School is Cool (but Distance Learning Sucks)


    This isn't necessarily stupid (though it is, a little), just wrong...  I'm positively tired of talking and thinking about it as I said all I had to say long before the Distance Learning Experiment was first implemented last August, so consider this a recap and a conclusion.

    Every two months or so since the beginning of the school year some bureaucrat -- whose name I'd absolutely love to learn -- decides that we should reopen schools, and calamity promptly ensues.  I am willing to bet money that this person is also a Frump supporter, or at least a republican, because who else would insist so off-hand on sacrificing even more lives to the pandemic other than someone who's either too dumb to understand reality, or privileged enough to not care.  

    Whatever the case, the same hysteria surrounds the discussions about reopening every single time.  The school district sends out an email using the most vague and general language possible to say absolutely nothing.  The lack of factual information is paired with obscure reasoning as of why we should even think about going back to school in person, particularly now that the new cases and deaths are at an all time high and rising.  As I'm typing this, almost 23 million Americans have gotten sick, more than million and a half in the past week alone, and nearly 400 thousand are dead.  

    In Monterey County we've had about 35 thousand cases; the 0-17 age group accounts for over 12 percent of those cases, and never mind what is said about the little ones being more resilient to the virus.  The numbers are loud and clear, even to someone like myself who is "mathematically dyslexic"-- a total of 45 percent of the people infected are young, and it's no surprise that the majority of all cases are among the Hispanic and Latino community.  Locally, we are still very much in the purple zone, the hospitals are operating over capacity, and the Shelter in Place order is firmly in place.

People are not okay.  But go ahead, open the schools... 

    Logic is a scarce resource in a post-truth world, and Covid aside (if that's ever possible), there's never a mention in these emails about any of the other issues plaguing the area.  When the wildfires devastated more than 50 homes here in Carmel Valley we came together to help in any way we could, yet I never read anything from the school board/district about how they would alleviate the burden of those who were affected.  A bit of reassurance that no one will be left to fall through the cracks?  Displaced families could use a leeway  -- it's common sense, really -- to focus on getting back on their feet first, and worry about everything else, including school, second.  

    Graciousness, however, is not what the public school system is known for.  In fact, it looks like the entire government administration is in a state of disarray, more so now than ever, and The Greater Good is not a priority (if it has ever been one).  The state is scrambling with damage control, and like many things about this pandemic, it is always one step behind the events.  If only people would stay put and follow health guidelines while waiting the whole thing out, but no.  They pushed for end of lockdown too soon, and demanded to dine out and shop and travel; by the end of last summer it was clear that there will be no flattening of any curve whatsoever and come the winter holidays the spike went off the charts.  

    Given that California is such a large state, both in size and population, it's safe to say that coordination between different cities and counties was chaotic at best.  Orders and policies varied in effectiveness, despite the general presumption that California is liberal hence trusting in science, and so we still ended up with ICU's working at and over capacity, a shortage of hospital beds, and overwhelmed testing sites.  Now, there's the issue with vaccine distribution as well.  This, understandably,  keeps the focus--and the resources--away from the subject of education, and every school district is effectively left to make its own decisions with only state public health officials' and Governor Newsom's orders for a guideline. 

    With the economy still months from any chance of a recovery, K-shaped or otherwise, local families struggle with loss of employment; mom-and-pop business is virtually killed off, restaurants and wine-tasting rooms--a main Carmel Valley industry--are closed, and of course those who work in essential services are facing increased risk of infection because they simply have to show up in person.  

    All the talk about "nurturing minds" and "broadening of horizons", about Bobcat spirit and community strength is good and well, but it isn't helping parents who can't afford to stop working so they can support their children through Distance Learning, is it?  Parents who can't work remotely, who lack the means to hire help, for whom joining a pod isn't a feasible option, and for single parents of multiple children in particular Distance Learning is hardly a sustainable option.  Heck, even wealthy, professional, two-parent families who have privilege struggle. 

