Archive for March, 2020

One Week In [BTP]

One week into “remote instruction” mode, in which all 4 of us in the house are home due to our schools closing to staff and students, and I’ll share a few of my observations from a couple different perspectives.

As I mentioned last time, it’s been interesting to see how different school districts (and different states) are handling the response to the pandemic, and I want to say right up front that any comparison or contrast is simply to document what I’ve observed, and not to judge. I’ve been involved in enough conversations in my own district to know that these are weighty, nuanced calls to make.

Look, my wife and I are both career educators – not only do we talk, but we talk from a common base of experience and knowledge that comes from having shared a profession for two decades (and having worked together in the same building for about a third of that time). While I definitely have my own gut-level reactions to what I hear and see, I have been reminding myself that I don’t know every detail and every factor that goes into every decision that gets made, and the further away I get from my own lived experience, the less I know about that (this mindset also helps me to maintain perspective when my own district is held up to criticism). Furthermore, while this isn’t the first pandemic to cause school closures in the US (it’s neither the first in my lifetime nor in my career), it’s the first one I – and I would wager, most, if not all, of my local colleagues and contemporaries – have experienced personally. We’re all finding our way and making the best decisions we can given what we know at any given time… or so I want to believe.

Dad Observations:

  • The kids are bored as hell. PA Governor Tom Wolf issued an order on Friday, March 13 not only closing all schools in the state for two weeks, but also essentially waiving the minimum 180-day requirement for schools for this school year. The communication I received from my kids’ district essentially said that they were treating the week of 3/16 as snow days, for all intents and purposes, that could be made up in June, and therefore would not be providing any instructional materials. The initial euphoria of finding out they just got two weeks off school waned fast. Even my son, an excellent student but, much like me, Mr. Social Distancer under normal circumstances, has been pining to return to school, if for no other reason than the social connections he’s missing.
  • The Internet is vital to keeping them connected. Academics aside, my son is playing video games and chatting online with his friends. My daughter is active on whatever the videochat app du jour is among the middle school set, and she and her friends are learning dances together. The other night, she even dragged some of her American Girl doll stuff out of the basement that she hasn’t touched in ages. She brought it all up to her bedroom; I’m not sure what that’s all about and I’m not sure I’m going to ask, either. Most of my professional conversations over the last few weeks have focused on the Internet as a vehicle for providing learning opportunities, but what those conversations didn’t really focus on is how the kids would use the Internet to maintain a sense of society and community. Viral videos that have come out since much of the nation went into voluntary social distancing (and in some cases, government-ordered shelter-in-place) have demonstrated the need and the want for that. A few are already making the rounds, and I’m sure more will emerge in the coming weeks and months.
  • They’re actually taking this fairly well. We’ve had a lot of opportunity to talk as a family about the social, political, economic, educational, and other ramifications of this situation, and in a weird way, I’m glad my kids are old enough to have had this experience at a time when they could consider these things and at least maybe learn something from it. Also, I think they’re spending so much time on devices during the day (not thrilled about it but also have bigger fish to fry during the day than tracking their screen time, tbh) that they are actually craving face-to-face conversation with my wife and me when we’re done our own work. Some of the dinner and after-dinner conversations we’ve had recently have been among the most pleasant in recent memory.

Work Observations:

  • This past week has felt like a month, which is even weirder when you consider I’ve only actually been home full-time since last Wednesday. My days largely consist of organizational strategy meetings, discussing with my colleagues what ‘remote instruction’ looks like now, looks like in two weeks, and looks like with the potential that we could be out of school significantly longer than originally planned (as of this writing, both Virginia and Kansas have announced school closures through the end of the 19-20 school year). Once we figure that all out, how do we communicate the message consistently to staff, students, and families?
  • I’ve taken on the mantle of not only teaching myself how to use apps like Zoom and Google Meet with some proficiency, but also helping my wife – whose instructional mandates are somewhat more stringent than those in my district, at least at the moment – navigate them as well. On top of that, I’m also the unofficial official tech support for the Bariexca household, which means I’m sometimes ducking away from my own meeting to figure out why something’s not working on my wife’s computer. I’ll be interested to see if/how my services become more in demand now that my kids have started with skill maintenance online activities as of yesterday. These admittedly minor intrusions serve to remind me that all families are juggling a lot these days and that schools must be flexible with deadlines and expectations in the coming weeks. There are a lot of variables being introduced that we ordinarily can more or less control for when students are in the building. Not so much now.

