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Holub: Arizona's remote-learning mandates are breaking us

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Holub: Arizona's remote-learning mandates are breaking us

  • Paul Ingram/

It’s already late September and as of this writing I’ve suffered through over 6 weeks of being a remote-learning teacher and parent and excuse me for a moment while I down this shot of whiskey and chew some Tylenol.

My son is in second grade in TUSD. I’m a high school English teacher at a small charter school. During a normal school year, days are far from easy. We get up, we rush out the door, we try to make it to school on time. My kids were almost always on time to their schools; I often was not on time to mine, but two out of three ain’t bad.

Sure, there were days when I struggled to get my son out of the car and onto the playground. I actually struggled quite a bit. Ask his 1st grade teacher about the time I called her in a panic because he’d taken off down the alley near toward a major street while my younger daughter was still in the car, and she helped me coax him back to the schoolyard. My son didn’t really love school before all of this madness.

So these days, getting my son to appear in front of the screen for his class is near impossible. It’s a daily struggle, three times a day, instead of a once-in-a-while struggle just in the morning. And even if I do get him logged in, after about two seconds he’s rolling around on his bed, or off in the other room, or in the backyard.

“It’s boring,” he says. “I can’t see my friends.”

He’s not wrong. I know his teacher is trying her best.

But the mandates from the state are not making this easy. In fact, they’re making this much harder and much worse than it ever needed to be.

In order for schools to secure the same level of per-student funding that they get for in-person learning, remote learning schools have to prove attendance in synchronous sessions. And what’s even worse is that they have to give benchmark assessments.

These are holdovers from a system that is no longer relevant, and it’s making an already challenging situation worse.

Students have to be present for multiple synchronous sessions throughout each day. There needs to be asynchronous work. The synchronous sessions happen multiple times during the day, and are too long for a second-grader’s attention span.

I’ll even go so far as to say that whole-class Zoom sessions for an elementary school class are a ridiculous idea. It sort-of works for high school classes because they can actually type, but cramming more than 20 seven-year-olds into a Zoom meeting and asking them to engage for more than a few minutes is preposterous.

Sure, some kids might be able to do that. My kid sure can’t. Especially if he’s not allowed to also hold his guinea pig.

I can think of a lot of alternate scenarios for elementary school kids, but it doesn’t matter. We’re up against brick walls that are multiple-layers thick and so high many people can’t even imagine that there’s a top we could climb over.

Asking kids to do benchmark assessments is also absolutely ridiculous. TUSD sent out a PDF called “Letter to Families About Testing At Home” that talks about making sure the student’s Zoom camera is on during testing so the teacher can “monitor” them, making sure their testing area is free of clutter, and making sure that students know the purpose of the assessment.

Are you kidding me? This is absolutely not the time to worry about benchmark-assessing kids via the Zoom panopticon. This is absolutely not the time to worry about whether kids understand the purpose of assessment. This is absolutely not the time to ask parents to make sure their kid’s desk is free from clutter. This is absolutely not the time to require second-graders to sit for an hour-long math assessment that parents have to monitor. This is forcing an already-problematic form of assessment into a context that doesn’t work. And honestly, what actual data are we going to collect about kids completing these assessments right now?

I spent my lunch break one day sitting with my son while he tried to take one of these online benchmark assessments.

I could write a whole 'nother rant about this particular assessment, but let’s just say it features a squinty-eyed prairie dog who is somehow a sheriff and kids have to “help” him by answering questions in order to be a deputy and oh shit, I’m already whispering swear words under my breath right now.

My son got annoyed with it after about two minutes and just started randomly clicking on things to make the noises sound funny.

Is this accurately measuring his ability to read? Of course not. Is it accurately measuring his ability to tolerate bullshit? Absolutely.

“Why can’t I just read a book to my teacher over the phone?” he whined to me.

Good question, kiddo. Because the state decided that they needed you to get a deputy badge from Mr. Racist Prairie Dog. Because most likely someone somewhere is making a few extra bucks in a behind-the-scenes deal to sell these online benchmark assessments to schools.

My son doesn’t feel connected at all. He has zero buy-in to do any of the work.

And before you start lecturing me on what I should be doing to make sure he participates, let me fill you in on something: While he’s supposed to be “in class,” I’m supposed to be teaching my own classes. His classes start at the exact same time as mine. He’s supposed to be on at 9; I have to meet with my Advisory at 9. Then he has to be back on at 10:15 and I’m supposed to be back on at 10:35 for Period 2. His last class is at 1. My 4th Period is at 1:05. If our Internet can even handle both of those meetings at once, it’s nearly impossible to get him logged in while I’m trying to get myself logged in and I can’t sit next to him and “make” him do “school.” Honestly, as much as this sounds like my priorities are out of whack, I need to make sure I get my paycheck so we can eat and pay the bills and have terrible Internet that sort of works. So when both of us are in my house and I have to choose my job over my son’s schooling. I have to teach my Period 4 and Period 5 classes while he throws pillows at me or fingerpaints the back porch red (true stories).

So some days, my mom picks up my kids and brings them to her house. On days when they’re with their dad, he’s the one managing our son’s classes. Neither of them also have to do their own job at the same time. And I’m lucky to have that option. Many parents don’t.

And yet I’ve cried multiple times a day. I’ve considered withdrawing him, but mostly I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this just sucks and he’s just going to be behind academically and oh well. Thankfully he can read pretty well. His math skills are OK. He can’t write very clearly, but whatever — who will need to handwrite anything in the 2030s, if there is even a planet anymore? Because I just can’t teach my students and my son at the same time especially when the state is asking kids and teachers to try and force old systems that were already deeply flawed into this new world.

Don’t call me or other parents or teachers superheroes. We shouldn’t need to be superheroes. We need structures and supports that do not require superhuman strengths and powers. We need help. We need a break. We need grace.

One of my seniors put it really well: “I wish they’d just cancelled academics until this is all over.” I wish a lot of things too. Mostly I wish schools were given the autonomy to decide how to best approach remote learning in ways that are developmentally appropriate for their populations. I wish schools didn’t have to worry about securing the same levels of not-enough-to-begin-with funding.

I wish we could all just focus on connecting with our students and laughing with them and listening to them. There’s important learning there too.

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city high school, coronavirus, tusd

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