When we all went into lockdown back in March, many parents with school-age children were thinking, “This is just a few weeks of sheltering in place, at worst we’ve lost the rest of the school year and that would suck.”
Welcome to the Fall 2020 school year, sponsored by Zoom.
Having just survived the summer when summer camps, summer school, and out-of-town vacations were all severely curtailed, the reintroduction of classes and teachers and an actual curriculum were actually a huge improvement in parental sanity. Compared to the ad hoc and haphazard way that most classrooms transitioned into virtual learning environments, this school year at least has had a summer’s worth of preparation and training and planning, albeit against a backdrop of pandemic uncertainty and nationally inconsistent guidelines. Our teachers are trying their best in wholly crappy conditions.
As a parent, I feel conflicted by how our school district has set up the semester. In the early days of schooling-at-home, teachers resorted to daily ½-hour checkins to keep their students from forgoing their academics completely. For young kids like ours (this was 1st grade), it was more of an IT nightmare than an education; parenting in the 21st century had been about keeping kids away from screens. Even if we’ve collectively accepted that our pandemic reality requires computers and tablets, young kids have little experience actually using phones and tablets outside of tapping on video thumbnails.
They’ve had to learn very quickly how to do real work, a kindergarten facsimile of what us grownups perform in an office everyday in front of our computers. They’re figuring out how to Zoom and the new social etiquette around lengthy video calls; they have quickly learned how to peck at their keyboards to chat and submit writing assignments; they have email accounts along with calendars and documents to track classwork and schedules; they even submit PowerPoint-esque presentations—complete with draggable textboxes and slide decks—to simulate pages of printed homework. I personally didn’t realize that the Venn diagram between education and productivity software overlapped so extensively.
And when the COVID crisis finally subsides, how far does our education system pull back from virtual, technology-driven teaching? On one hand, our current reliance on online education only furthers the digital divide; those without laptops or broadband at home are severely disadvantaged and they’ve already fallen behind before this school year. On the other hand, online access reaches a wider audience of students, and this is particularly impactful at the college level where classes can be much bigger than what on-campus lecture halls physically allowed. COVID-induced acceleration of virtual education is hardly a universal panacea, but like remote work, it has, so far, disproved ingrained assumptions that it wholly cannot work.
All that said, I can’t wait for my kids to be able to get back to their physical classrooms.