Opinion

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

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All-virtual pandemic learning, happening inside people's homes instead of at public schools, has begun in the Philadelphia region. It is not pretty.
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The ugly is here.

It began, for me, on Monday, in the form of two small Chrome tablets on folding buffet tables in opposing corners of a smallish dining room. A first grader and a second grader started Day One of their public school year with little more than a stylus, and the determination of teachers to guide them through what even many corporate executives would find taxing:

Spending nearly seven hours navigating multiple online platforms and logins. Learning, through Zoom, how to write. How to read. How to sit still. How to make *friends* whom they may never meet in person if schools don’t find the will or the way to ever reopen amid COVID-19.

“My wish,” said one of the boys to his virtual class, as I struggled to keep focus one room away on the journalism also required of me as a full-time member of the workforce, “is for COVID to go away.”

The rest of the kids, he later told me, expressed much the same desire: They wished either for COVID-19 to go away, or to one day actually see and play with the classmates they were meeting with only through Zoom boxes, starting at 8:45 a.m. and not ending until 3:30 p.m.

No recess on a playground. No cafeteria time. Only a herculean effort by valiant teachers on the other end of a lonely modem connection, and whatever scraps of attention caregivers could manage to dish out — if any.

Before the first 8:45 a.m. Zoom call began, one of two school-issued tablets had already lost most of its audio capability. The first grader had trouble hearing his teacher. We had to set him up on two different machines — one for listening, one for doing assignments. By dinnertime, I was in a school parking lot, swapping the busted tablet for a new one. The handoff was between me and the employee in charge of technology for my school district. I was grateful.

The younger boy listened to class through a speaker so we could help as he navigated a thicket of computer programs and logins and, well, the limitations of being 6 years old. The older one plugged in headphones and, we hoped, would figure it out at the ripe old age of 7.

For lunch and recess, the 7-year-old got an hour from noon to 1. His little brother, though, didn’t get lunch until 12:30 to 1:30. Neither boy could play with the other. So they ate separately, and then tried to burn the rest of that hour doing what they have for much of the past six months: killing time.

None of this is sustainable. Or healthy for our kids. And while some of us are struggling beyond our limits, which is not OK, there are so many more who have it even worse.

Continuing to force families into this impossible juggling act, without any meaningful support from government or our employers, will force parents into losing their jobs, their health, their family’s health benefits, their children’s mental health. It will harm kids in ways we cannot even fathom at this moment.

Imagine, too, those families where parents will have no choice but to leave older children in charge of little siblings so that Mom, or Dad, or Mom and Dad, can keep working to keep a roof over everyone’s heads.

That I even have to write this column is an American failure. That our leaders have treated this months-long calamity as invisible and, therefore, unworthy of resources is appalling.

My message to local, county, state, and federal officials, as well as to businesses that do little to take a lead on this issue, is this: One of the most fundamental components of the American Dream is rotting on YOUR watch.

Working parents of primarily younger children are universally exhausted since schools shut down in March. All supports were yanked from beneath us and our children, even as expectations from our jobs largely remained at pre-pandemic levels.

Our kids were sent home and spent months disengaged from contact with friends or structured learning, all because we, as a society at large, were told and agreed to sacrifice through quarantine to bring the coronavirus under control.

Then came summer: No camps or group day care in many of our towns, including my own. The marathon continued.

The act of hiring an at-home babysitter, or even bringing Grandma into the house, we were told, was too risky. Kids at their most developmentally fragile ages were handed remote controls or electronic devices and told to amuse themselves, day in and day out.

With school reopenings on the horizon in August, however, we were told it would be safer to bring strangers into our homes or send our kids to off-site child care at prices of nearly $300 a week rather than send them to school.

The result: The extraordinary, excruciating new phase making its debut this week as public schools across the region begin to open virtually.

Seven out of 10 working parents of children under the age of 14 in the United States do not have any potential caregivers living at home. In other words, both are attached to jobs that preclude them from watching the kids during the workday, according to the Brookings Institution.

That equals 23.5 million people.

In the lead-up to this week, we were given just days to prepare for at-home instruction. Those of us who could ended up scrambling to find and buy computer stands, headphones, styluses, desks — items that were out of stock at Ikea, at stationery stores, even at big-box stores across our region.

Yours Truly drove 90 minutes on Friday night to a Target in Lancaster for tablet-compatible headphones that otherwise would have taken a week or longer to arrive at my son’s doorstep. School was starting Monday.

Six months in, it seems society has deemed this whole ordeal acceptable. Well, guess what? It is not.

God bless the teachers, the administrators and the parents. As I see it, they’ve been working like heroes here, around the clock.

But if you love children, and if you love families, we need more than this. And we need it fast.

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