On April 8, we received an email from our son’s teacher about the start of online schooling. We wrote back that same day saying that for the sake of our mental health—mine, my husband’s, our child’s—he was done with first grade. “You’re a wonderful, caring, compassionate teacher,” we told her, “and our son was lucky to have you for as long as he did.”
Like other parents with the ability to work from home, my husband and I recently found ourselves in an untenable position: if you have a full-time job, how exactly are you supposed to also take care of your children now that schools are closed, much less facilitate their remote learning?
My husband and I are professors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and we knew that attempting to adhere to an elementary-school schedule, while contending with the busiest part of the semester alongside other work commitments and virtual meetings, would only lead to additional stress and frustration for all of us. So rather than try to do the impossible, we decided to do what made the most sense for our family, shielding our 7-year-old from unnecessary worry in the process. As we told his teacher, “Seeing his classmates would make this all far, far worse for him and would lead to questions that we cannot answer honestly.”
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What we want most right now is for our child to feel safe and secure, and we know that’s often accomplished through routine. And so we have tried to establish one: we eat breakfast, I go for a run, we have our son read, then he and my husband play. By midmorning, we all head outside to work in the garden and do chores: weeding, painting, cleaning. Then the rest of the day, my husband and I trade off on childcare and work. My son regularly has Zoom playdates with friends.
We knew when we made our decision that pausing our son’s schooling would not mean pausing his learning. As Egyptologists and archaeologists, my husband and I talk nonstop about history, science and exploration, and we have photos and maps of Egypt everywhere. We use age-appropriate language, and our son always asks when he does not understand a term or concept. We also supplement his formal education with outside enrichment like history books, TED-Ed and educational YouTube videos, art and history documentaries.
Will he be “behind” as a result of missing two months of worksheets and phonics? Behind compared to what, or whom? This might be different if he were older and more self-sufficient and in a grade where the curriculum is more set, but as long as he reads every day, practices his writing and uses his imagination, we aren’t worried about him being ready for the second grade. His happiness and well-being matter more.
We understand very well our privilege and talk to our son often about just how lucky he is. We have enough food, a yard and jobs that are not on the front lines in hospitals or stocking shelves. We know that not all families can do what we are doing.
We’re also aware that this stay-at-home situation might not be as temporary as we’d all like to believe. That’s why we need to be having conversations now about the next school year. What will parents be expected to do if schools are closed and many of our jobs are still remote?
Until we get a vaccine and millions of tests a week—neither of which appears imminent—it seems unlikely we’ll be back in school for a while. And yet six weeks into this crisis, we’re all running on fumes. I don’t know a single parent with a young child who is O.K., and I cannot imagine what we’ll all be like after three, six or even 12 months.
School districts need to focus more on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making sure students are safe and have good access to food and clothes. That comes before worksheets, which many parents cannot even print out at home. They need to think about how their plans can reflect those priorities going forward.
What our family is doing is a stopgap, but it’s not a solution—not for us, not for our son and not for our society. I don’t have the answer. All I can know is that responding with love feels right in this moment, and I hope my son remembers that he was loved deeply every day during this crisis.
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