Random Observations:

  • I miss seeing my friends and colleagues at work, and I miss seeing the students, but I DO NOT MISS THAT COMMUTE!
  • I’ve been trying to get dressed every day despite not really having a reason to, if for no other reason than to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the face of what feels like a de facto quarantine. I could go the whole day in sweats if I wanted, but I’m trying to at least put on jeans and something semi-presentable. It helps me stay somewhat focused. My wife has taken the opposite approach, going full-on #TeamComfy.
  • The university at which I teach has also gone to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, so that’s been weighing on my mind as well. I have been reading a TON on navigating online teaching – to inform both my jobs – and I gave my first assignment in lieu of an in-person class tonight. We’ll see how it goes, but like I am asking of my own staff, flexibility’s going to be the name of the game for the next few weeks. My plan to have students run demo lessons is completely shot out of the water, so I am really going to be reinventing the next 7 or 8 weeks, likely a week at a time.
  • I’m tidying up a lot more than normal. Not like cleaning or disinfecting – which might actually make sense – but just keeping things neater and more organized than I ordinarily would. I wonder what psychological need that satisfies… probably feeling like I have some control over something during very uncertain times. My dorm room was never cleaner than the semester I student taught, and up until now, my house was never more organized than when I was writing my dissertation!
  • I’m being more social on social media than I usually am. Over the last few years I have really scaled back my active participation on social media, but I’m finding myself commenting and posting more frequently than I have in quite a while.

Blogging the Pandemic: Intro

This series of posts is less for you than for me, but thanks for stopping by anyway. We’re living through historic times, and I would like to have a record of my lived experience as our country, but more specifically my profession and my family, faces the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2020. This has already been an experience unlike any I have faced in my entire 20-year career, and it’s nowhere close to being over.

As I write this, it’s the evening of Monday, March 23, 2020. Students and teachers in many districts in the NJ/PA area have been out of school and on “remote instruction” for a week now. Sometime in late February or early March, we started having discussions in my school district about how we might provide remote instruction in the event that we had to close as a result of the pandemic. We’ve had this discussion before, mostly around reimagining snow days as “virtual learning” days, but seem to have always gotten hung up on logistics: with heavy snow often comes loss of power – what then? What about students with no Internet access at home? For a 1- or 2-day event like snow, I’m honestly of the mindset to let the kids be kids and just have a snow day, at least as far as the instructional piece is concerned.

This is different.

As more information came in and initial estimates said we could be out of school for two weeks or more to stem the exponential spread of the virus, we polled our student community to identify the levels of Internet access students had outside our buildings. Our district has a 1:1 Chromebook program for students in grades 6-12, so in our building, at least, device accessibility was less of a concern than infrastructure accessibility. As it turned out, only a small percentage of our student body reported not having a reliable Internet connection at home, and subsequent conversations with parents/guardians indicated that not even all those reports were accurate. For the eventual handful of students who needed them, the district procured T-Mobile hotspots and put together how-to guides before cataloging, disinfecting, and distributing them.

During the week of March 9, it was decided that the school schedule would be amended on Friday the 13th and Monday the 16th. Students would be sent home at the half-day mark and teachers would be given the afternoons of each day to plan for remote instruction. As it happened, we never got to the second half-day. On Friday, March 13, after another week’s worth of information, data, and most importantly, recommendations from federal and local public health agencies, the announcement was made that students would be dismissed at the half-day mark as planned, but the district would be closed to students and teachers from Monday, March 16, through the end of our Spring Break, April 14, in order to allow for social distancing and stem the spread of the coronavirus. Building administrators (me) would report to work for 4-hour workdays starting Monday, March 16.

Back home, my wife (a high school special ed/English teacher) and my kids (9th grade and 6th grade this year) were getting their own messages from their respective school districts. My wife’s school was also shutting down to students effective March 16, but staff would be expected to report for a half-day that day in order to continue planning for remote instruction (they had already done so the previous Friday as well). My children also received word that school was closed starting March 16.

The stories all start to diverge a bit here, and in a household in which we manage information from 3 different school districts in 2 different states (we live in PA but my wife and I work in NJ), it can get a little messy. What’s been interesting to me is having a first-hand opportunity to see how different districts have handled this crisis both as an employee and as a parent.

As I mentioned, it’s now March 23, and we’ve all been home exactly a week. Next time, I’ll be reflecting on what the first week out has looked like in our household.