Care and Feeding

We Opted Out of In-School Instruction

It’s a total disaster.

A Black boy rests his head on his hand as he stares at a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ryan McVay/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

In our district in Tennessee, students may choose in-class (face-to-face) instruction or distance learning. We chose distance learning, and my child has not had a single live lesson.

I’ve emailed the principal twice, called the principal, and called the board of education three times. I voiced my concern that distance learners should receive whatever the face-to-face students receive in class (as far as lessons), otherwise it is not an equal educational opportunity.

During my last attempt to plead for equal educational rights, I spoke with the principal and a board member, who happened to be visiting the school. I explained it’s difficult for my child to complete the assignments without lessons. I was told, “We’re doing our best. It seems you are unhappy, maybe you should just home-school.”  The conversation ended with them suggesting I call the special ed department, and they gave me a name and phone number.

All I have ever asked for was an equal educational opportunity, as promised by the Tennessee Department of Education. If my child receives less instruction, I do not believe he is receiving an equal educational opportunity. Is this even legal?

—We Do Need Some Education

Dear We Do Need Some Education,

That is extremely frustrating! I agree that distance learners should be able to interact with their teachers; a curriculum with no teacher is always going to be inferior. As far as whether this situation is legal, I am not qualified to say. I am also puzzled as to why the principal and school board member would suggest contacting the special education department, since your letter says nothing about your child having a learning disability? To be honest, I am incensed by the suggestion that “maybe you should just home-school,” as if that’s a viable option for every family (it is not). Your letter certainly leaves me with the impression that the school is not planning to address your concerns. The question I ask is, “Why?”

The pandemic has created enormous challenges for schools, challenges that are often compounded by ill-advised state mandates to reopen regardless of whether it’s safe to do so. Offering both in-person and virtual instruction is extremely challenging. Some schools expect teachers to provide virtual and in-person instruction at the same time, which is twice as much work. Others assign some educators to teach online while the rest teach in person. With in-person instruction, proper social distancing requires fewer students in each room, spaced farther apart, with less movement through the halls; if many students are returning to the building, a school may need all available teachers in order to socially distance safely.

I am slated to return to work at my high school on Oct. 6, but students who return with me will not follow a normal schedule. They will stay in one assigned classroom all day and receive the same virtual instruction as students who are staying at home. In fact, the teacher monitoring the classroom will be teaching online, not the kids in the room.

When my 5-year-old daughter returns to her elementary school, she will be in a “blended learning” environment, with some instruction online and some in-person. She will not travel to the gym, the music room, or the library; she will stay with her homeroom teacher and receive those lessons via Zoom. She will get 30 minutes of recess, but she is not allowed to climb on the jungle gym or swing on the swing set. None of this is ideal for students or teachers. My stomach is tied up in knots just thinking about it.

I wish your child’s school would figure out a way that they could receive at least some live instruction with a teacher. Based on your letter, I don’t know if they are unable or unwilling to provide this. Given what you’ve experienced so far, it seems that if you want your child to receive instruction from a teacher, you must send them to school, and there’s no way for me to know if that is the right thing for you to do. You could try to organize other parents in your community to join your crusade—with more voices, it’s more likely you’ll be heard. Good luck.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My oldest child is in seventh grade, and is fortunately self-directed. They’re excelling academically but loathe it. I don’t blame them—the classes are almost all the teacher talking and no interaction. Over the course of the day I hear Oldest Child speak/answer a question no more than three times. They also will not go outside or see friends without an argument. It has exacerbated existing introvert tendencies and is like watching a flower wilt. It is breaking my heart.

My middle child is in fifth grade and is happy as a clam but somehow has less work than their siblings. I spend a lot of time explaining to my youngest why they have to do work when my middle child doesn’t.

My youngest child is in second grade and hates online learning. There’s crying, pouting, and awful fights to get them in front of the computer for the first class in the morning. That class, for some reason is only 15 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break, which is just long enough so that the screaming/crying cycle starts anew. The amount of work is untenable—10–12 slides of work every day.

