Wrangling Kids' Distance Learning While Working From Home Is A Hellscape

"I am screaming in my car, sobbing in my shower, staring into the darkness when it’s time to sleep. And I know that you are too."
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It’s 6:08 a.m. and my 7-year-old is in my bed. “Mom!” he whisper-screams. “MOM! Can I play Roblox?”

It’s 6:12 a.m. and my 7-year-old is playing Roblox, and he’s hungry. He stands next to the bed breathing directly into my face. “MOM! Can I have some goldfish? Doritos? But I don’t want eggs!”

The sun is coming up on another distance-learning day, and it’s like the camp song that we used to sing on the bus: “Second verse! Same as the first!” We’re living in an endless camp song.

Last March, I walked my children home from what would turn out to be their last day of in-person school. Six months and 40 billion hours ago, we didn’t know that school could be anything other than in-person.

We prepared ourselves for the world’s longest two-week pause. “We can do this!” we rallied, and posted pictures of our pajama days and chalk-sketched obstacle courses in filtered Instagram squares.

Until the world started to disappear. We lost jobs and loved ones, lost patience and routines. The pandemic choked our economy and raised the collective anxiety of parents everywhere.

Cities flooded as the rain came down; others burned when the forests exploded. Neighborhoods surged with power and pain, linked arms marching to say that all lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter. We plied our kids with goldfish and screen time and pandemic puppies.

“What if we can’t do this?!” we texted each other, panic rising.

Now it’s September. Second verse, same as the first.

It’s 8 a.m. and apparently kids still need to get dressed when they’re going to Zoom school. At least their top half. My sixth grader is frantically tossing binder paper from his desk, muttering something about a password. He has to log on to first period using ClassroomPaintboxNotepad, an app created at Burning Man by a Silicon Valley post-doc who doesn’t have children. He complains from his bed-desk that the app is “acting glitchy.”

“That means I can skip first period, right Mom?”

It’s 8:30 a.m. and my husband and I are in the hallway comparing schedules. We play the “Whose job is most important today?” game. I am a part-time freelance writer with the enormous privilege of relying on my partner’s income. I have gotten used to putting my work last on the priority list, but I’ve always relied on the space that opens up in my brain when I drop the kids off at school. There is no longer any space in my brain.

Now it’s 10 points for a client call. Two points for listening to a webinar staff meeting (you don’t appear on camera so it’s fine if the kids are punching each other behind you). Five points for a deadline. And 27,000 points for the task that will make us the most money.

One point for self-care (don’t get carried away, that’s just a shower). The person with the most points gets the bedroom (with a shut door). The person with the least points sits next to a 7-year-old who can’t find his “just right” reading book and is crying on the floor.

My husband goes to his office (our bedroom) and shuts the door. I still haven’t brushed my teeth. I wonder if my kid’s teacher can see me at the bottom of the Zoom square in my pajamas.

“Mooooooom!!!!! I’m stuck in a breakout room and I can’t get out! Come in here and help me!” Whose idea was it to give little kids access to Zoom? They can barely read.

We’re still banished to a breakout room, but my kid’s second grade classmate has figured out how to use the chat. He’s typing “Shut up!” over and over again. I’m impressed with his spelling and proper use of punctuation. I wonder if maybe my kid needs more help from the reading specialist.

It’s 10 a.m. and I’m in the hallway, sitting cross-legged on the floor and balancing my computer on my lap. In the Before-Time, I would peer in the window of my son’s kindergarten classroom to make sure he wasn’t crying after I dropped him off. Letting our children stretch and struggle on their own is the first rule of being an elementary school parent. We were terrified to let them go. Now we can’t seem to peel them from our bodies.

“There is only one of me and I am trying my best!” I scream, as they both call for me at the same time.

“Mom, seriously?! I’m not on mute!” my sixth grader yells back.

I cradled his miniature newborn bottom in the palm of my hand when he was born. In the hours between entering the hospital and leaving, I had grown heavy with the weight of new responsibility. Surviving the haze of new motherhood meant tethering myself to trusted family members, to the predictability of a routine, to anything that felt vaguely familiar. We have all greeted the challenges of parenthood by building the same fragile scaffolding, and now it is no longer standing.

We are on mute. We are plotting our escape. We are living in the what-ifs. What if we move? What if we home school? What if we can’t afford to live here? What if they never go back? What if I can’t do this? We cannot stop the bus.

So we light up our living rooms with schedules made from a rainbow of Post-it notes. And we slide to the floor every night once they’re safely in bed. I imagine their teachers do too.

