Well, distance learning may work for some families, but from everyone I’ve talked to distance learning simply doesn’t work. Our family is no exception.
Editor’s Note: This article has a little less personal finance than usual in it. However, it is still present and it plays a fundamental role in my stress during this time.
If you are a new reader, here are my family’s basic dynamics:
- Kids – Two boys, ages six and seven, in kindergarten and first grade
- Mother – Virtually-deployed (at home) military pharmacist working 7 days, 12 hours a day weeks
- Dad – Me. Blogger. Silicon Valley tech support manager (part-time)
- Dog – Extra barky when not walked 2-3 times a day
I know there are difficult situations around the
country world. There are single parents. There are parents who have financial problems. (We’re okay in that department.) There are parents who are essential workers and have to put themselves in dangerous situations. (We were lucky that my wife can coordinate the COVID-19 response from home.) There are parents of kids with special needs. (We have one kid with borderline special needs. I hope we can find out more when doctors’ offices open again.)
It would be tone-deaf to compare us to any of the multitude of families who have any of these problems. On the other hand, it’s natural to compare your situation to other families’ situations. I’ve been doing that with some of the other parents in kids’ school and our family dynamic makes is one of the most difficult ones, I think. In the end though, it isn’t about such comparisons, it’s about how the situation works for you and your family. In a lot of ways, this article is a kvetching to get a lot of feelings out of my system. (I’m not sure I used kvetching correctly there, but I’m sticking with it.)
Distance Learning Problem: Two Curriculums
If you have 2, 3, or even 4 children, teaching multiple curricula is an impossible situation for a parent. We wouldn’t ask our best teachers to teach two or more curricula at the same time. The school recommends that they have their own learning space, so I’m running back and forth making print outs, checking workbooks, gathering special supplies, getting websites to work on PCs that won’t work on tablets (and vice versa), etc.
Two kids doing two distance learning curricula at the same time never syncs up. It’s a bad situation if one kid’s curriculum says to take a break and the other kid is still working. Usually when one kid takes a break the other demands a break. They spend most of their time on breaks. It’s hell fighting that inertia to get them back to work.
Distance Learning Problem: Two Young Children
If this came around 2 years ago and I had kids in pre-school and pre-kindergarten, I would likely teach them 100% myself. I had to do this for a month at a time here and there. I know all the best educational streaming shows for preschoolers. (Many people don’t like screen-time, but we talk about the shows and have activities afterward reinforcing the concepts. We did a lot of hands-on stuff too.) In any case, it’s different with kids who haven’t reached kindergarten. There’s not an expectation of academic learning at those ages.
I had great success homeschooling our kids during the start of COVID-19. Their school was on vacation and we had nowhere to go. I had to come up with some way to keep them busy. We had chess, Duolingo, some worksheets, science shows like Mythbusters Jr., and online learning such as Adventure Academy. These activities synced up well.
My kids are just starting to get good with tablets. They don’t know how to type well on a PC and a mouse or trackpad is just weird to them. Printing from a tablet simply doesn’t work. Using technology in this way is completely foreign to them. They are getting good, but everything has to go perfectly or there’s a high likelihood of meltdown.
I don’t know that parents of teenagers have it any better. There’s a whole lot more problems that can come into play as they get older. Let’s just say that I’m not rushing my kids into social media.
Distance Learning Problem: Boredom
I think everyone is fighting boredom nowadays. My kids have always found school boring. They get academics naturally. That’s their thing. The 7-year old in particular. He could have finished whole grammar and math workbooks in the first week of school.
Distance learning for us is taking something that is naturally boring (school), making it review (they already know it), and then putting it on a video screen. I believe the key to learning is intellectual curiosity. We are so very, very far away from that.
Distance Learning Problem: “Simply Opt Out” and “Money”
Whenever parents say that distance learning isn’t working for them, people on social media rush with two “solutions”:
- “Simply Opt Out of Distance Learning”
That’s the obvious solution, right? However, we have to do something. No one thinks that a day of video games is the answer, right? I can go back to my homeschooling plan that was working well, but the school is going to have a lot of questions. We already get warning emails from their French teacher if they forget to submit the form. They did the video, but didn’t know that they needed to submit the form.
Also, it costs $5,000 a month to send two children to our private school. We get a generous military discount (or our kids wouldn’t be there). Even with that discount, it is still a lot of money by almost any measure.
It’s hard to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year and then say, “Oh, we’ll just ignore it and flush that money down the toilet.” We paid this tremendous amount of money for a specific service and we are only getting a fraction of it. The school isn’t offering any money back. I understand that it is a tough situation for them, too. A huge percentage of that tuition goes to teacher salaries.
