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Social Distancing Diaries: Surviving a Virtual School Day

The physical and mental challenges of quarantine are daunting enough. Add two screaming kids and teaching kindergarten to the mix? Anarchy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.

It occurred to me, as I full-throat screamed at my 5-year-old for refusing to even entertain the idea of subtraction, that I might not have precisely what it takes to be a kindergarten teacher.

Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t be an issue, since I chose a different profession than molding our youngest minds. As you might have heard, though, we now live under Extremely Fucking Abnormal Circumstances. And so, ever since New York City’s public schools closed, I’ve spent half my week writing, and half trying to facilitate the “remote learning” of my older daughter Siobhan, who is in kindergarten and can’t navigate her new Google Classroom without an adult riding shotgun. It’s actually a pretty cool and effective setup … provided someone’s there to help the kid type, and to set up the Hangout video calls, and to scan and upload handwritten assignments, and to keep the day going according to schedule.

I try to do this while not completely ignoring her little sister, Olivia, a 2-year-old who hasn’t been to daycare in more than a month, and who won’t be going back any time soon. Ideally, I also do it while keeping us all from losing our minds at being cooped up in our two-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. As you probably picked up from the “full-throated screaming” bit, I’m not exactly pitching a perfect game.

Two days a week, I take the girls so that my wife—a social worker who runs a supported housing program for people with HIV and AIDS, and thus an essential worker—can go in to her office. (That she’s still commuting is an anxiety-inducing nightmare, but everyone has their own one of those right now, and immunosuppressed people need help now more than ever.) Two days a week, she stays with the girls so I can write in our bedroom. We split Fridays, exchanging a hot tag around 1 p.m. as I re-enter the living room and she heads into our room to make phone calls, with the little one (hopefully) taking her nap, and the big one (hopefully) finishing up her last school assignment of the day before watching cartoons or playing iPad games in what now passes for “after school” while we work. This is more or less how things have gone since March 16; with NYC schools now shut down for the rest of the school year, it’s also more or less how they’ll go through September.

Schools and child care centers here probably should have shut down at least a few days earlier than they did, like in Washington and Ohio. That they didn’t probably spoke to concerns over just how titanic the resultant daily disruption would be for the families of the more than 1.1 million students in the New York City school system, especially those with the lowest incomes. As an aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio put it to The New York Times, “If you suddenly in one day close down the schools, how do you make sure that you are providing for these kids and their parents? We’re not in the suburbs. We can’t tell people to stay at home and play around in your yard.” (Normally, I just envy Shea and Harvilla’s talent. Right now, though, I’m fucking emerald over their yards.)

Siobhan’s always been an early riser, and she loves her teacher, so most mornings she’s already got the laptop open on the dining room table by 6:30 or so, waiting for us to enter the password that lets her into Google Classroom. She signs in to mark her attendance—typically something restrained like, “YES I AM HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” She takes her time typing an answer to the day’s discussion question while we get breakfast ready. (Forced to pick a favorite thing about spring, she settles on, “I like the nice breeze and the nice little flowers reaching up to say, ‘hello.’”)

Siobhan thinking and typing, Olivia pulling out board books and toys, coffee brewing—it’s usually a cool, pretty low-key start to the day. When it’s time for actual school work, though, things can go off the rails.

It’s not so much that Siobhan can’t watch the phonics video and list four examples of words that have long “e” sounds in the middle, or that she can’t work out how many bananas Jada has left after giving three to Robert, or that she can’t write two sentences about her favorite things to do on a rainy day. It’s more that, after the first couple of minutes of whatever she’s doing, she just sort of stops giving a shit about any of it, and decides she’d rather be doing something else—plinking away on a toy keyboard, covering the dog with blankets, messing around with unicorn slime, watching StarBeam, or just laying on the floor and moaning about how bored and tired she is.

That’s pretty much the deal with every activity throughout the day. Standard reading, writing, or math lessons seem more muted and less compelling, thanks to the distance she feels from her teacher and classmates. The makeshift science, gym, art, and music assignments she’s given a couple of times a week are hit or miss. The daily video-conference check-ins with her teacher and classmates—usually somewhere between 10 and 15 of them, all with the volume cranked up to 11 and a fairly casual relationship with the mute button—have diminishing returns, with her attention span and willingness to just chill the fuck out generally waning as the chats wear on. (For the record: She’s an Unmuted Multitasker, a Cross-Talk Screamer, and occasionally a Lay-Down-and-Turn-Her-Back-to-the-Camera-er.)

Getting through Siobhan’s virtual school day has mostly been an exercise in finding ways to keep her engaged, productive, and on pace with her classwork—and in finding ways to do that without just ignoring Olivia. (You know, like I’ve done for most of the last 1,000 words.)

That’s not easy, in part because Siobhan demands a lot of attention, but also partly because Olivia often seems shockingly content to just thumb through picture books, play the same six songs on her Baby Shark Alphabet Bus over and over, and pull up a chair to check out whatever video Siobhan has to watch for class. Sometimes, that’s just her lulling me into a false sense of security; all of a sudden, I hear the water running in the bathroom, or the cat yowling on the windowsill, or a tricycle banging into the wall, and I’m very quickly reminded that you can’t just leave a 2-year-old alone, genius. Even when she really is perfectly fine on her own, I have to remember that right before her daycare shut down, she was starting to work on things like tracing letters and drawing shapes, so I have to at least try to save some energy for her development, too … even if it’s just, like, making sure she doesn’t forget how to hold a crayon, or whatever.

Maybe an even bigger challenge, though, has been finding the patience not to go off when Siobhan starts floating into space—which, I’m sure, is what getting through regular school days were all about for real teachers back when we could all be in one place. That’s a big reason my main takeaways from this experience thus far are that teachers deserve more respect and more money, teachers unions deserve every erg of support we can give them, and anybody who pops off about how easy it would be to punch out at 3 p.m. and get summers off can shut the fuck up forever.

