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“It’s pretty chaotic”: Parents and kids navigate a strange new school year

As teachers and students begin an unusual new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents--as well as their children--are struggling to adapt to the world of online learning.

At this point, nearly all Michigan students are back in class for the fall semester, through Zoom meetings, physically distanced instruction, or shepherding from grownups at home. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces teachers and families to navigate a new world of education, Stateside checked in with parents feeling their way through the first days of a back-to-school season unlike any other.

Dustin Walsh is a senior reporter with Crain’s Detroit Business and the father of twin preschool-aged boys. He said the first few days of remote learning for his preschool-aged twin boys have been “pretty chaotic.”

“The way they’ve started out was all 22 kids into basically one Google Meetup or Zoom-type program,” Walsh said. “It’s a lot of background noise, parents doing dishes and parents on their own calls, mixed in with a bunch of five-year-olds and four-year-olds yelling over each other—so, a bit intense.”

He said he and his wife have had to devote significant time to helping the boys with class meetings, despite being busy with work themselves.

“Every time they’re in one of these meetings, it requires an all hands on deck from my wife and I,” Walsh said. “We have twins, so each one of us has to be with a child to help them get through that meeting.”

The kids have been doing lots of show-and-tell activities so far. Walsh said he thinks that works well when instruction is in person, but it doesn’t translate to a virtual classroom. The group conversations also require students to be patient while everyone waits for their turn to talk, which can be tedious for young kids, he added.

“It feels like there hasn’t been a lot of planning,” he said. “But again, it’s early. Maybe these wrinkles will be ironed out and we’ll all be happy by the end, but right now, stress levels are definitely through the roof in my household.”

Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and the mother of a fifth grader, wrote recently the strain of remote learning on families, and why parents might feel like they’re in a “pit of despair” right now.

“My child is adapting to it better than I would have thought, but the challenges—he’s still not adapting to it well, and the challenges are pretty significant, both technological and mental and educational,” Kaffer said. 

She said her son’s school district is using the school year’s first few weeks to gauge how students are doing following a disrupted spring semester and a socially distanced summer, as well as to try to establish norms for online learning.

Kaffer said she doesn’t blame students or teachers, who are all working hard to make online learning effective. But, she explained, simply substituting an in-person school day with a virtual school day isn't working well, and there has to be a better way.

“I don’t know that we’re doing our kids a service if we pretend like this is okay or this is normal,” she said. “Kids aren’t dumb, and you can’t say ‘This is fine, this is great,’ and have them just be like, ‘Oh, okay, this is great.’ This is going to be a complicated year.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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