It’s time for snack recess, but we can’t go outside. We live in California and the smoke from the wildfires has turned the sky a crimson orange. Mrs C. has left her screen on so that the kids can chat with each other. They are desperate for socialization, for any sliver of normalcy.

“My tooth fell out!” “Do you know that the tooth fairy is nocturnal?” “My baby sister just pooped and it smells!” “Aidan, you’re on mute and I can’t hear you! Change your name to Black Panther if you can hear me!”

A child who is not on mute makes farting noises while someone else types an endless xsjfaoisgngjthaodkfjoaiwenfldsknf into the chat. That kid should probably go to the reading specialist with mine. Is there a breakout room for reading specialists? I imagine Mrs. C sitting quietly off-camera, resting her head in her hands.

Our children are singing along to login lullabies. Our virtual classrooms are a symphony of wailing kindergartners who need a lap to sit on; cursing teenagers who need a buddy to commiserate with; cheerful and exhausted teachers who sing directions from a computer screen; and bleary-eyed parents who plead with their children in the language of time.

Two more minutes until you need to log back in, two more hours until I can play with you, two more calls before Daddy is done for the day.

My sixth grader’s homeroom teacher is asking if anyone knows who Roy is. Roy is trying to enter the second period Zoom, but there isn’t a Roy in second period. Is Roy someone’s dad, or a sketchy 62-year-old drifter from Minnesota who’s about to flash the entire grade? The kids vote that the teacher should mute Roy and turn his camera off before letting him in, just in case he’s a stranger. I want to see who Roy is, but my second grader is yelling down the hall that he needs help spelling the word “independent.”

It’s 1:06 p.m. and I forgot to send them back to Zoom class after lunch. Someone in my Pandemic Parenting Group on Facebook said that I could program Alexa to ring like a school bell to remind us. I don’t have time to set timers.

Our second grade teacher is reading to the class in her quiet voice when we return. My son starts bouncing on a yoga ball so hard that the bedroom is shaking. Perhaps this is what they mean when they say he “struggles to pay attention in class”?

His teacher is a magical unicorn. I wonder if she’s ever thought about muting them and pretending she’s listening. I wonder if she stays up late like I do, doom-scrolling and rage-scrolling, trying to figure out if the world will always be this upside down.

She’s telling them a silly story about how “glitchy” today has been, how happy she is that John figured out how to come back to the group after his iPad died.

“I’m putting a marble in the jar, friends!” she cheers. “I am so proud of you for doing things that are hard! We just have to keep trying!” I let myself sit down on the couch and just listen to her cheerful voice for seven minutes. I close my eyes. It is only 2:15. I start to cry.

It’s 2:30 and the last “Leave Meeting” button has been clicked. My second grader asks why Joshua said at sharing time that he was having a sleepover birthday party this weekend.

“Mom, I thought we were supposed to all be socially distancing,” he whines.

“Different families have different rules, honey,” I offer. I hate Joshua’s mom. Joshua’s mom probably has an excellent immune system.

Thank goodness they’re done learning from home, because now it’s time for homework. My 6th grader’s worksheets are on SchoolClassroomLighthousePencilBox, but the directions live on DistrictLoop.

Amy has two children. Each child has seven classes and 14 teachers. How many times will Amy email the wrong teacher to ask about 1/47th of a missing homework assignment? Please show your work.

I am showing my work. I am not muted. It is an enormous privilege to have a roof over my head and not worry about how we’re going to feed our kid. Still, I am screaming in my car, sobbing in my shower, staring into the darkness when it’s time to sleep. And I know that you are too. You don’t need to turn your camera on, because I can already see that you are clutching your hope and your desire for escape as tightly as I am.

We are listening to the gentle voices of our children’s teachers as they try to spin what is terrifying and unfamiliar into a soft blanket of comfort and resiliency. That is not their job, but they have always done it anyway. Now we do it together.

It’s 11:49 p.m. and my husband is snoring. I’m 12 accounts deep on Instagram, wondering why everyone looks so happy. I put my phone down and try to remember if my sixth grader finished his essay for English class, if I put our masks in the dryer, if I remembered to put eggs on the grocery list. Maybe I should set a reminder on Alexa.

I dream that I am back in college, filling in tiny ovals on a Scantron for a test I forgot to study for. I’m trying to tell my professor that I need more time, but I’m on mute.

It’s 6:32 a.m. and my 7-year-old is in my bed. “Mom, can I play Roblox?”

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