    In order for this model to work, the necessity for parental involvement is enormous--and this includes affinity for, and expertise in, teaching on top of being time-consuming and emotionally draining.  Kids do not listen to their parents the way they listen to their teachers and, quite honestly, the way DL is currently set up resembles homeschooling more than it does anything else.  Homeschooling, I dare say, is a nightmare and I have neither been cut out for it nor have any desire to even attempt it.  

    And then there's politics.  Not only systemic racism is very much a thing (just because we voted a wannabe-dictator out doesn't mean that all injustice ended with 2020) but now white supremacy is so mainstream that it attempted a coup against the very heart of American democracy. The fact that BIPOC are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, by the failing economy, and by the political climate was never taken into consideration when Distance Learning was being designed.  The emotional and psychological burden alone is so great in minority communities that the very suggestion of treating school like "business as usual" is preposterous and insulting.

    It's an impossible conundrum every way you look at it.  Distance Learning was designed to be the only alternative to regular learning in the overly-complex situation we are in, made possible by utilizing technology and necessitated by the law: school is not optional.  Even to consider a null school year would mean admitting that things are bad.  And yet, carrying on requires adaptation and flexibility.  Working from home, studying from home, doing everything (or most things) in quarantine is possible, but different.  

    Somehow, the CUSD doesn't seem to have gotten the memo... or is having trouble with the concept of the word "different" because, in my humble opinion, it has failed to acknowledge major challenges families and parents struggle with, which is in turn crucial to the very success of the DL model.  The inconvenient truth is that, in its current form, this model is fundamentally flawed.  

    Here's a plot twist: DL is still the only safe and realistic option.  

    It would literally be fatal to reopen anytime before there's a decrease in cases and a widely available vaccine.

    But that one person (or a small group of local people) continues to insist!  Every month or so, like clockwork.  That damn email appears in my inbox and I want to high-five whoever wrote it, in the face, with a chair.  How more absurd local politics can get?!  Let's see: 

    More people are dead now than they were when the schools were first closed.

    There was a survey sent out, TWICE, which we filled out both times saying that we do want to go back in person--when it is safe.  If I remember correctly, about 70 or more percent of parents answered the same way.  The results were disclosed one day, and the next it was announced that the board is going ahead with the Hybrid scheme anyway.  

    Forget why or wth is wrong with you people why now.  The real question is how.  I dare you to try and get an answer from the principal, the school board or the district.  NOBODY KNOWS.  They want to reopen, but they can't guarantee anyone's safety, explain the workings of the model in detail, or even promise that the children will keep their teachers.  So, we take DL and throw it in the trash, along with the relative consistency so much needed by our kids, and all the work done by kids and teachers alike to create rapport and build relationships goes out the window.  

    DL might have been an experiment, but Hybrid is a complete and total pipe dream that hasn't been attempted before, let alone thought through.  

  In theory, the idea for reopening (or going Hybrid) is supposed to appeal to disadvantaged groups: schools traditionally provide childcare as well as lunches and educational supplies, and that is a resource worth signing a waiver for.  In reality it would be like signing a blank check... We are all desperate for normalcy, and we need help.  Most working parents truly don't have a choice.  Should the schools reopen, they will send their kids back, safe or not.  That doesn't sit right with me.  It's morally ambiguous and possibly illegal.  

    So, what's the solution?  I called it before, and I will say it again.  Reopening is a moot point, and discussing it is a waste of time and energy.  It just won't happen.

    DL is imperfect and in dire need of revision in order to meet the needs of the majority of families, and to make it possible for parents, children and teachers to navigate without burning out, dropping out, or failing entirely, which would cause the entire system to collapse.

    The main issue with DL right now is that it is geared towards a very small group: the privileged and wealthy.  The expectation is that children would perform to a standard, but the standard doesn't account for time, effort, and resources necessary to achieve the same results as during "normal" times.  The impracticability is infuriating, being so tone-deaf and out of touch with the real world...  

    Only parents who can afford to stay home (or work from home) can also supervise their children, ensure they log in their classes, complete their assignments, and submit them on time.  

    People who don’t have savings, own a home, or have the means to hire help are screwed. They have to choose between their jobs, their kids’ education, and their mental health, which suffers immensely while trying to do it all. The model has to be revised to include those factors: at this point we need to prioritize emotional well-being (and mere survival for some) over academic achievement or meeting artificial bureaucratic standards.