I am exhausted. My partner and I are trading “shifts” to manage/supervise. We are all upset with one another, and it is harming our familial relationships. I feel like I am no longer their parent—I am a harsh task master during the day, and with no break from each other it carries over to bedtime. I am only being slightly dramatic when I say I think this is destroying my little family.

What can I do? Withdraw and home-school, which at least allows flexibility to do it as we see fit? Ask for some sort of gap year? Private school is not an option.

I chafe at the continued platitudes: Take it one day at a time! Do the best you can! This is only temporary! The situation may be temporary, but I feel like these ramifications will last a lifetime. Help, please.

—Even One More Day Is Too Much

Dear Even One More Day,

First, please know that I feel your pain. As a teacher who is married to a teacher and has two school-aged children, I know exactly what you are talking about. Last spring, it was impossible to monitor my own children’s learning while instructing my class remotely, and as a result, my own children’s education suffered, and my kids got away with murder.

Thankfully, this fall we have been able to hire a college student to work with our children when they are home and we are at school, but this is a luxury that is not accessible to all, and frankly, it’s costing us a fortune.

Here is what I recommend:

I’ve used this analogy before, but view your children’s at-home learning plan as a buffet of academics from which you can pick and choose. Since you are delivering much of the content, instruction, motivation, and discipline, you have the right to determine what your child is capable of accomplishing given your specific circumstances. Just like teachers modify, adjust, and alter workloads for students given their specific learning profiles, you, too, should be able to do the same for your child at home.

Parents are almost co-teachers in our present circumstances. It’s OK to assume the power of one.

This will admittedly be easier to do with your youngest child. Grades do not carry nearly as much weight for children in elementary (and even middle school), but it sounds as if your oldest is handling the academic aspects of online schooling well, even if the instruction is less than inspiring.

As you think about taking this approach, consider this: Especially right now, teachers really do view the physical safety and social and emotional health of our students as our first and primary concern. You should do the same. In fact, not only is your child’s social and emotional health of paramount importance, but the social and emotional health of the family is also exceptionally important. Academics should not be creating fractures in the family life. If this is happening, take action.

Some suggestions:

• Reduce the workload all around.

• Convert the five-day week into a four- or even three-day week and engage in activities to promote the social and emotional health of the entire family. Go on hikes. Watch movies together. Promote your children’s outside interests in the greatest ways possible. Find something new for the family to learn and do. Find ways to safely visit friends and family.

• For your youngest, structure choices for your child like:

There are 12 slides of learning today. Choose six.

Choose three slides for before lunch. Three slides for after lunch.

You choose three slides. I choose three slides.

Build in rewards systems.

It would be best to advise your child’s teacher about your decision to modify content and instruction, because teachers would want to know, and it will also minimize the number of emails you and your children receive about missing assignments. Most reasonable teachers will understand this decision given our current circumstances, but some will not. Pressure from administration to cover curriculum or a general lack of understanding for the struggle of parents will prevent some teachers from embracing your decision. But the teacher’s position on your decision is irrelevant. They cannot know the dynamics of your family and cannot see the impact that remote instruction is having on you and your children.

You know better.

Do whatever it takes to bring harmony back to your family and happiness to your children. The last thing that any teacher (at least any reasonable teacher) wants is to create a negative attitude about school or a destructive atmosphere in the home because of remote instruction.

Remember: Your child’s educational career will be long. This pandemic, by comparison, will be short. Get through this time with as much modification and common sense as needed to keep your child and family happy, healthy, and ready to return to school when that is possible.

—Mr. Dicks

I’m in a state that will be schooling online until the new year, and I’ve been able to listen in on my children’s classes. For the most part, I hear the dedication of the teachers and their kindness. One teacher, however, is rubbing me the wrong way. She complains when the kids are not looking straight into the camera, which makes no sense because then they are not looking at the screen. Yesterday, the kids were reading a text and discussing it in class. My kid tried to participate, raised his hand several times, and added a few comments. At the end of class, the teacher announced that two kids, who had made comments she liked, were excused from the homework because they had participated well and every other kid had to do the homework. Is this a common practice? Should I mention this to the teacher or the school?