It’s also been about trying to figure out what’s behind Siobhan’s lack of focus. Sometimes it’s basic, age-appropriate flightiness; the way school works obviously had to change, but kids still aren’t supposed to be able to spend this much time at computers banging out work, so it’s natural to get antsy. (The first week or two, the workload was way too heavy for a 5-year-old; to the school’s credit, things have tapered off and settled down over the past couple of weeks.) Sometimes it’s task-oriented frustration at being unable to do something—writing a lowercase g, drawing a tyrannosaurus rex head, coloring in a picture of Twilight Sparkle, whatever—the exact way she pictures it in her mind.

Sometimes, honestly, it’s just being kind of combative with authority figures and not wanting to do stuff, which was an occasional issue that we grown-ups in her life were working with her on before the world fell apart. And sometimes ... well, sometimes it might be about the world falling apart.

We had an hour-long face-off the other night, when Siobhan just sat on the floor of the bathroom and refused to get changed and ready for bed, and I refused to tag out and get her mom to help instead, because Daddy can brush your hair and teeth, too, goddammit. There was some crying, yelling, and stomping. There was also, for a while, silence. Until:

“It’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not fair that I don’t get to do what I like.”

“If you’re talking about not getting to read stories or sing songs before bedtime, it’s because you wasted your time not helping get ready for bed,” I answered.

“No, not that,” she said. “I don’t get to go play at the park or the playground. I don’t get to go to inside play places. I don’t get to go to school. I don’t get to go see Nana or Ma. I don’t get to see my friends. I don’t get to do any of the things I like, and it’s not fair, and it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not like there’s a villain or a fire outside.”

In that moment, I felt like an idiot for spending all this time trying to figure out why teaching kindergarten at home has felt so hard. It’s because this isn’t kindergarten, and we’re not teachers, and none of this is the way it’s supposed to be, and something extraordinarily bad is happening in the world to make things this way, and the girls feel it. They feel it all.

Siobhan isn’t watching the poisonous press conferences or hearing the grim details about the bodies piling up here in the city and around the world. In a New York Times Parenting newsletter offering tips on helping your anxious child through These Troubled Times, the second tip was “resolve your own anxiety.” Sure thing, dog. Just let me know when we’ve got that vaccine and trips to the grocery store no longer feel like you’re in the fucking Walking Dead.

She’s not seeing all of that, but she’s hearing the sirens. She knows she only gets to go outside once a day, for maybe 15 minutes, to ride her scooter around the block while we walk the dog. She knows she has to put a makeshift mask over her mouth and nose to do it, and that every time she goes too fast or gets too close to someone, we yell for her to stop and keep her distance. She understands that something’s broken, even if she doesn’t quite know what, how, or why. She gets the gist.

It’s probably pretty hard to do subtraction with all that swirling around inside you. It’s hard to do much, right now.

This is where I put the important caveat that we have been incredibly lucky. None of us have gotten sick yet, and no members of our immediate families have, either. Siobhan’s not among the nearly 73 percent of New York public school students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and my wife and I both still have jobs to spend half our weeks doing, which makes us more fortunate than a terrifying amount of New Yorkers. Our community public school isn’t a fancy private academy, but her teacher and the administrative staff have been incredible, doing their best to help and support families navigating this strange reality. We have multiple computers and Wi-Fi at home, which means Siobhan’s not one of the hundreds of thousands of students who are still waiting on internet-enabled devices from the Department of Education, and that whichever parent is on the clock can work while she uses the other laptop for school. I also know that when I’m working, my wife—much more patient, versatile, and flexible a crisis educator than I am—is not only shouldering the load, but typically having better luck keeping the plates spinning than I do. (Though sometimes she’s just as ready for a beer as I am.)

We are inarguably privileged, and we are still struggling as often as not. I feel like I am failing my daughters a lot of the time, and just “getting through the virtual school day” is an awfully dim goal when you’re talking about two small children who are just starting to learn how to learn, but still: We’re the lucky ones. When we start up the daily class video chat every afternoon, I find myself thinking less about the familiar faces we’re seeing than about the ones we aren’t—the classmates still stuck outside the new remote learning system a month down the line, the students with special needs who can’t get critical support and resources at home, the blameless and vulnerable kids in danger of slipping through the cracks, at the greatest risk of being left behind in the wake of this horror.

It makes me think of something a friend in recovery told me he learned in AA: When you put your problems on the table with everybody else’s, 10 times out of 10, you’ll wind up grateful you get to take back the ones you put down instead of theirs. So I’m trying to just pick up my problems and keep them from getting too heavy—to move on to something else when Siobhan starts seething at whatever we’re doing; to set boundaries for showing effort on schoolwork before firing up Netflix, but to do it without getting into a screaming match; to just let Siobhan rage if she really needs to and go pay attention to Olivia for five solid minutes; to throw myself into kitchen-counter science experiments and in-lieu-of-P.E. dance parties.

It’s so easy to feel helpless right now; there’s so little about all this that I can control. But I can try to start fresh every time we log in to her classroom. I can try to appreciate the moments when she’s not only doing the work, but seems to be honestly enjoying it—when she sounds out a new word right on the first try, when she’s really proud of the way she colored a tree, when she nails a pose in the Frozen Cosmic Kids Yoga. I can take a second to savor the feeling when there’s at least as much laughter as yelling. I can remember to say sorry when I’ve boiled over and lost my temper, and to give them both an extra hug and kiss when I think of it.

It’s not “teaching,” but it’s what I’ve got. I don’t know that it’s enough to get them through a crisis. For now, though, it has to be.