Monday, March 23, 2020: Day 21 in North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic. Day 1 in homeschooling.

A week ago, Guilford County public school teachers handed parents a stack of workbooks, essentially shifting responsibility for education from the local education agency to more than 50,000 households.

We set up the desktop computer in the living room on Monday for my elementary school-age child, and logged on to Canvas, the online learning platform for her class. It wasn’t immediately clear to me where one day’s lesson ended and the next began, although my wife has since straightened me out. There were math and reading lessons, with directions to tab to a sequence of pages in this or that workbook; a reading program with password-protected digital books I couldn’t seem to access; and a nifty set of science videos accompanied by quizzes. (After several minutes of frustration, we gave up on the reading program, and instead spent about 20 minutes reading and discussing an IRL book my child grabbed off the shelf in her bedroom.)

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Kind of feels like this right now. But hang in there.

In the days leading up to and after the first day, the comment threads on our school PTA’s Facebook page crackled with parents ricocheting from anxiety to empowerment. I can’t figure out Eureka math, and it’s really stressing me out…. Don’t worry about Eureka math; these students are getting a real-world education in home economics…. I have a full-time job and household work — how am I supposed to teach an entire curriculum on top of that?… I’m going to cut myself some slack, because I think my stress is going to have a more negative effect on my kids than not keeping up with the course work…. The kids miss their friends and are getting bored. Let’s have a virtual talent show!

Or, as one meme posted on the page has it: “If you see me talking to myself this week, mind your business. I’m having a parent-teacher conference.”

There’s no attendance verification and, so far as I can tell, no check-off to prove that you’ve actually completed the lesson. It struck me that compulsory education — a bedrock we’ve taken for granted for roughly 100 years — has essentially been suspended. On Monday, we also learned that by order of the governor, schools will remain closed until at least May 15. If you’re paying attention to the epidemiological curve of the pandemic in the United States, it seems highly unlikely that schools will reopen at all for this academic year. Will the students have the opportunity to make up the lost days? The US Department of Education has already granted a waiver allowing North Carolina to suspend end-of-grade testing. Will all students receive social promotion to the next grade level regardless of what they learned? Will we just chalk this year up as a loss?

I don’t think it’s going to be a loss. I admit I haven’t watched any of the press conferences held by Superintendent Sharon Contreras or school board meetings since the pandemic began. I haven’t had time, frankly, between childcare for the past week, my regular job at TCB, teaching a partial-credit course at Wake Forest University and freelance reporting.

Somehow, I don’t think there are many contingency plans in place, and I bet school officials are figuring this out as they go just like the rest of us.

It hasn’t been a loss though, I guarantee it. In addition to the fundamentals of hygiene, “social distancing” and the 6-feet rule, our children are learning about the importance of protecting themselves and their families, and about the importance of personal sacrifice to potentially protect people they don’t even know. They never should have had to learn about “coronavirus,” but the word is on their lips.

My child is processing the pandemic through an elaborate Medieval fantasy world. We’re battling the “Invisibilians” who “brought us coronavirus.” Our house, with its leaky roof and failing plumbing, has been transformed into a “palace” and our backyard is an “enchanted forest.” Our next-door neighbor is a “nobleman.”

Once I got past my feelings of bewilderment at the format of the lessons, I was actually pretty amazed at my child’s competency in writing sentences, working math problems and answering science questions. And that’s, no doubt, in large part a credit to her teachers. But also, I was reminded, she’s pretty brilliant and we can have some interesting discussions.

And we can deepen the learning through practical applications. While my wife was washing dishes on Tuesday, she called out a list of items to our daughter, and she wrote them out in a shopping list.

Public education was the one institution in which there was at least supposed to be a good-faith effort towards doing right by all. In North Carolina, we call it “the opportunity to receive a sound, basic education.” Now, we know that there really is no educational safety net, just as outcomes in healthcare, housing, finance and the courts are largely determined by the accident of birth. In a sense, we have become our great-grandparents, who integrated work with child-rearing through an improvised curriculum of practical wisdom, values and survival.

We’re on our own, and we might take some comfort to know that we are really the only ones we have and the only ones we need. It’s up to each of us to reach out and help one another as best we can.

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