Cartoonists have acerbic pens. They get to the core of an idea or action. Stories fill in the blanks that cartoonists leave out. In the New York Times, kindergarten teacher Rachel Miller in Georgetown, Massachusetts described teaching her class from home.
Last week, I ran my first virtual small-group kindergarten class. We read a book, practiced our letters and sounds, and did some math; all this to the tune of a dying, chirping fire detector, the clanging of dishes being put away, a dog barking and radio silence from the child whose audio wasn’t working. One student would disappear and return carrying her cat, then lie down on the couch, while another wriggled and squirmed, clearly uncomfortable in his too-big chair.
It was every bit as awkward and wonderful as I’d imagined. Not only did I see my kids, but I saw my kids in one of the most authentic ways possible: at home, in their space, with their families (and pets). Don’t get me wrong. Virtual teaching and learning is less than ideal. But I’m beginning to get a glimpse into the lives of my students outside of school in a way that has never been possible. Also, they saw my dog walk by in the background, and it dawned on them that teachers have houses and families, too.
In public schools across the United States, we rush and race to get through content to prepare students for a standardized test. All of it feels (dare I say, is) inauthentic and procedural, but on that Thursday, as I sat in my kitchen with three of my kindergartners, in all of its awkwardness and discomfort, all I felt was gratitude. I saw their smiling faces and knew that they were OK.
“I have done exactly zero writing,” said Kim Yi Dionne, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. That doesn’t mean Dionne hasn’t been working in the last few weeks, however. She’s been transitioning her courses to remote formats and helping more senior colleagues do the same. How do you lecture via Zoom, they’ve asked her. How do you schedule office hours on Google Calendar?
As a scholar of public health, Dionne had the mental jump on many of her peers: she foresaw campus shutdowns weeks ahead of time and began to prepare. She was lecturing online and telling students not to attend class in person if they felt uncomfortable doing so, or ill, before it became official policy. Dionne also gave her graduate teaching assistants clear guidance on how to adapt their winter quarter grading, for their benefit as much as undergraduates’. Don’t sweat the details, she told her TAs. Focus on whether each student demonstrated learning, tried but didn’t quite get it and so on.
Dionne is also thinking about research projects — including those inspired by the present public health crisis.
But mostly, she said, “I’ve been trying to triage and think what responsibilities do I need to bow out of in order to make the next couple of months work.”
Dionne is convinced her own children, ages 7 and 12, will be out of school until the end the academic year. In the meantime, she is managing their homeschooling — no easy feat with two children who are several grades apart.
Dionne’s partner is also working from home and contributes; he does most of the after-school stuff and cooks dinner during the week.
The pandemic also coincided with Dionne earning tenure, so there’s less pressure on her to publish — for now.
Still, Dionne and others have noted that COVID-19 disruptions will disproportionately affect the careers of female academics given that women, on average, take on more household and child-rearing duties than men. And women already face bias in personnel decisions, especially in certain fields.
Such descriptions of the major shift from face-to-face teaching to distance learning are common in mainstream and social media in these strange days. What happens when schooling resumes during the summer and fall, few experts can say with any certainty. Don’t blame them, however,
Medical experts are in the same boat when it comes to knowing for sure all of the features of the actual coronavirus and its hit-and-miss effects across the world and within countries. Count the paradoxical outcomes thus far. Some tropical countries are spared, others have spikes in cases and deaths; developed countries with national health care systems the envy of the world get hit hard, others do not. Densely populated cities suffer enormous casualties while others escape with far less illness and fatalities.
Why the differences? Geography? Culture? Demography? Luck? No one in authority or any expert can say with confidence. Which means that opening businesses, schools, and “normal” activities is a roll of the dice. So why should teachers be any different in figuring out what to do while schools are closed and when they will re-open?