Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
My daughter will be entering third grade in the fall. We live in a Northeast town where the virus ran rampant in the spring but numbers are lower now. We’ve been told school will probably open in person, but there will be some kind of online option for those who don’t want to attend. Like many, we’re not so comfortable with the risk, but we have a different problem than most—our daughter loved virtual school!
Somehow, Zoom seemed to bring out the best in her—she was engaged, independent, and was even more social with her classmates on virtual playdates than she had been in person. She is a very worried child in general, and particularly worried about the virus. We don’t think masks and distancing will be great for her anxiety. She has said she wishes school would stay virtual. But we also imagine she’d adjust to the new normal, and we feel silly keeping her home just because we’re worried she can’t handle it. None of our friends are considering keeping their kids home—and we understand things online were more challenging for them, so we get it. We’d like to think the school will be responsible about keeping kids safe. We don’t think online school is ideal if there are safe in-person options. But we also don’t want to take unnecessary risks, and we feel like her ability to thrive in the online environment makes the calculation different for us than for others. We’re not sure if we’re overthinking this—advice?
Dear Zoom Forever,
Keep her home.
First, in my inexpert opinion, schools—if they open—are going to close again. Look at the patterns. Areas that didn’t lock things down or reopened too soon have growing numbers of cases. And while your area may be through its first wave, many places are not. All it takes is one traveler from a hot spot to reignite yours, especially if your restrictions have loosened. Also, look at the private sector. Google, for example, recently extended its work-from-home plans until summer 2021. Why would they do that if they were expecting things to go back to normal soon?
Second, you said you’re “not so comfortable with the risk.” If you have the means, why take it?
Lastly, your daughter thrives in the online format. So, let her! You said you don’t think online school is ideal, but she was engaged, independent, and happy (not to mention safe) doing it in the spring—how is that not ideal? Are you worried you’re sheltering her from an environment she may have to face in the future? Because it’s possible she won’t. Lots of people do online school all the time. College (if she chooses) and a career are down the road quite a bit, but those too can be done online.
Maybe she’ll change her mind at some point and want to be with her peers in person, or you’ll decide it really is important that she have face-to-face interactions, but you can make that choice together … after the pandemic is over.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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Our rising fourth grader attends a public school that pivoted to distance “learning” in mid-March and never went back to in-person instruction. Our daughter has some learning disabilities, so she has a 504 plan with accommodations that seem to help her in the classroom environment, but are largely focused on that context (chunking assignments, frequent check-ins/redirection by teachers, etc.). Online/distance “learning” was a complete and unmitigated disaster. She hated the virtual live instruction and would tune out or do something else. She couldn’t stay focused on any of her assigned activities, all of which were online work, which meant that for her to get any work completed, my husband or I had to sit next to her, cajoling and redirecting her every five minutes. We are both working full time from home. Needless to say, this was an untenable situation.
We are now facing the very real possibility that school will be online again in the fall. I am filled with dread at the thought of having to spend three to four hours a day prodding my reluctant child through online lessons, especially when I’m not confident she is really retaining any information. If we are going to have to make that kind of time investment, I’d rather have control over how she is learning, i.e., just home-school her until in-person class resumes. I recognize that comes with downsides too—she would potentially be behind when rejoining school and electing to home-school would reduce the district’s headcount for funding purposes. But our family priority is to maintain everyone’s mental health during this stressful time, and trying to follow the school curriculum this spring almost put us over the edge. Is it possible that distance learning at the elementary school level will be better in the fall? Is there another solution I’m not thinking of?
—Trying to Stay Sane During Distance “Learning”
Dear Trying to Stay Sane,
As the parent of two children—a rising third grader and a rising seventh grader—I understand your pain. I spent the spring trying to teach 20 students online while simultaneously trying to keep my own children engaged in their learning. Our results were mixed at best.
But the good news is yes, I think that distance learning will be more effective in the fall. Remember that school districts were asked to launch distance learning a week or two after the lockdown, which amounted to building the airplane while it was already flying. Some school districts did better than others. Some teachers did better than others. And certainly, some students did better than others, and those variances will continue in the fall. But given the time to plan for distance learning and a better understanding of the tools available to teachers, I think that school districts will be far better prepared in September than we were in March.
But let me offer you a hybrid solution of sorts.
Why not keep your daughter enrolled in school, but take control of what she will learn, and when she will learn it. In other words, treat your school district’s learning plan as a buffet, where you can pick and choose what you think is appropriate for your daughter and supplement with whatever you know will engage her at home.
This would be more difficult if your daughter was in high school or even middle school, where the grades she earns can dictate important aspects of her academic future, but as an elementary school student, her grades are fairly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, so if your daughter doesn’t learn about the mechanics of the water cycle or how exponents work this year, it won’t result in an F on her high school transcript.
I had parents who used this buffet strategy in the spring. Their particular circumstances prevented their child from engaging in the learning plan fully, so they did as much as possible, and I supported them however I could. In fact, my wife and I also took this approach with our own children’s learning plans.