    The state puts pressure on the school district to keep operating.  The school district pressures the board to make decisions that would ensure state funding.  The board's agenda is to make the school staff implement those decisions.  The principal is under pressure to remain politically diplomatic while also looking out for the teachers.  The teachers are underpaid and overworked, and stressed out of their minds because they are having to learn how to teach from scratch, all the while looking out for the children.  The parents are burned out, balancing work and family, and now also that new role of amateur teachers.  The children absolutely HATE Distance Learning. 

    The whole thing is a disaster.  Because that's what this is: fake school.  It's an exercise in futility.  It works for some.  For the rest it's exhausting, and to say that the quality of education is questionable would be an understatement. 

    Until we decide to admit that school during a pandemic is nothing more than "maintaining the habit", and until we come up with more realistic and adequate performance expectations that would allow everyone a room to breathe without feeling that they are falling behind, DL will remain a charade.

    I started writing this weeks ago.  Since then I had the opportunity to get over the whole thing.  We had a fantastic winter break and I am proud to say that 2021 is off to a much better start with much less stress.  I decided that I’m done pandering to the interests of an institution, because my priority is, and always will be glass sharp: my kids and their happiness.  It took putting my foot down and drawing boundaries--an unpleasant but paramount step towards sustainability.  Basically I had to tell the school off.  

    It worked so far, I just wish that we could draw these boundaries collectively, and save other parents the trouble of needing therapy to get through first grade...    

    Speaking of therapy...

    I'm okay now, but the school issue really threw me for a loop.  It brought back lots of past trauma.  

    I’ve always had a complex for not doing well academically, or in an environment with rules, behavioral expectations, and deadlines, and until very recently I contributed this to my own lack of skills.  I thought that my aversion to anything that had to do with “the system” stemmed from my distrust in authority, and from the fact that I “didn’t fit” because I’m wired differently—I don’t like to be told what to do, and I insist on doing things my way.  School is one of those systems of rules and authority with which I’ve always had a problematic relationship... Turns out, that wasn't entirely my fault.  I'm neuro-divergent, but that's a different story.  

    This one is about nurture rather than nature, and about another political and social crisis.

    I learned to read and write before I started first grade, and not only I performed well at school, but also enjoyed it. I was never naturally good at math, and I struggled with science, but I was gifted in the liberal arts.  My parents were working class intellectuals, and my father in particular was strict about the responsibilities of learning, so I was raised to respect authority and do my work.  I can see in retrospect that I clearly had attention deficit back then that was never addressed (this was Eastern Europe in the 80’s) but overall I had a generally happy time in school.  My positive experience ended very suddenly in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and my country descended into a deep political and social crisis. 

    The effects of the systemic change translated into a collapse of every institution, and resulted in total chaos.  My parents were busy surviving and keeping the family afloat.  School became difficult to navigate because I was a pre-teen, distracted by the events, unable to find support and confidence in the adults around me, and the quality of education considerably deteriorated, which made me question it and wonder what was the point of even trying to learn. 

    You have to understand that everything we knew to be a fact of life until then was completely erased in one fell swoop when Bulgaria transitioned from Communism to Democracy.  In the isolated and controlled environment of the old regime, as artificial and corrupt as it was, unemployment didn’t exist, and it was understood that everyone would get a free education that guaranteed work after graduation.  But since the political and economic—not to mention cultural—transition proved to be difficult and complex beyond anyone’s expectations, it didn’t happen fast and it certainly didn’t go smoothly.  For my generation there was suddenly no future.  

    Daily life was uncertain, crime was rampant and, going into my teen years, school became increasingly unimportant.  I became rebellious and reactive, and I neglected school in my attempt to seek other ways to make it in this strange new world—to find things that brought me joy and excitement while everything around me was grim. 

    I continued to study English, but mostly from books and films, and I was eager to gain life experience instead of academic knowledge.  I did excellently in language and literature, and in history and art, but I basically failed all else.  I could see that the school institution was disconnected from the individual needs of children—I had a very typical 90’s attitude of angst and cynicism, anti-establishment and non-conformity.  So when I graduated high school in ‘98, I went on to party and do crazy shit, eager to grow up and prove the whole world wrong... 

