Doomsday prep edition
Quarantine Diaries: Can You 'Plan' for a Pandemic?
One WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This first installment is all about getting ready to hunker down until things get back to normal.
As school districts around the country shut down, my children’s school is one of thousands working to make a plan for off-site learning. But there are important reasons to resist online schooling.
I lied to my kids’ school.
As school districts around the country shut down, my children’s school is one of thousands working to make a plan for off-site learning. So they sent a digital learning survey (kind of like this one), asking parents if their kids have access to the internet, if they’ve got computers or tablets, if there are adults in the house with basic computer tech skills. I told them “no.”
We have high speed internet at home. Between five family members, we’ve got three laptops, three internet-capable phones, and at least one tablet. My partner and I are both computer literate, so I’m not worried about whether we’ll be able to understand whatever system our kids’ teachers decide to use for instruction.
Since both of us are already pros at working from home without going nuts, we’re used to things like modifying our schedules to account for kids’ sick days. Our kids are used to giving us space and playing upstairs or outside when we’ve got deadlines and need to commandeer the dining room table. We’ve already got a leg up on a lot of families, who will have to adjust to remote work and 24-hour parenting at the same time.
I didn’t lie because I’m lazy. It’s not that I don’t want to take the time or put forward the effort to facilitate online learning for my children while they’re out of school for a month (or more). I lied because I’m worried that compulsory online learning while school’s out for the outbreak will reinforce inequity in public education. I want my kids counted among those for whom online learning isn’t an option, because if enough kids can’t do it, none of them will have to.
Because even though my kids have the support they need to learn online, some of their classmates don’t. My kids’ school is mixed enough—in terms of race, class, income, and immigration status—that just a handful of students not having consistent internet access could be the difference between recommended or compulsory online teaching for my kids’ school. And that matters to me.
While the vast majority of American kids have a computer at home, and most have at least some internet access, the specifics of which kids don’t is telling. Black and Latinx kids are less likely to have computers, and, not surprisingly, the lower a kid’s family’s income, the less likely they are to have internet at home. That’s because when it comes to digital technology access, race, ethnicity, income, and geography matter. And these are the same things that matter in school success more generally.
We like to talk about school choice and parental involvement, about curricula and teacher training. But actually, what the data shows is that zip code is a better predictor for student success than almost anything else (and, as housing in the U.S. gets more and more segregated, zip code coincides with race more and more). “Success” doesn’t just mean good grades or even getting into college; it’s long-term success too. School segregation helps create and maintain an opportunity gap that lasts all the way into adulthood. It’s part of why Black startups face more difficulties getting funded.
And here’s the thing: my kids will be fine. They’ll be fine even though almost a quarter of residents in our city live in poverty (that’s compared to just over 10% nationwide). They’ll be fine even though more than half of the kids at their school qualify for free lunch, and even though their school only got a C on the city’s school rating chart. I chose this school for my kids precisely because as a light-skinned Black person, as a first generation middle-class person, as the daughter of a father who literally integrated his middle school in 1960s Louisiana, and as a person whose family is full of people who aren’t as privileged as I’ve been; I know how important it is to choose the good of the community over the good of the individual. A rising tide lifts all boats. And that’s a lesson that a lot of us could stand to learn in the midst of a global pandemic.
My kids will be fine not because they’re smarter, but because they’re privileged. Our household income is low, but my kids have three sets of grandparents, and all of them are middle class. Parental education level is another predictor of a kids’ school success, and, while their dad never finished college, my partner and I have four degrees between us. My kids don’t stand to be hampered by missing a couple of months of directed learning, but, if they can learn online while their less privileged classmates can’t, then that’s not fair. I love my children and want them to thrive (and I think they’re wonderful little geniuses). I think other people’s children deserve the same opportunity (and I’m sure they’re wonderful little geniuses, too).
So, instead of getting my kids settled into the Zoom classroom, I’m using this time to teach them other lessons. This is a chance to help my kids see and learn all about the invisible, unpaid labor that goes into running a household. I especially want my sons—5 and 11 years old—to learn that things don’t just happen. Their clothes don’t get washed and folded by magic elves. Someone plans their meals, makes a schedule, does the labor of thinking about what needs to happen for five people to live under the same roof. This is a chance for us to talk explicitly about that work (and about how people of all genders need to do it), for them to see it happening, and to let them participate in it.
And the kids will surely get some academic practice in. Cooking can be a time for learning fractions; working on a household budget is all about math. And, once we get our daily routine figured out, it will probably even include some online learning—on topics we choose together.
I hope to learn a few lessons, too. A lot of the time, managing kids takes precedence over enjoying them. You can’t not feed them. Bathe them. House them. A lot of the day-to-day drudgery of parenting is fighting with them about brushing their teeth and going to bed and eating that one bite of mashed potatoes. You don’t get to play or have fun, because your time with them is so limited. So I look forward to, now, getting to be childish with my children. I want to get sweaty playing silly games in the backyard. I want to enjoy reading together for fun instead of for homework. I want them to laugh at how bad I am at Twister. I want to teach my five-year-old to ride his bike without training wheels. I want my oldest to teach me how to play Fortnite.
I’m not sure how we’ll grade ourselves on the ad hoc curriculum we’ll create over the next few weeks. There’s not really a standardized test for playing Candy Land, or building cardboard forts, or being kind and patient with your family members. And I don’t know how we’ll handle the stress we’re all dealing with. How do I relay the gravity of this situation to my kids without terrifying them? And how do I reassure them that, even if they don’t attend virtual classes, they’re still learning. In fact, they might be learning something more important than whatever was on their teachers’ syllabi.
If their school wants to email me some online resources to help with all that, I’ll happily use them.