The physical education teacher would assign calisthenics on a given day, but my son would ask, “Can’t I just ride my bike instead?” “Yes, Charlie. Of course,” I said. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Be happy.”
There were also times when my daughter would battle through six math problems over the course of 45 minutes, and with six more problems to go, I’d tell her that she was done and simply send an email to her teacher telling her that Clara was spent.
Teachers modify all the time in the classroom: We make adjustments to instruction, practice, and expectations based upon a multitude of factors. So why not take the same approach this year to your child’s learning? You’re at least 50 percent of the learning equation, so you should apply your own common sense to the plan. It’s hard to imagine a teacher would not support you in this mission.
This will also allow your child to remain connected to her peers by presumably seeing them in some small group and whole class lessons, which will be important given the limited access that children have to their peers already. It will also afford you access to all of the learning tools that your district provides and any social and emotional support that your child may need during the year, including services from the social worker or school psychologist.
If my children end up in distance learning again in September, this is the approach my wife and I plan to take, doing what we think is best for the well-being of our kids while remaining connected to the school, teachers, resources, and supports that they have to offer. I suggest you do the same.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I am a high school teacher with many seniors who graduated this May. As lockdown requirements are easing up, I have received several email invitations to graduation parties for August. As of right now, coronavirus cases have not gone up in my state, but they haven’t gone down either. If this were a normal year, I would attend these parties, but I just don’t feel comfortable doing that this summer. I also don’t want to pick one or two to attend because I don’t want to appear to play favorites. Do you have advice for how to politely decline these invitations?
—Thanks but No Thanks
Dear Thanks but No Thanks,
I know this particular stress well. I live in a region where the COVID-19 case rate has been stable and minimal, and reopening has been proceeding steadily since May. The anxiety and decision fatigue of navigating the turbulent waters of what you are allowed to do, what you feel comfortable doing, and what the people around you are doing is exhausting. I would never say I miss the shock, total isolation, and upheaval of the early months—but making choices was simpler.
For what it’s worth, I think all your choices are the right ones. As I said, my area has been pretty stable, but we’ve also seen how hard-won and fragile that stability is. In the past two weeks, our cases have shot up to numbers unseen for two months, and contact tracers identified July Fourth parties and other summer gatherings as the cause. Not attending any of the parties is the safe and responsible choice—both because it only takes one to prompt widespread transmission and because maintaining some internal logic and consistency will help your peace of mind. Plus, as schools reopen and community stress and fear grow, my strong hunch is that a lot of those feelings will be projected onto individual teachers, including scrutinizing their behavior and personal lives. I, personally, would not want to invite any more of that than what I’m already bound to receive.
All that said, I think how to decline the invitations is actually the easy part. Do it kindly and honestly: “Thank you so much for the invitation, but I’m not feeling ready to attend group gatherings yet. I am so proud of everything Student has accomplished and I’m wishing them the very best on this exciting next chapter of life. Congratulations!” I’ve declined a few invitations to various things in this way and have not felt any pushback or judgment (or, at least, nothing more substantial than “that seems paranoid, but OK!”). If you sense you’d meet resistance, I think you could scrap the honesty and go with kind but vague—“Thank you so much for the invitation, but unfortunately I can’t make it”—though I think the sooner we normalize naming our boundaries, the better.
This is hard. I hope it goes well. I think most people, including me, have felt challenged to develop a new set of social skills for engaging with others face to face and communicating our comfort (or discomfort) as we do so. Sadly, this appears to be the reality we’ll be living for the foreseeable future, so new social norms will be necessary too.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school, New York)
I’m a high school student who’s going to be a senior this year. I recently moved from Canada to the U.S., leaving a lot of my friends and teachers behind. Because of this, I often have to email my former teachers, and my current ones, about things like math contest results, volunteer hours, etc. But they’re busy people and they often don’t reply. My question is this: Is it rude to email a teacher again? It could very well be that after a period of not checking their inbox due to summer vacation or other circumstances, my message was buried under a mound of emails about meetings and due dates. Should I email them again? If so, how many times, and how should I phrase it?
—Don’t Want to Be a Nuisance
It is certainly not rude to send a follow-up email! If you sent emails over the summer, the teachers may have missed your requests. As a general rule, give a teacher at least 48 hours before you follow up with them. And if possible, you might want to wait until the week before their school is in session—teachers will be checking email regularly then.
In terms of phrasing, be both direct and polite. Make sure you begin with a greeting (“Dear Ms. Garcia”) and use words like please and thank you. In a follow-up email, you can say something like, “I am following up on the request I sent in July for a letter of recommendation. Could you please respond and let me know if you are able to write one for me?” I also appreciate it when a student tells me their deadline. If your need is simple, like a signed form, that is relatively quick to turn around. But if it’s more involved, like a letter of recommendation, give the teacher at least a week to get it done. I prefer two weeks.
If you’ve sent three emails with no response, you may need to figure out a different way to get what you need. Sometimes teachers retire or otherwise leave a school over the summer. Call the school’s main office and ask for advice on who can help you.
Finally, congratulations, senior! I know it will be a strange year (in a new country!), but I hope it is also a good one.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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