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Lansdowne grandparents struggle with virtual schooling: ‘It’s rough on us’ | Maria Panaritis

William Penn School District eliminated its pandemic Cyber Academy due to a teacher shortage. That means worry for Jim Gardner and the grandchildren he is raising.

Jim and Joan Gardner with the grandchildren they have been raising since the kids' father died: April, 7, Kyleigh, 10, and Tyler, 13. The Lansdowne, Pa., grandparents are teaching the kids at home due to the pandemic closing schools in their Delaware County district.
Jim and Joan Gardner with the grandchildren they have been raising since the kids' father died: April, 7, Kyleigh, 10, and Tyler, 13. The Lansdowne, Pa., grandparents are teaching the kids at home due to the pandemic closing schools in their Delaware County district.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Jim and Joan Gardner’s son died from an addiction at age 33, so they adopted their grandchildren. Now, because of the pandemic, the 70 and 71-year-old retired Lansdowne couple also are teaching the children fully from home.

It’s tough, yes. But if their local public schools ever do reopen physically, as many families are hoping will happen sooner than later after six months in suspension, the Gardners could be facing an even more crushing, life-and-death situation.

Their underfunded William Penn School District, facing a version of the same teacher shortages that have helped jettison a return to public school for children across the region, even in far more affluent communities, canceled its all-year virtual-schooling option for elementary-age kids.

It ran out of enough teachers.

» READ MORE: Zoom and gloom: Virtual schooling has begun, and it is unsustainable | Maria Panaritis

If schools do reopen, that means people like the Gardners will have no choice but to send their kids to classrooms where, they fear, they may pick up the potentially life-threatening virus.

What is happening here is a product of the disregard President Trump has for people who rely on public schools. We must vote out this man who despises ordinary Americans. We must remember, for years into the future if necessary, every current Republican enabler who allowed this anti-president to eviscerate our schools by doing little to send help this year. Because NEWS FLASH: They can’t stand you or your kids.

The house that Jim, a well known local Scout leader, calls home is in a Philadelphia suburb not far from the city border. Every day except for Wednesday since virtual schooling began this month, Jim and wife Joan, a retired teacher, have been pulling a grueling routine similar to that of countless parents.

Seven-year-old April beams into second-grade class from a computer on the dining room table instead of walking a few blocks away to Ardmore Avenue Elementary School. Ten-year-old Kyleigh catches fifth grade from the kitchen. And 13-year-old Tyler keys into eighth grade from a room upstairs.

» READ MORE: What does in-person school look like in the COVID-19 era? Here’s a look inside

Grandpa, a retired union electrician, is tech support. Only for high-level software malfunctions does he enlist the 13-year-old for real-time rescue missions.

Grandpa also runs the in-home cafeteria. He goes to the shuttered elementary school three mornings a week and picks up district-made lunches. He calls them a godsend. One less thing to have to juggle along with language arts, modems, and math, and meandering little minds staring into flat screens.

It’s because so many households in his district are financially needy that the lunches are provided at all. He shows me that week’s paper menu: “FREE lunch for ALL students!” it reads.

“So far, we’ve done a week and one day and it’s a challenge," Gardner said when we talked a few days ago. “I have to sit here like a hall monitor. Tyler’s OK; he’s up to the task. Kyleigh, a little bit. April is 7, she’ll get up and want to fidget, move around.”

He signed the kids up for the district’s cyber-learning option because Gardner is no dummy when it comes to science. He views Trump’s blather about a forthcoming vaccine as a hustler’s hustle.

“In spite of the crap you’re hearing from the White House,” Gardner said, “I don’t think we’ll all be immunized until at least next summer.”

» READ MORE: Virtual schooling is a gamble that risks the long-term health of children and families | Maria Panaritis

However, just days after William Penn opened to all-virtual instruction this month as a supposedly temporary measure, it announced it was folding its full-year Cyber Academy option.

“I am worried about my [grand]kids," he said, "but I’m more worried about what they might bring home.”

The virus, we all know, is especially dangerous to people in their 70s and older.

Many public schools have offered few details about the forces keeping their buildings closed after abrupt shutdowns in March. Is it due to space? Ventilation? Teacher resistance? A shortage of substitutes? A shortage of money to hire extra teachers and/or substitutes?

I’ve heard complaints about a lack of transparency from parents as far west as Tredyffrin and as far east as Cherry Hill. Teacher shortages are whispered about, but seldom discussed head-on.

Gardner said he was told William Penn lost its cyber teachers when it recently changed course and told staff they could work from home if they chose. Previously, only teachers who committed to the cyber academy had been permitted to do so.

“A couple of teachers who were gonna do the cyber school changed their mind,” Gardner said. With 151 students enrolled but only four teachers left, the cyber academy folded.

I requested an interview with superintendent Eric J. Becoats. The district declined.

“The William Penn School District Board approved an all-virtual, online learning platform for all students through the end of the first quarter in November. Before school started, we did offer the Cyber Academy as an option for all students – K-12. However, we had to change that option and offer the option only to students in grades 7-12 because we did not have the teaching staff to support K-12” with 100%, live-instruction learning, spokesperson Pamela Bookman replied in writing.

“No action has been taken by the board regarding returning students for in-person learning,” she added.

» READ MORE: As virtual school year begins, frustrated parents are pushing school boards to reconsider

Gardner feels for the teachers. His district also is chronically in need of more money than it collects each year from local taxes. But now, thanks in no small part to the pandemic mess that our negligent president has failed to respond to with urgency, public-school caregivers are now doubly squeezed.

First, Gardner lost his boy, Jimmy, to heroin. Now this.

“It’s rough on us,” Gardner said.

Words to vote by in November.