    Of course, life caught up to me, and eventually I had to settle down and start working, but I kept holding a grudge.  I felt that the school system had failed me, because it didn’t factor any of my needs, because it didn’t reward me for my strengths, only punished me for my weaknesses. 

    I knew I was denied an opportunity to grow and learn, partially due to the circumstances, but also thanks to my extreme aversion to those circumstances.  I had come to hate school, but I instinctively understood the value of education, so I felt upset at the disadvantage of my situation: I was in my early twenties and I had dreams and ambitions, but I didn’t have a degree or experience in how to navigate in an academic environment. 

    It is infuriating to be emancipated but to lack the tools for your own empowerment. 

    And when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it.  I was 26 when I finally went to college, and I studied exactly what I wanted to learn and become better at.  I wasn’t a prodigy, but I did well, and I was proud of myself. 

    Only when I reached certain age, and gained maturity, I started to see the bigger picture, and was able to understand the dynamic of my relationship with school, authority, and learning.  Life forced me to adapt, and to seek ways of fitting in the system without compromising the integrity of my individuality, for the benefit of my own success.  You have to know the rules in order to break them most effectively.

    I can finally differentiate between the concepts of knowledge and enlightenment, the value of education, and the very pragmatic side of functioning within the school system, earning grades, and getting a degree.  It’s a tricky balance: a diploma doesn’t guarantee better opportunities or success, but the lack of it is often a disadvantage.  Even now, in our Information Age, we can literally learn everything with the help of only our curiosity and access to the internet, and we can turn our talents into a lucrative business just by having an online platform where to practice and showcase it... yet in so many spheres of life empirical skills are still not enough, and employers continue to require that piece of paper as a proof of your worth. 

    So, as critical as I am toward the American education system—the cost of college alone is discouraging, and there’s so much inequity in public schools—I know that going to school, doing well, and earning a degree is something I would want for my children. 

    But I also want them to have a good learning experience

    There’s much more to school and college than classes and grades and tests; it’s the social element that’s valuable, and the chance to discover things they want to explore further.  I don't want my kids to distrust or hate school.  But I don't want to force them into it, either.

    Most importantly, I’d rather have a close, authentic, and strong bond with my children than push them to study and require too much of them, only because I want them to “succeed” in life.  My love for them is not conditioned upon their grades.  

    I’ll always cheer for them and validate their success, but I refuse to punish them for having a hard time. 

    This is definitely a hard time. 

    Having school age children has helped me realize what I couldn’t when I was a kid myself—the entire and only point of school is to get as much as you can out of it while doing your best to stay out of trouble, and to keep your eyes on the prize: get through it and move on. 

    The way things unfolded in my childhood made it impossible to think of school that way, and I had such difficulty coping.  Instead of knowledge and experience, I got stress and insecurity, and I will do anything to avoid it happening to my kids.

    Things are very different for them, because they are different people, and of course school in America now is much more advanced than it was in Bulgaria in the 80’s and 90’s, but with the pandemic and Distance Learning we’ve been struggling.  

    The gravity of the pandemic is not lost on the boys. They are constantly growing, and their emotional development sure is affected by this gargantuan change.  Routine and security are all but gone.  My kids are lucky to have all the support and encouragement they need, not to mention the privilege to never lack anything material, and still they were upset, unsettled, and "falling behind"... Screen fatigue is real.  Social isolation is real.  Kids can sense that we are tired, and they get tired too.  They can’t connect to their teachers over Zoom as they’d do in person.  They are denied enrichment and extra curriculum activities, field trips, and learning tools only a classroom could provide.  It is simply not feasible to expect them to "go to school" and learn as usual.  

    The pressure was too much, and I am glad I took time to figure out how to relieve it. 

    The sense that we are failing our kids because they are "falling behind" is a fallacy.

    It's okay not to be okay.  

    And it's fine to let go if that's what it takes to get better. 


Greatest Hits