Virtually Decided

Today we pushed the button to transfer Zack from ‘regular’ school to online school. Yes, it is considered a transfer and, yes, theoretically it means that he is no longer a student at Hanover High but now a student of Hanover County’s online school. We went in circles for weeks on what the best choice was/is – including using our crystal ball to predict what the pandemic would look like in a month, two months, three months, etc. The crystal ball, of course, is the extent of my both my medical knowledge and my ability to form an opinion on what it’s like to be a teacher in these weird times. What I don’t need a crystal ball for is to predict each day’s round of ‘let’s all turn on each other/the medical community/school districts.’

I’m not a teacher – but I play on on tv. No, that’s not it. I’m not a teacher – but here’s my guess. Teachers want to teach. No, wait. Teachers want to teach safely. Not quite yet. Teachers want to teach in an environment where they can continue loving and committing to their students. Closer. Oh! I got it. Teachers want to go back and have a normal school year, sans pandemics, sans masks, sans social distancing, sans parents with a new reason to question whether they are doing it right. Did I mention that I’m not a teacher? I’m not. But I too would like to go back and have a normal year, sans pandemics, sans masks, sans social distancing, sans parents with a new reason to question whether I’m doing it right. And, hello – the district as a whole would like that too!

Where were all these super parents were when things were going right? I know they weren’t at Zack’s schools – because I was (Queen of the Copier, six years running; World’s Okayest Hall Monitor 2016-2020). There’s always been a shortage of complements for the teachers or the district (no news is good news?) yet there seems to be a wealth of rage now that somebody inadvertently opened the complaint funnel by being tricked into that whole pandemic thing. I’ve no doubt the same scenario is hitting school districts across America. Are we really that naive, parents, to believe that the districts don’t want the kids back in school? Surely, we don’t think administrators are in a back room rubbing their hands together ‘bwa ah ah…(evil grin)…what if we…yes!…offered virtual learning?’ Actually that’s not true – there are some schools doing exactly that…University of Phoenix, for example, or Bryant & Stratton or Connections…or all the schools that are actually online schools. You know who doesn’t want to juggle both online and face-to-face learning? Every ‘normal’ school district in America.

In our house, we’ve basically gone to a ‘need to know’ communication method on our scholastic discussions and decisions. The level of volatile opinions is actually pretty perplexing to me – especially those being shared by people that don’t actually have children currently in school (at all) or children in our school district. I’ve been rolling a mantra through my head over and over and over – don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. It is hard not to go straight to malice when being aggressively lectured on why our decision doesn’t make sense. But, in order to preserve my faith in humanity, I just look around and see if I recognize any of these people as members of my actual household – where they witnessed what months and months of total confusion and stress overload does to a kid. Or a parent, for that matter.

I thought a safe pool to pull thoughts from was other parents with kids in our district. Yes and no. I’d say we’re about fifty-fifty in being supportive of the difficult decision we’re all making versus being a bit icky to one another for making different choices. I’m not talking about the ones who have been a supportive sounding board – giving us reasonable thoughts while praising the good lawd that they aren’t in our shoes. Hashtag blessed. I’m talking about the ones who don’t actually have a dog in the fight, skin in the game, etc.. who seem to be personally offended that we have been forced into making these decisions. Yes, it would be a super easy decision (face-to-face, all day long, all year long) if I, too, had zero skin in the game. Hashtag bless your heart.

Zack will be doing online school for the foreseeable future – at least until the second half of the school year as that what Hanover has asked us to do. The administrators sat in a room or on a zoom or wherever, likely several times, going over the options for a school district that covers an incredibly wide berth in accessibility and income. They likely went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – knowing each time they made a decision that seemed good for some, it was terrible for others. And if they did the reverse, those numbers would have reversed again. There isn’t an educational decider in the country with a chance at making a decision that will sit well with everyone. Imagine how much fun that must be. Summer 2019: Let’s vote on whether to have tater tots or steak fries! Summer 2020: Let’s vote on how we can get the least amount of hate mail!

