These painstakingly evolved, real-world physical and chemical processes are what enable and reinforce our social connection and coherence, and form the foundations for the societies that we eventually built.
Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human
An open letter to my children.
The semester was rolling along just as others frequently do. In my house we were focused on identifying exactly when my spring break was on the calendar, and whether it would align with the calendars of my two children. For the most part, the daily cadence of life settled into the rut that we all feel as the holiday season ends, and we all patiently wait for the weather to improve. We regrettably did not pay attention to the incoming global pandemic that would impact all of our lives.
Talk of the Coronavirus began near the end of February as we started to see more reports from the news, and the pandemic started to sweep across Europe. Colleagues of mine shared how fearful they were as they saw the virus close down Italy. It was at that point I started to suggest to my Wife that we needed to load up the house with supplies in case things closed down. We’ve prepared for, and survived hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and other natural disasters. We believed that preparing for this would be just like preparing for one of those events. We didn’t understand that in those events, you have the opportunity to leave and shelter with others. In this, you’re mostly on your own.
Our last taste of real social connection came on Saturday, March 14th. We had a house party to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and my Wife’s birthday. There was the usual amount of gallows humor as we would joke about COVID-19, or whether it was appropriate to eat food that others brought. We didn’t realize that in that moment, we were spending some of the last moments many of us would have together before things changed drastically. Developing the last memories we’d have of life before social distancing.
For my children, this was a tricky transition. My Wife and I tried to explain why they wouldn’t go back to school for a week. At first they celebrated a week off, but then the reality of schooling at home took hold. Teachers in early childhood tried to hold small group centers using Zoom calls. Elementary teachers cobbled together Google Slides with YouTube clips and Chromebooks to connect with students. The first week led to the second week when the news came out that students would remain in distance learning for the foreseeable future. My son cried when he was told that he most likely would not go back to school to see friends or his teacher. My daughter thought that she was the only one being asked to stay away from school. It can be a challenge to consider how to explain the Coronavirus to the very young. I also acknowledge the privilege that we have to socially distance. Many others do not.
My children were much like other kids in that they were having to adjust to new schedules and the trauma they were feeling. This was intensified by the anxiety that was radiated on them from the adults in their lives. Whether it was teachers, parents, or family members…we were all trying to figure out what would come next.
As the academic year wrapped up, we were trying to figure out how to make social distancing work. This was in the context of other family and friends that were not social distancing, and not wearing masks in public. We would regularly get phone calls from family or friends that would want to stop by and “let the kids play.” As a family, we would need to have discussions about whether it was safe or smart to attend the birthday party of a neighbor. We tried to figure out what was the best way to thankfully, tactfully say… “No, it’s not you, it’s us. We’re socially distancing.”
As the news reports, and leaders on the national and local stage tried to indicate that there was nothing wrong, and that this would go away like a miracle, we would look at the numbers. We would listen to friends from overseas. We listened to our friends and family in healthcare. Very early on, we decided that we would hold our children out of schools. This was before things started to shut down.
As we increasingly held our children out of school and play dates with friends, the anxiety in the house continuously ramped up. My daughter would frequently break down in the middle of the day crying that she “missed her friends” and “wanted to see her teachers.” There is no response to this.
In the summer months, we try to spend as much time at the pool or the beach. My daughter was getting very good at swimming, and we wanted to have multiple opportunities to get her out there and be physical. This also proved to be a challenge as pools and the beaches were (justifiably) closed. We bought a kiddie pool for the backyard to have some semblance of a break in the day. As the beaches and pools opened up, we checked in again with our friends in healthcare. As long as we stayed physically distant, and outdoors, we should be fine. This meant regulations about now chairs, coolers, or tents at the beach. At this pool this meant glaring at other kids who would get too close to my kids at the pool…and then going home when it got too busy.
Deep in the doldrums of the summer we needed to make hard decisions about what to do with the fall. I was scheduled to hold my classes mostly online, but have face-to-face meetings one hour per week, per class. I filed an appeal with my institution to be able to move these meetings online as students began emailing me with requests to solely meet online.
With our children, this was also an important upcoming year. Our son is entering fifth grade and we needed him to have a power year as he prepared for middle school. We wanted him to do well, but we were also concerned about bullying and students that might choose to not wear masks or social distance.
My daughter was entering kindergarten and (as a middle grades & high school teacher I can say) this is one of the most important years she’ll have. We invested a lot of time and money in early childhood education. Now that she was moving on the K, we we wanted to make sure this was a success. Most of all, we wanted her to be able to play, explore, and learn with others.
My Wife lost her job as things starting closing up and the economy went south. She filed for unemployment but was rejected multiple times as the systems are not set up for a COVID outbreak. This added extra strain on the family, but gave us the blessing of her being around to help teach classes and keep the family balanced. She also served as the main point of contact for all activities outside of the house. For months she was the only one to head out and get groceries or medicine. Everything else…everyone else stayed home and only connected virtually.
As we moved from spring to summer, there was word that all summer classes would be held online. If you listened closely enough, you could hear the low murmur of questions about whether or not the Fall semester would also be impacted. Little did I know that my life, and most of our lives would soon solely exist in Zoom.
As we moved to the fall, uncertainty grew about whether or not we would return to any sense of normalcy. The local debate focused more on whether or not people should be able to go to bars and gyms and less on how to prepare to allow students to return to K-12 and higher ed. The common refrain from leaders seemed to be that children were somehow safe from this global pandemic.
Schools began to open and offered parents a challenging decision to make. Parents were given the option to have their children attend class virtually. In our family this looks like my Kindergartner signing in three times a day for 20 minute Zoom calls for reading, math, and physical education. On the other side of the dining room table, my son is sitting in day long Zoom meetings on a variety of subjects…including physical education.
This distancing of physical connections with people outside of our immediate family unit has given us time to connect and bond with each other. They spend a lot of time playing Legos, Barbies, and video games together. They also have their fights every 1.45 days and go to their rooms to be away from each other. As a parent, and an educator, it is exciting to see my daughter learn to read. It is exciting to talk to my son about writing, and identify new books and areas he’d like to investigate. I also try to spend time cooking, playing, and making with my children to expand their interests.
As I watch my children regularly tune in to virtually connect with others, I wonder what they are missing. I wonder about this lost year of their lives when they’ll have missed connections as they can choose to tune in or out as they see fit. Already I can see my children’s eyes glaze over when they are connected into the video conference and need to pay attention.
I wonder about the connections that are normally made in the classroom outside of the content that my children will miss. How the teacher noticed that one day when our daughter stood up to the class bully. Or when my son decided to risk it all and tried out for the lead in the holiday musical. Those times that are show us (the parents) that we’re hopefully doing the right things necessary to raise a good human being.
But that is no longer what my children have become. They’ve become a stat. They are two of the 65% of students attending school virtually this fall. They are a link and a secret invite code to a Google Meet call. They are a white board full of intersecting and conflicting schedules. They are a series of pending assignments waiting on a Chromebook.
I wonder what happens when humans no longer have bodies. What happens when they can turn on and off connections with others. What happens when they can choose to turn on or off their video camera. What happens when it is expected that they show up on time, look like they’re taking school seriously. What happens when they’re expected to mute their mics, and skillfully…only when needed….un-mute to respond at the appropriate moments.
Ultimately we’re in the middle of the story. We’ll need to wait until the coda to see the full impact of these times. As parents, we continue to press on and hopefully make the best decisions for our children, and not let them forget who they are…or could be.