What I’ve Learned From One Year of Virtual School

Virtual School Covid
Mother helping sons with homeschooling at home during COVID-19 pandemic. Nikon D850

The kids knew before I did. They came home from school that Friday the 13th last March with plastic bags filled with school work, desks and lockers cleared out. That’s when I first realized that it wasn’t going to be as simple as staying home for a couple weeks. We could be in this for the long haul. It could last until the end of the school year, even! Ha.

This week marks our one-year anniversary of remote learning. That’s right, we have been doing virtual school from home for an entire calendar year. An entire year of zoom classes and online homework, chronic snacking and hovering children. At this point I sometimes even forget what a radical departure this is from normal life. What felt so extreme at first now feels normal.

I know many families in Canada and around the world are also marking this sad anniversary. They may have opted to stay home to protect vulnerable family members or because they were worried about the infection risk in general. Some of us didn’t have a choice. All the public schools in Washington, D.C.-area (where we live while my husband works as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star) closed their doors last March and are only now beginning to gradually reopen. If all goes as planned (why does that feel like such a big “if”), my kids will begin to return to school part-time in mid-April.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past year:

Some kids do thrive
I’ve seen some parents on social media talk about how well their kids have been doing with virtual school. Kids who suffered from severe social anxiety or bullying have had some reprieve from those pressures. Others have found it easier to stay organized without having to juggle multiple notebooks and handouts. As for us, my over-achieving middle child has continued to do well this past year. She quickly figured out how to make the new system work for her and is efficiently earning top marks.

But more kids struggle
Still, the overwhelming refrain I hear from parents and teachers is that kids are falling behind. One of my own kids is struggling to maintain focus after four hour-long zoom classes every day. Homework becomes drawn out and then left undone, piling up until it becomes overwhelming. Teachers can’t effectively check in with students during the day—especially in older grades where they’re more likely to turn off their cameras and tune out. The sheer volume of independent learning that’s required of older kids and teens is also an obstacle to success for many students. I hear phrases like “addressing the learning gap” being tossed around and see schools trying to accommodate students who are falling behind as best as they can.

It’s lonely
I mean, not for me! Sob. I haven’t had a solid afternoon to myself in a full year. But it’s lonely for the kids. Even in our big, boisterous family of five, my kids miss their friends. My most social kid does keep in touch with her friends through various group chats but it’s simply not enough for her. I know this because she constantly appears at my side, desperate to chat with someone, anyone, even me. My less social kids didn’t have a chance to make a close friend group in this new town before school shut down, so they truly are starved for real, organic peer interactions. The older the kid, the less useful school-facilitated online social events are. Imagine a group of teens who barely know each other having fun on a group Kahoot. It’s not going to happen.

First Day of School

The author’s three kids on the first day of school in September.

The bonus family time can also be nice
At 9, 12 and 14, my kids are on the verge of springing off into their own worlds. So I have been able to appreciate all the extra time we’ve had together this year. It’s been especially nice for my youngest daughter to have her sister during a time when the tween would otherwise certainly have been too busy and too cool for dolls and make believe. We eat lunch and dinner together as an entire family most days. We play board games and watch movies. It’s been nice but it’s also been enough.

The kids still mature
The difference between virtual grade three and virtual grade four was incredible. Yes, the school had time to put a better plan in place for the new year. But more than that, my kid had somehow evolved from a reluctant and rambunctious eight-year-old into a calm and focused nine-year-old who was eager to learn and do well. Puberty also blew into our house with gusto, bringing all the mood swings and attitudes with it. It might be tempting to think of this year as a place holder, a time of waiting, but seeing how the kids keep growing reminds me that life doesn’t stop even when so many of our normal activities do.

I will run out of steam
I am grateful for a well-funded school system that provided us with Chromebooks and a well-planned year of virtual learning. We’ve remained safe and healthy. We’ve been able to find some sports programs for the kids that have adapted safely to covid. We have outdoor spaces to play in and more than enough to eat. It is, HOWEVER, exhausting. I’m responsible for shopping for and preparing every morsel of food this entire family eats. Nobody goes outside for exercise unless I kick them out of the house. The majority of peer interactions get funneled through, you guessed it, me. The house is twice as messy and my patience is twice as thin. The web of support and influence that families count on has largely evaporated for us and I do get tired. Parents of younger children must be walking phantasms by this point. So we do our best and try not to worry about the rest.

It’s been long year, and it helps to remember that even though we’re all sequestered away in our own homes, we’re not alone. Whether you’ve been homeschooling or virtual schooling or juggling the chaos of sporadic school closures, it’s been a slog. When we emerge from this pandemic, frazzled and fed up, we’ll all be on the same page. Our kids can’t have fallen behind when the whole world is behind.

And never again will I take for granted the privilege of having somewhere to go. Whether its school, work, or yoga class and a coffee shop, there is so much value in turning off our computers and moving through the world. It’s been a ride, friends, but let’s not do this again.


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