We ended up with two choices – Face-to-Face learning for 18 weeks or Online Learning for 18 weeks. We also also went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Is this all a hoax? Are we all being fooled by the Republicans? The Democrats? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? I mean, I guess I could tell that to my friend who just lost his father to Covid – but I feel like that’s kind of rude. And I don’t feel roped into anything – I just feel like we’re in the middle of a really, really inconsistent pandemic and we’re trying to make our bubble as safe as we can. As I’ve said before – if it’s overkill, who cares? But if we underestimate, the hindsight will suck. Our bubble isn’t limited to whatever spray emits from a speaker’s mouth nor how far it carries. Our bubble isn’t only about masks and sanitizer and washing your dang hands. Our bubble includes parents with underlying health conditions (yes, I know, the regular flu could kill them – guess what, I don’t go visit them when I have that, either). Our bubble includes a husband who takes an immuno-suppressant to give his joints some extra zest while dealing with some-really-long-word-form-of-arthritis (yes, I know the regular flu could kill him – which is why we are first in line for flu shots and why we don’t let him wipe his face with our dirty handkerchiefs). But really, the most important person in our educational decision bubble is Zack. The child. The one who could probably worry the least about catching something.

But the sudden end to his 8th grade year, subsequent virtual finish and a bored summer with hardly any pool time, cancelled camps, and limited activities has taken its toll on him. He is not the same – the upheaval and the stress and the not knowing has worn him down. He wears it on his sleeve for everyone to see. Well, except for him – he still believes this is the single greatest thing to ever happen which dreams of unlimited gaming time (nope), days in pajama pants (sorry), and endless showers (not even going to ask). But all those around him, well, we know it’s not the greatest thing ever. And we know we’ve got to stop the bleeding.

We really planned on enrolling in Face-to-Face Learning. Sold! Go back! See your friends! Start high school (ack!) in the building! But then little gnats kept flying into the picture. Oh? The kids will be limited in their movement (yes, that makes sense…keep the kid germs in one place…but Zack is a mover…fidgety even). Oh? They’ll have to wear masks all day (yes, that makes sense…defray the spray…but how uncomfortable is that…and when did I start caring about my kid’s comfort?). Oh? No cafeteria lunches – they’ll be brought to the classes and left outside the door (yes, that makes sense, …but isn’t lunch where all the socializing happens? Does this sound a little confining?). But really, none of that bothered us very much. Small gnats. Kids are resilient, like squids, adaptive of their environment. The gnat that kept buzzing, though, was the one with the big question mark above its head – how long would these kids actually remain in a Face-to-Face environment? And the answer that kept popping up from the mom-gut was not very long.

Were we really going to send him back into the same environment we left back in March? The one where there’s whispers of we might close down soon constantly hanging over his head? Everyday, dropping him off (no bus service this year) and watching him walk to the doors while thinking I hope this isn’t an unscheduled last day of school. As my doctor degree has yet to arrive – I would say my opinion on another shut down is not weighted with any valid reasons, and therefore, I put the chances of it at a solid 50/50. Might happen. Might not. Might. Nobody knows.

Like, actually, nobody.

And so, here we are, printing t-shirts for HCPS Online School. Where we know, without a shadow of a doubt, Zack will study for the next 18 weeks. No question of a shut down, no question of a transition back to virtual learning, no question of early morning phone calls saying that school will be delayed or closed or fumigated. Zack just knows where he’ll here be until after Christmas – good-bye wondering, good-bye (some of the) stress, hello new adventure. We have created a pod with two of his friends – they will rotate houses – giving them the socialization they’ve been missing and giving us an opportunity (we think) to supplement their learning with creative projects and outings that will likely be met with normal-teenage-eye-rolls. Hooray for normal!

Will this be a germ free environment? Doubtful. They are still boys. Will it be a Covid-Free Guarantee? Nope. Hell, we haven’t even nailed down where they will be sitting, what we’ll serve for snacks and lunches or handed out the parental roles of Attendance, Guidance Counselor, School Nutrition, School Nurse, or Technology Office. Maybe once we get those doled out we’ll work into how many hand washings a day is acceptable, what sort of outings meet our masked needs and our ‘hey, one of these kids has a fever’ game plan. After all the ups and downs of the BIG decision – these all seem a bit like small potatoes. And, yes, I’m 99% sure we would have had a different decision if we were among the many with elementary age kids – we understand that this is an option for us because we have a high schooler and because we are a two-work-from-home-parent family.

Still questioning our decision? Wait until next week, when I tell you the story of how we dropped our college freshman off into ground zero of the Richmond protests.

But really, we may look back in a few weeks and realize we made a huge mistake. If so, all I ask from you is kindness. And if not for us, than for those around you living in the same 2020 sitcom. This is not easy. We all need to lean in – and we need to do it with each other, not against. One thing none of us expected when Covid started 968 months ago, I think, is that at this point, we’d all be turning on each other. So let’s not. And while we’re at it – maybe also don’t turn on our educators and administrators. They’ve gotten our children this far (and maybe they’ve gotten yours out and into the real world). Maybe just give them a break as well.

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