Into Coronavirus and the Classroom: Parents Get Ready for School, At Home
Trymaine Lee: This fall, (BELL) millions of American students won't get to hear that bell. It's funny. Just hearing that sound takes me back. You're hanging out in the hallway or talking at your locker, making plans for the weekend, and then that bell (BELL) sends you running, sliding into your desk before the teacher notices anyone is late.
For many kids, school isn't going to sound that way. It's not gonna look that way for a while at least. When my seven-year-old eventually does return to the classroom, I often wonder what will have changed. The truth is, probably a lot. Disruptions caused by COVID-19 are far reaching. And when it comes to our education system, far worse than we could have imagined just months ago. So all this week, we're trying to understand those ramifications just a little bit better.
We'll find out what it means to take the traditional public school experience and move it away from group work, and recess, and field trips to a system that relies on tablets, apps, and lots of video calls. It's a series we're calling Coronavirus and the Classroom. And if there's one thing we've learned this week in talking to dozens of parents, and teachers, and experts, it's that the education crisis born out of this pandemic is fraught.
Donald Trump: So what we want to is we want to get our schools open. We want to get 'em open quickly, beautifully in the fall.
Kayleigh Mcenany: The science should not stand in the way of this.
Austin Beutner: While the new school year will begin in August, it will not start with students at school facilities.
I felt very relieved, like, "Okay, we're actually being heard."
Archival Recording: We were all expecting to have the opportunity to do some semblance of school in person. What are we gonna do now?
Archival Recording: It is totally the biggest online learning experiment we've ever had in this country.
Lee: As the spread of COVID-19 continues to worsen, at least 17 of the 20 largest school districts across the country are choosing to go fully remote as their back-to-school plan. That affects more than 4 million students. The San Diego Unified School District was among the first in the country to decide that there would be zero in-person instruction this fall. For some parents, that news was devastating.
Kirsten Reckman: It felt honestly like he was sent home with nothing. I mean, we left that day from his afterschool, like, in tears.
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. We'll be spending the week in sunny, warm San Diego, virtually of course, talking to the people at the center of this crisis about whether this district and others like it are prepared for a future where classrooms are entirely online.
And we hope you'll excuse that the audio quality isn't quite perfect in this episode. We were dealing with a few challenges when recording these interviews: power outages from a storm, issues with recording apps, you name it. But in the spirit of everyone working through this pandemic, we hope you'll forgive us.
We begin in Point Loma. For folks that don't know San Diego, Point Loma is a peninsula right here Coronado, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the San Diego Bay. The Reckman family lives there, and their seven-year-old, Landon, was working on finishing up first grade when the pandemic hit. I spoke with Landon's mom. Kirsten is 43, works for a bank, and Landon is her only child. She says what made all of this so hard is that their family loved Landon's school, Ocean Beach Elementary.
Reckman: We just loved how they grow their kids, how they teach empathy, how they teach compassion and, you know, academics as well. It's very diverse in a number of ways, and everyone gets along. Really, it's a beautiful thing to see. And to me, it's putting him in, "This is real life."
You know, I won't ever forget picking him up the day that we knew was their last day of school. I remember leaving in tears because we are such a tight community and we really, truly didn't know when we were gonna see these people again and what the rest of the school year was going to look like. And there was just a whole lot of question marks, not just with school but just life at that point.
Lee: So how did the school initially respond? Like, how did they communicate this to parents?
Reckman: It's kinda funny. I think we found out on Twitter first (LAUGH) before--
Reckman: --we found out--
Lee: Like everything else, social media. (LAUGH)
Reckman: Yeah, yeah. You know, slowly the communication kind of trickled down. And it felt very haphazard in the beginning. You know, it felt like a lot of scrambling. So we kinda were left on our own a little bit to administer schooling and, you know, keep them on track.
And, I mean, we weren't at the point that we could even go back and retrieve anything from the school. It just felt very disjointed in the beginning. I would say, you know, no idea what the future was gonna hold or how they were going to do the school year for the rest of the year.
Lee: So they decide to close the schools and then a lot of, you know, the onus and burden of teaching our children came to, you know, parents like you. Talk to us about how things actually went that spring. You know, how did distance learning actually (LAUGHTER) go for you?
Reckman: It was interesting.
