In classrooms, Anna Mauro’s daughter is positioned in the front of the room to ensure she can make eye contact with a teacher and stay engaged.
On Zoom, she has been struggling to log on — let alone speak up when she has a question. By 1 p.m. each afternoon last week — four hours into her 6½-hour virtual school day — the typically social fourth grader was asking Mauro if school was over yet.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Mauro, who has been sitting in a room with her daughter during the school day, trying — and failing — to complete her own work while navigating her daughter’s technical issues. During one morning last week, Mauro had helped her daughter access different online resources four times by 9:30 a.m. Later that morning, the teacher spent 45 minutes helping students log in; ultimately, 16 of 20 kids were connected, Mauro said. Her daughter wasn’t one of them.
The school year has just begun in area districts that have opened virtually amid the ongoing pandemic. But across the region, many parents are adamant that online instruction isn’t working for children or families — and pleading with school boards to consider bringing students back to school as soon as possible, in particular younger children and those with special needs.
Day by day, parents are organizing — writing letters, circulating petitions, forming ad hoc committees, and blizzarding social media with messages to put pressure on districts. The advocacy so far is largely a phenomenon among middle-class and affluent parents, but the struggles exist among kids of all backgrounds — and are compounded for those living in poverty.
In Cherry Hill, parents still upset about the district’s last-minute decision to implement remote learning until November were expected to protest Tuesday evening.
One of the organizers, Andrea Pala, the mother of a second grader, said virtual learning is not working for her 7-year-old son, Daniel, who is logging long hours on the computer and complaining his headset bothers his ears. She wants the district to allow younger students to return to the classroom immediately and phase in middle and high school students.
“It’s really bad. It needs to be in-person,” said Pala, a technology consultant.
Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche said he understood parents' frustration but urged patience as students and staff become more comfortable with remote learning.
“Our goal remains the same: to have our staff members and our children back in school when it is safe to do so,” Meloche said.
Some districts have announced plans to bring students back — including Lower Merion, which said Monday that it would start returning kindergartners to school the week of Sept. 29 in a phased reopening that would return all grades by the week of Oct. 19.
“We realize that virtual instruction is not ideal, especially for our youngest learners,” spokesperson Amy Buckman said.
Central Bucks also plans to resume in-person school, starting Sept. 30.
Some parents have said this fall’s virtual learning isn’t as much of a challenge as they expected it to be. “We have actually been pleasantly surprised so far,” one Lower Merion mother wrote in a Facebook group, noting her fourth grader “is more engaged and organized than ever this year with a smart, attentive teacher and teaching assistant.”
But others say virtual school is nearly impossible without parental help, and question to what extent children are learning.
“My second grader is incapable of doing it on his own. It’s not something that is possible,” Radnor mother Alyssa Mazziotta said Monday. That morning, she had helped her son log in to a Zoom meeting: The link given through Schoology, an online learning platform, didn’t work, but Mazziotta — who conducts online trainings for software engineers and project managers for work — understood she could access it by going to Zoom. She texted her son’s teacher for a password.
“He’s been given a tech support phone number,” Mazziotta said. “If I wasn’t here, I don’t know how it would happen." Mazziotta said she’s trying not to overburden her son’s teacher — “I don’t want to add another layer of stress to this man’s terrible situation” — but thinks teachers have to shoulder technical problems for too many students, hindering instruction.
Radnor already has some of the smallest elementary class sizes in Delaware County, spokesperson Michael Petitti said. In addition to a help line, the district built a new website with resources to help students and parents. (In Lower Merion, the district also has a help desk and parent resources online.)
While his sons' teachers in Pennsauken schools' remote-only instruction seem well-prepared, Sean M. Brown said Ethan, 9, a fourth grader, and Evan, 7, a second grader, have missed being in a classroom with their peers. Brown, an entrepreneur and online talk-show host, has been challenged juggling his work with his children’s supervision.
“This is a product of what education looks like in a pandemic,” said Brown, a former Camden school board member. “The quality of learning is just not the same.”
Parents like Lindsay Betzendahl who have sought outside help are also struggling. After a spring of juggling their jobs while supervising their 7-year-old, she and her husband sent their son to a child-care program in the Downingtown School District.
Still, after returning Monday, he had done none of his schoolwork, she said. She then spent two hours helping him — later skipping dinner with her family to sit with her laptop and catch up on her own work.
“It’s very easy to forget to be on a call, which he’s done several times," or to take a picture of his work in order to submit it, Betzendahl said. She said her son has gotten frustrated and complained, “'Nobody told me I had to be at this meeting.’” When he came home Monday, he cried in her lap.
Virtual school has been a challenge for both of Christina Jarosz’s children in the Hatboro-Horsham School District — her normally bubbly fourth grader now complains of stomachaches, and her eighth grader came to her practically in tears recently, suffering from a stress headache when he was supposed to be in science class.
When Jake fell asleep at his desk during what was supposed to be gym class, Jarosz didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“My 13-year-old has started drinking coffee, and I don’t know whether that’s a good parenting decision or a bad parenting decision,” she said. “But he needs it. This is really hard for him.”
Like other parents, Jarosz didn’t blame her children’s teachers — who have been supporting both kids, who have special needs, and understanding when some assignments fell by the wayside.
“But the impact on their mental health is terrible,” Jarosz said of her children. Originally for all-virtual school, Jarosz now says she would take an in-person option if offered.
Managing five kids' school schedules has been overwhelming for Rita Hertzog, a Mount Airy mom with children at Central High, Independence Charter School, and at a city prekindergarten program. Her oldest, Sofia, thrives on stress and is taking a full course load at Central, plus courses at Penn, working multiple jobs, and juggling college applications.
While her daughter is "exceeding her goals in ways that she probably wouldn’t have been able to do in person,” Hertzog said, “as her mom, I think about what this is normalizing, and what she’s not getting. She’s on the screen for 12 hours a day. She never has any downtime, ever.”
But to say that Isaac and Lucas, her second and first graders, are having a tough time is an understatement. They’re expected to be online for five hours every day, which has proven difficult.
“The teachers can’t peek over their shoulder, gauge their body language, see who’s struggling,” she said. Isaac, who never experienced anxiety before the pandemic, now freezes at the mention of Zoom calls.
Hertzog, who reads with her children, isn’t worried about academics. But she is concerned about her children’s relationship to school in the future.
“I just want them to get through this intact,” she said.
While Lower Merion is now planning to bring students back, Mauro has already been thinking about the prospect that her daughter might have to repeat a year of school if virtual learning were to continue past October.
She doesn’t fault her daughter’s teacher, but the broader virtual learning system, and wants school leaders to know this isn’t sustainable.