Archive for the ‘Pandemic’ Category

Settling In, So To Speak [BTP]

Two observations, possibly somewhat contradictory, about pandemic living, now closing in on the end of Week 9 of teach/learn/work-from home here in PA: 1) we have actually adapted, in our own weird way, and 2) this is exhausting.

Here are three good articles that speak to the second point – in a nutshell, we have to work harder to sustain concentration the longer we videochat (my colleagues and I rack up several hours per day) and we process and perceive many of the verbal and physical cues inherent to interpersonal communication differently through this format than we do in person. This, plus, you know, the constant thrum of stress of living through a global pandemic in one of the worst-hit regions in the United States all make these taxing (plus I don’t have the most comfortable chair in my office).

There are days when I leave my office at the end of the ‘work day’ (whatever that is anymore) and I just collapse onto the couch. It’s obviously not a physically taxing or dangerous job, thank goodness, but it drains you in a different way. Hard to explain, but if you’ve experienced it, you know.

On a different note, not that I would ever want things to remain this way, but I notice that in our house we have mostly adapted to the new temporary normal (I refuse to acknowledge it as the ‘new normal’). In lieu of our usual routine, we have established a new routine that sort of feels relatively normal. New wake-up times, new work locations, but it’s the one thing we have that we didn’t at the start of all this, and for what it’s worth, that has given some structure and temporary normalcy that I think we have found somewhat comforting, even if we won’t admit it because it’s not the normalcy we want. It’s the normalcy we need and the normalcy we’re going to have to live with, however.

The above is not a commentary on how I feel about remote instruction (as a parent or an educator), but more an observation on human behavior, and how we create frameworks for ourselves even when none exist. As much as none of us in our house want things to be this way, I must admit things have settled down into a less frantic state than they were two months ago.

Stray observation 1: my undergraduate class recently came to a close for the semester, and not a moment too soon. The students were fantastic, and I’m looking forward to them doing great things in education in the next couple years, but between me still acclimating to my new ‘day job’ this year and the chaos of adjusting my class to a remote instruction environment for the second half of the semester while doing the same for my day job, it’s hard to feel as if I was able to give them the best version of myself, the teacher they deserved to have. If one of my staff members was saying this to me, I know I would tell them not to beat themselves up, but I’ve never been very good at taking my own advice.

Stray observation 2: Despite my county and the Philly/NJ/NY region being especially hard-hit by the novel coronavirus, the township in which I live remains mercifully low in confirmed cases (we have been in the 1-10 confirmed cases range for weeks now, according to the county hub; so few that they redact the exact number of cases and only report as a range). We are a suburban/rural area with enough space and low enough population density to make social distancing relatively effortless. This, in addition to consistently taking common-sense precautions like grocery shopping at off hours and regular mask usage, has helped to alleviate at least some of my anxiety surrounding this whole experience. I’ll take all the help I can get.

In a Holding Pattern [BTP]

The stay-at-home order (both de facto and de jure) that is now approaching the end of its fifth week has me in a very jarring place… for a number of reasons, but one I think at the root of it all is that I am simultaneously holding competing senses and states of being in my mind all. the. time. On the one hand, there is the ever-present sense of urgency that comes from having to work work work to plan our continued professional navigation of the day-to-day in ways that are much more time-consuming and labor-intensive than under normal circumstances.

On the other hand, the urgency has been complicated – and sometimes completely stalled – by the lack of concrete knowledge about where we are heading. As of now, several states (including PA, where I live and where my children go to school) have already closed school buildings statewide for the year. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this stance, the fact that the decision has been made and finalized allows school communities in PA to proceed with making plans for the remainder of the year with the understanding that there will be no more in-person physical classes or gatherings. We may not like it, but at least we know the cards we have been dealt, and can play them accordingly.

We have waited weeks for the 4/17 decision from Gov. Murphy about the scope of continued school closures in NJ. It actually came a day early, but I confess to feeling more frustration than anything else when I heard that the closures were just extended to May 15, with another decision to be made then.

To be clear, I would love nothing more for this to all be a bad dream and for us to get back to school tomorrow, provided we could do so safely and without elevated risk to our students, staff, and surrounding communities. Also, because I have seen some anonymous nobodies on social media calling for educators to take pay cuts or give back parts of their salaries for this year – I am not on vacation and I am not enjoying this. There are some professions and jobs for which telecommuting makes perfect sense. I don’t believe mine is one of them (and let’s be honest, this isn’t even telecommuting; this is crisis teaching, or disaster teaching, as I have seen it referred to elsewhere). My wife and I – along with all the other educators I know – are working three times as hard to deliver the education and services children and families need throughout this pandemic. From a leadership standpoint, we find ourselves having to devote time and energy planning for the most mundane of tasks, and then planning again when we run into obstacles. Even the best of days since the schools have shut down have been stressful and complicated, never mind the worst.