Lee: Were there tears behind that laughter? It sounded like laughing and crying at the same time--
Reckman: A little of both. Yeah, I mean, it was kind of like every emotion under the sun. I think, like, just the biggest thing is we felt like we had no direction. And I think a big part of it had to do with the teachers had no direction, you know? And so we were kind of just fending for ourselves. There was a lot of cajoling that went on in our house, a lotta of pleading, a lotta bartering, bargaining.
You know, and our son's a really good student. But I think, you know, a lot of it was the isolation, and being away from his friends, and being away from his teachers and his peers. And we didn't let him know, but the teachers had told us that they would not lower their grades during that time. They would only increase. And we never did tell him that because we didn't want him to lose any motivation.
Lee: So a lot of the concern has been about, you know, the actual tools and resources. And I wonder: What digital tools was your son using?
Reckman: (LAUGH) I think there were like 15 apps. I mean, maybe not 15. Maybe 10. But, I mean, it was just app overload, and remembering passwords, remembering you had to go in to this app to get to that app. And it was just funny seeing his teacher get used to doing Zoom and, like, all the Zoom debacles we had in the beginning with just trying to navigate it, trying to navigate technology when you go from an in-person model to a fully remote model, you know? And just seeing her turn herself off, turn herself on and just the hilarity of navigating technology altogether was nuts.
Lee: So with a thousand apps to kinda navigate and maneuver through the day, as just a first grader, and I have a second grader. So my daughter is seven turning eight. So I know that, you know, they can be a little independent, but they still need our help. I wonder as Landon, as a first grader, how much supervision did he need as you make your way through the day?
Reckman: He's pretty technologically savvy. It was more the supervision from keeping him on task. You know, like, keeping him focused. And as a parent, I mean, honestly the last thing I want is for him to be on a screen all day. I just don't think it's healthy. And, you know, outside of school if I see he's on a screen too long, he's just not a nice child.
They say that this year's it's three hours, up to three hours per day. And that seems like a very long time for, you know, an incoming second grader to be on the computer and try to pay attention. You know, I don't know how they're gonna keep these little kids' attention for that long.
Lee: So with all that goin' on, was Landon actually engaged? Did you get the sense that he was, like, actually locked in? Or was there so much goin' on where that itself was tough?
Reckman: It kind of ebbed and flowed. I mean, that would be my best answer. You know, sometimes he was really great and locked in. And other times, we were, "Oh my god. Like, you have to do this homework, Landon. Like, you have to do this. You have to do that." So it depended on the day, you know? Sometimes on the hour.
You know, it's just hard when these kids, especially these younger kids that are used to being in a classroom setting and, you know, being with their teachers, being with their peers. I mean, at the end especially, I mean, it was battle of the wills. "Landon, you need to get on your math app. You need to get on your A-Z Kids app." And, "I don't like that one. I don't want to do that one. I want to do this one," you know? And a lot of push and pull just getting it done.
And he's a kid who's great at technology, but he just had enough. It was great that we had an hour a day with his teacher. That was fantastic. Everyone got that face time. But at the end of the day, it's just he needs in-person. He was struggling a lot with being on the computer and being on a screen all day.
Lee: So speaking of the actual teaching and academics, was Landon able to kinda maintain his proficiency? Do you think he actually made progress in terms of the academic side and actual learning?
Reckman: I do. I do. I think we tried to keep on him, to stay on top of his schoolwork and not fall behind. And, like, as the school year went on, the Zoom classes rolled on, whatever, with his teacher. Like, we would see people not showing up. You know, I knew the parents, and you're thinking, "Oh my gosh. Like, these are not bad parents." I would see that at morning running club. I would see them at pickup. And these people want the best for their kids. But, you know, reality's happening. And it was heartbreaking to see.
Lee: So what role did you and your husband play as parents through all of this? Obviously, you have to be a therapist. You have to be a teacher. You have to be (LAUGH) a teacher's assistant.
Reckman: De facto best friend.
Lee: Right, (LAUGH) exactly. Lunch buddy. Was this all hard?
Reckman: So if I needed to tell my boss, "Look, I have to do this with Landon," they'd say, "Fine, just make up the time." And then same with Eric. With his job, he gets up super early. And so if he would get up super early, then he could knock it all out, maybe take a longer break at lunchtime or, you know, whatever. We found ways to make it work with our jobs.
