachers. The thought and attention she puts into her schoolwork is getting noticed in a different way.

While I’ve seen distance learning benefit my oldest daughter the most, it’s definitely giving my son the independence he’s been craving for a while now. It’s his chance to prove that he’s responsible and can make it through the day without mom there to guide him. Only time will tell, but for now, I’m (reluctantly) letting go, breathing deep and reminding myself that college will be here before I know it, and then he’ll truly be independent (ready or not).

Afternoon: It’s quiet work time for the big kids & naptime for baby

Both kids break at noon, so we regroup at the kitchen island for lunch. My youngest daughter happily joins us from one of my favorite pandemic purchases, her perch on the Learning Tower. She’s always glad to be reunited with her sibs. My son is a peanut butter purist so his lunch is easy, albeit a bit boring. The girls usually have something quick and simple like quesadillas or hummus with a piece of fruit and a veg, and always a pouch of applesauce for the baby.

Soon after lunch the baby naps, so I have just enough time to check in with my fourth grader and get her moving in the right direction. Once the kids are settled in, I head to the office to work for about 90 minutes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have interruptions, but for the most part, the kids stay busy working on assignments (and in the case of my seventh grader, practicing his saxophone in the garage) in their rooms until their end of day check-in (2:30 p.m. for middle school and 3 p.m. for grade school). Depending on how long the baby naps, I sit down with the big kids to read (another big perk). We’re working through the Fun Jungle series.

In a perfect world, the kids play outside ‘70s-style when the day is over, riding bikes around the neighborhood or challenging each other to a game of H-O-R-S-E in the driveway, but the wildfires have made that nearly impossible these first two weeks.

Evening: Dad takes over & that works for me

My husband gets home from work anytime between 4:30 and 6 p.m. and no matter where we are in the day, we make the kid hand-off. I take another quick hour in the office to work without interruption—and thanks to my husband’s child wrangling prowess, it’s usually pretty quiet.

We’ve never been a family that sits down together for dinner, so the kids are used to eating a “light meal” before dad gets home, with the choice of eating later if they’re still hungry. My husband’s all about the sous vide (he swears by this container too). He starts it remotely (with an app) and I throw the meat in when the timer goes off so it’s ready-ish for him to finish when he gets home. There are just as many days where we don’t have a coordinated plan so we throw together a quick salad plus protein.

While he runs the bath and bedtime routine (at least for the younger two), I log on to the kids’ Schoology accounts to see what (and how) they did for the day. While I try to be as hands-off as possible, I like being dialed in to their daily routine (a big distance learning plus). There have been some glitches submitting assignments or uploading videos, but they’re easily fixed.

Distance learning is what it is: Here’s what I’m focusing on

Like so many things associated with this pandemic, it’s the way you approach it that makes the difference. Distance learning definitely isn’t ideal (my kids miss their friends and I miss my space), but we’re finding silver linings every day.

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

—story and photos by Allison Sutcliffe


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