It seems like the best thing we can do is try to maximize the value of this resource we paid for. If we “opt out” of distance learning, we get zero value for our money and the teachers’ hard work.
- “Tell the teachers it’s too much work”
Sometimes it seems like the kids are getting too much work. There are days we start at 7:30AM and finish around 5PM. However, that’s not necessarily due to the amount of work assigned. The kids can fight for multiple breaks and then it takes awhile to get back to work.
Other times, the kids knock out the same amount of work before noon. Their mood (and productivity) during the coronavirus is like the rest of us: all over the place. The teachers can’t know the kids’ moods the next day when they are making their lessons.
I’ve found it’s rarely about the “amount of work”, but the type of work. If it’s “busywork” for my kids, the “extra bored” mood kicks in and it’s a failure for distance learning.
If the “work” is playing a game of chess or watching an episode of Mythbusters Jr., they can continue learning all day and all night.
Distance Learning Problem: The Wrong Environment
I make some money dog sitting and I’ve learned that dogs behave differently when they aren’t in their regular home. I’ve seen it in my own dog. He knows in my house that he shouldn’t jump his front paws up on the counters to look for food. In the first two minutes of doing a meet and greet at another house, he’s up there sniffing around.
Humans experience this as well. We have different rules for when we are on vacation than we do at home. We behave differently in the office than we do at home. Personally, I get a lot more work done at the library than I do at home.
Kids behave differently when they are at school when compared to the home. It’s hard to turn the mental switch on a 7-year old and say, “We are going to use our school brains now.” They have a history of home activities. This is the place they watch TV or play games on their tablets. This is their parents, not their teachers.
I’m not naïve enough to think that they behave like perfect students at school. I simply feel that the school environment is more conducive to learning.
Distance Learning Problem: Distance Learning itself
The majority of our distance learning consists of kids watching videos of the teachers and doing worksheets. The teachers have mentioned many times that they don’t get feedback on whether the kids are grasping the lesson or not. They simply send videos into the ether. I do my best to take pictures to document the work being done – mistakes and all. For the kids, it simply isn’t the same as learning the lesson in real time with their peers.
Some of the websites can help because teachers get reports on what the students are getting right and wrong.
Distance Learning Problem: Fighting for that Silver Lining
I spent a very, very long time trying to come up with any kind of silver lining to distance learning. I needed to feel like there’s something of value here. The closest I came is that distance learning allows for students to learn at their own pace. If a student learns faster, they can move on to the next thing. If a student needs more help, some extra review may be necessary.
The curriculum doesn’t have to match the general class speed. It can be fluid for each individual. If some whiz kid can blast through a grade of Khan Academy in a month, maybe he/she can move onto the next grade. One of our kids seems to be that kind of whiz kid.
It took our school a ton of work just to take the curriculum and move it online. They did it very quickly. I’m sure they would say that I should be happy we have what we have. It’s better than a lot of schools.
Unfortunately, I keep going back to what I could teach if only I had the power to adapt the curriculum. If I’m going to spend my time teaching, I should have a say on the curriculum and pace. A famous football coach, Bill Parcells, once said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” He was referring to the ability to draft his own players, but I think it works here.
For us, I think that distance learning can only work if teachers act like consultants proposing ideas and parents are the ones choosing what to implement. Of course, both parents and teachers have to work towards a common goal of preparing the children for the next grade.
Hopefully by fall, the kids will be back in school. (I’m not optimistic.) Failing that, I’d like to see some individualization take place. Maybe I can convince the school to have my kids do an “independent” study. However, once again, it’s hard to pay all this money simply to ignore the resource.
Final Thoughts: Why Distance Learning Doesn’t Work
Every family is different. Some families may have no problems with distance learning. However, I think almost everyone finds it extremely difficult. Our particular family and school situation makes for one of those difficult situations.
I honestly don’t know what to do about the fall. It doesn’t look like schools are going to open up. The CA State University System has announced it will be online. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that having a vaccine or treatments that would allow for schools to open up is “a bridge too far.”
We have to prepare for the most likely scenario that schools won’t open up in the fall. Do we voluntarily throw tens of thousands of dollars at something that we know doesn’t work? If we decide not to, we’ll lose the ability to send our kids to the best school for years. We’ve valued this school tremendously (when the campus was open).
There are no easy answers here. I don’t even see a clear way to make the best of a bad situation.
This is the biggest stress in my life… and it looks like I’m going to be stuck with it for at least the rest of the 2020.