Toward the end, I mean, we joked. We were like, "We all have senioritis at this point. When is the school year over?" (LAUGH) Like, "Okay, we have, like, another two weeks. Okay, we can do this." You know? And it's like mentally psyching yourself up to go through another day and you're mentally, like, checking stuff off that you have to get done, that he has to get done.
And, you know, assignments were still needing to be turned in. Whether or not they were graded, we're still turning stuff in. And sometimes it was running around like chickens with our head cut off. It's kinda like I don't know if you ever saw the BBC video. I think it was in Asia somewhere and the little kid toddles in and I'm like, "Yeah, that's everyone's life now."
You know, kids are photo bombing on everyone's Zoom calls. And, you know, I feel like it lent some humanity to everyone because even these big higher-power people, it kinda leveled the playing field. We're all dealing with this right now together. We all have kids home, and they may wander in the screen. One time, he almost wandered in naked on a call. (LAUGHTER)
Reckman: Yeah, good times. (LAUGH)
Lee: So you sound like you've gotten into a routine. But I wonder in those early weeks when Landon wasn't around his friends and he didn't have his peers to lean on, did you notice any changes in his behavior?
Reckman: Oh yeah. Well, absolutely. Like, he had broken his leg skateboarding in mid-February. So then when school ended, he had left in a wheelchair. And then to have him stuck at home, you know, immobile basically I couldn't say, "Landon, go in the backyard. You know, go play in the backyard. Go do this, go do that."
Like, he literally was stuck in that wheelchair. And then the cast came off. And then it was a walker. And so, you know, I think those two things in tandem, it was really hard on our family. You know, there was a lot of tears. There was a lotta tears on both ends 'cause you feel helpless as a parent, too.
Lee: Wow. (MUSIC) We're going to take a quick break. But when we come back, I talk to Kirsten about how she's feeling about Landon not going back to Ocean Beach Elementary in person this fall and why it almost meant switching schools. Stick with us.
Lee: The San Diego Unified School District said, you know, they're not coming back physically in the fall. They're gonna stick with remote learning. What was your, like, immediate reaction when you heard this news?
Reckman: So this is funny. We had gone away. And I was having a cocktail and it was wonderful, on an outside patio. (LAUGH) And I had deleted every news app off my phone. And no sooner than I had had a drink of my mojito that I got text and text and text and text from all of my friends, the group text going with all our moms in his classroom about distance learning.
There was definitely some upset responses that we weren't going back, and sadness, and anger, and just scrambling like, "What are we gonna do now?" You know, like, we were all expecting to have the opportunity to do some semblance of school in person. How do we make this work? Who are we gonna find to help out? What do we do? So, yeah, it was definitely disappointing.
Lee: At any point, did you and your husband think about actually moving Landon to a different school, as much as you love the place?
Reckman: So we did think about looking at other schools. We did look at a parochial school. We're like, "You know what? There is the chance that they will go back in person. Let's go take a look at this." Nevertheless, I had a total pit in my stomach. I hate the thought that I'm even looking at this.
But I'm like, the socialization, the mental health, him being around other children, they were literally getting ready to start school. They were getting ready to put the dividers in at the tables, the four Plexiglas dividers and getting stuff ready for social distancing, setting up the school to actually start.
But, you know, we sat down, we talked to Landon about it. He said, "I don't want to go there. I want to stay where I'm at." And in the end, we're like, "Let's stay where we're at. We love this school. We have such a community there. Let's see what happens."
Lee: You know, as much as you love the school and as much as you want Landon to be back in those halls, those classrooms, the teachers and friends that he knows, you know, there's been news this week about 200 kids who tested positive at summer camp in Georgia. Other schools have opened and they're getting kids with COVID on the very first day. Are you concerned at all that if he went back to school, that he might actually get sick and maybe get other people sick?
Reckman: Honestly, at his level, I'm not super concerned. I feel like sometimes the bad news is what unfortunately makes the news. 20 countries have gone back in Europe. I think it's really a regional decision. And this is not a one-size-fits-all. I think even within San Diego, I think we need to look at community spread and see, like, where the hot spots are.
Because if you look at a heat map for our county, there are definitely spots where there's a lot more spread, there's a lot more cases. And maybe you go that granular, that you look and see where cases are trending upward, where they're trending downward, you know, in conjunction with what hospitalizations are doing.