—Mad Mama Bear

Dear Mad Mama Bear,

I can’t say whether it’s a common practice, but it’s definitely not what we call a “best practice.” Generally, playing favorites with kids in your class, like playing favorites among your children, can produce resentment, social problems between peers, and bad choices (“she isn’t going to call on me so why bother listening?”). I would hope my fellow teachers aren’t playing obvious favorites among the kids.

I generally advise that parents talk to the teacher before going to the school—it’d be like someone talking to your boss about your work, instead of bringing it to your attention first—but this one might be challenging. You could try asking the teacher if participation is always a way to get out of homework: “I noticed that two kids who said insightful things during class discussion were exempt from homework. Is that a policy of yours? Do the kids who receive the exemption rotate?” Something to that effect might give the teacher an opportunity to self-reflect. Likewise, you could say to her, “My son is having a hard time looking directly into the camera because he wants to look at your face when you talk—do you have any advice for that?”

The reality is that it doesn’t sound like she’s adapting her teaching style well to Zoom—which is hard, to her credit—but it is your right as a parent to advocate for your child, especially when something seems unfair, and this does seem unfair. I would hope that with gentle questions like that, she can change her behavior without resenting you for telling her how to do her job. But if not, you can go to the school (I always advise finding a staff member or administrator you already have a relationship with when possible) and say, “Ms. So-and-So was doing this and it’s affecting my son in this way,” and hopefully, they can address it better from there.

—Ms. Sarnell (early elementary special education teacher, New York)

My husband has been a public school teacher for four years now. I understood that his first year of teaching would be hard on him. He would come home long after school let out, panicking about the day, and would be up prepping for the next day until after midnight. I understood that keeping 30 children engaged for hours without resources is an impossible task that would test anyone’s self-worth, but I assumed this pattern of long hours and emotional exhaustion would change as he established a school year routine.

Now, COVID has completely reset any comfort or confidence. This summer has not been a “break” for him because our state and county are constantly changing protocols. I would not be surprised if our friends have stopped talking to us (even with social distancing) because he can’t have a conversation anymore, it’s just one-sided rants. It feels like he is working way over 80 hours a week, but there is nothing to show for it. I don’t know if this lopsided work-life balance will ever end.

I want to be selfish and tell him teaching is not working for me. It’s pretty obvious to me, it’s not working for him, but teaching is part of his identity now. Any advice? I’m willing to consider that this will get better.

—Holding Out for Some Hope

Dear Holding Out,

Here’s the thing: Teaching is not “working for” anyone right now. Educators across the country are struggling through an unprecedented crisis and a complete upheaval of our field as we know it. There is no clear plan for support, no leader at the helm, and no end in sight. Given the nature of what your husband is facing, I’m struck by how much of your framing seems centered on how frustrating and draining this is for you rather than for him. Is it challenging to emotionally support a partner through a long-term, unpredictable emergency? Absolutely yes. Do I have the sense that you need to try a little harder? Also yes.

That said, I do think it’s possible that his burnout will improve. I’m not clear on whether he’s been working at this breakneck pace throughout each of his four years so far, or if it improved after his first year before nosediving again once the pandemic hit. Teaching is a career notoriously susceptible to long hours and overwork even under normal circumstances, because while delivering lessons to students is just the tip of the iceberg of professional responsibilities, it takes up 80 percent of the scheduled workday. That’s where those exhausting nights and weekends come in. Over time, though, most teachers develop systems and strategies to manage the workload and find an acceptable equilibrium. If your husband was starting to get his head above water pre-COVID, then it’s reasonable to assume that he’ll eventually be able to do it again. If he’s been burning his candle this badly all along, then he may need some coaching and guidance to make his work sustainable, because it sounds like he wants to be in it for the long haul but needs help getting there.

That’s for him to work out with a professional mentor, though. Right now, from you, he needs patience and empathy. I do think you can encourage and even lovingly insist that he take care of his own well-being—my husband’s done so for me in difficult years—but the primary motivation has to be your desire to see him healthy and happy and whole, not your frustration that he’s being a drag at parties. I really do get that it’s hard to go through life with someone who’s often miserable. But: He is in crisis mode right now. Keep that at the forefront and respond accordingly.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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