I mean, I was hopeful that they would go back in the fall because I feel like the kids need to be back in school. And for me personally, looking at where our numbers have trended, how our hospitalizations have gone, I've never really seen anything alarming in our trends locally.
Lee: You know, there a lot of people who would say, "You know, we're also seeing second waves in some places," and that there are some people who are so concerned as we parse through the data and people are still getting sick all across the country, you know, there are teachers who are saying, "You know what? I'm relieved. You know, I filled out my will. I was scared. I'm so glad." Can you understand that sentiment at least? Because there are still people dying all across the country.
Reckman: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. No, and, I mean, as we move forward, we have to be sensitive to come up with a game plan that's going to be suitable for everyone, that gives a comfort level to everyone because we can't have parties going back to school that are terrified, that feel like the numbers aren't where they need to be, that cases are on the rise. Like, we need to be sensitive to all of that. Absolutely.
Lee: Do you have any friends or other parents in your social circle that are actually grateful schools aren't opening in the fall? Have you actually talked to some of those folks?
Reckman: I do. I do. You know, I think everyone has different risk levels. And, yeah, absolutely. I know people that, you know, regardless of whether we could have sent kids back, they probably wouldn't have chose distance learning.
Lee: Yeah. How are those conversations? I can imagine. As we know, I've been in some of these email threads and I've been in some of these (LAUGH) parent groups, and they can get pretty chippy. Is there any tension between the parents who want to send their kids back and the parents who want to keep 'em home?
Reckman: Oh yeah. There absolutely is. I mean, it's kind of gotten to the point for me that I just stay off Facebook 'cause it just makes me sad. I've seen from friends in other places how just ugly it's gotten, and finger pointing, and, "You want people to die," and--
Reckman: --then on the other side the people that think it's a conspiracy theory. And just we don't need any of this. We shouldn't be judging each other. We shouldn't be shaming each other. Like, we all are dealing with this in different ways. And instead of pointing the fingers, like, we need to be able to sit down, and have some discourse, and have amicable conversation regarding all of this. And, you know, it really boils down to, like, understanding, understanding where both sides come from. 'Cause everyone has their reasons.
Lee: So Landon is entering a big year, second grade, which is a pretty big deal. So obviously things haven't been ideal and they won't be ideal once school starts again with the distance learning. But are there aspects of online learning that you actually like, that you want to keep going regardless?
Reckman: With school, not necessarily. The one thing we did find is this other, and I think it's a home-school platform. It's called Outschool. And we've done some classes through there. At very beginning when we needed to supplement his learning, we were just doing different, like, science, and math, and some Spanish classes through there.
And I know for us personally we are doing it (it's just my son and one of his best friends), and we're basically helping to subsidize hiring someone to come help watch the boys while we're at school. You know, they said, "We can probably give $100 total," and we're like, "That's fine. You know, what can we do to help you?" It's our privilege to be able to do that.
Lee: But, you know, that's the first I've heard of this in all these conversations, the idea that it could actually be inclusive. It could actually be an opportunity to spread some of the resources and pull folks in who might otherwise be shut out of these opportunities.
Reckman: Yeah, absolutely.
Lee: And, Kirsten, I just want to ask you this question. And I wonder as we're all being very introspective about this experience and reflecting on it, you know, what have you learned from all of this not just about Landon, your child, but also about yourself?
Reckman: You know, to give yourself grace, you know, and give others grace. Like, we're gonna make mistakes. We're gonna fumble through this. And to give myself grace to make mistakes and know that I'm not perfect and there's gonna be moments where I'm screaming at my kid. And it's not something I ever like to do, but to just stand back and realize we're really literally doing the best we can.
Lee: (MUSIC) Kirsten, who said you weren't a teacher? That was wisdom right there. I think we learned something. (LAUGHTER) Thank you so very much. We really appreciate it. And good luck.
Reckman: Thank you.
Lee: Kirsten Reckman lives in Point Loma, San Diego with her son and husband. Their son will start second grade online on August 31st. On Wednesday, we'll hear from a middle school teacher in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego about the mixed emotions that have come with all this: relief at not having to return in person and the stress of having to teach entirely online.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. Our series, Coronavirus and the Classroom, continues on Wednesday.