With the uncertainty surrounding the last month or so of the school year – not just classes but all the attendant ceremonies and activities – we find ourselves in a position where long-term planning is… if not impossible, certainly much more challenging than if we knew for sure we’d be closed (or open, for that matter). Again, even under the best of circumstances, these things take an inordinate amount of planning and preparation. Now, and for at least the next four weeks, it’s pretty clear we will be doubling our efforts, making one set of plans for in-person events and at least one other to allow for a closed building and prohibitions on public gatherings. And even if we are physically back, what restrictions, if any, will we have to navigate and accommodate in order to return to a safe school environment (e.g., masks, social distancing, split sessions, etc., all of which have been proposed by various state governors facing public pressure to reopen schools and the economy that relies so heavily on the child supervision component schools provide). Again – nobody is afraid of hard work, but with everything taking three times as long as usual, there are only so many hours in a day to make things happen.

I understand the political and economic factors at play in a decision like this, and it is not my intention to minimize those concerns. I also appreciate how Murphy, as well as other governors from the region such as Wolf, Cuomo, and Carney, have indicated that any economic reopening or recovery plan must and will prioritize public health concerns. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the decision as much as it is a reflection on how the lack of a concrete path forward creates additional challenges.

I work with a fantastic staff who will rise to any challenge, but perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this situation is not being able to do one of the things we do best, which is problem-solve, and certainly not as efficiently or as effectively as we would like, not knowing what the context we will be dealing with in four weeks will be. I know it frustrates people who come to us with questions (and proposed solutions to problems, present or potential) when our response is, “We don’t know” or “we have to wait and see.” It frustrates us having to give those responses. It’s not because we haven’t thought about it, or are blowing them off, or don’t have thoughts about multiple contingencies we could put into play – developing Plans A through X, Y, and Z is what we spend much of our workdays doing these days – it’s that until we know exactly where we’re going, there’s only so much we can do in terms of taking action.

Fraying at the Edges [BTP]

I’ve been working from home for two and a half weeks now by the time this posts Friday morning, and it will have been a solid three that my students, my wife, and my kids have been on “remote instruction” to varying degrees in each of our districts.

We are hanging in there, but the effects of social distancing and our state stay-at-home order (we’ve been basically following it all this time but it was made official yesterday; no foolin’) are beginning to take their toll.

There were tears, raised voices, heated tempers, and arguments that had no reason to be arguments this week between and among all four of us. The effects of social isolation are starting to take their toll on all of us, to varying degrees and at different times. I’ve taken on the role of ‘grocery getter’, which is the only reason I leave the house other than to take walks with my family, and I look forward to those trips with about equal parts excitement (for a change of scenery) and anxiety (over the thought that this trip could be the one during which I contract the virus… if I don’t have it already).

Of the four of us, I honestly thought I would have the easiest time navigating this forced isolation. Even on my best days I love nothing more than whiling away time at home, preferring it to pretty much any other place I could be most days. As much as I enjoy traveling, there’s nothing like coming home to my own bed. Issa Rae put it better than I possibly could:

Turns out being at home is only as fun as my ability to decide to not be at home.

My county has put together an informative website for government updates and tracking confirmed cases across the county. As of this evening, my township is one of many in which there have only been between 1-10 confirmed cases. That gives me some comfort that I’m not going out into a densely populated area with a high rate of infection, but I also know that those numbers only represent the number of tested and confirmed cases, and that there are any number of people walking around, either asymptomatic or symptomatic but not tested.

It seems like almost every day, there are more deaths in the news, both of local people and celebrities. Last night it was announced that Adam Schlesinger died at 52 from complications from covid-19. Aside from numerous other musical accomplishments, I knew him first as the bassist and co-songwriter for Fountains of Wayne, a band I discovered at 19 and have loved ever since (more than half my life by this point). I normally don’t much care about celebrities passing, other than to recognize the inherent sadness in the loss of human life and then move on with my day, but Schlesinger’s death hit a little differently for me.

I got to see the band play in New Hope in March 2013 shortly before they broke up and I was under no misapprehensions that they were ever getting back together again, so it’s not like I was holding out for the reunion tour. In talking with my wife this morning about the fact that this particular death has impacted me so disproportionately, I think I figured out why. I like a lot of bands across genres, but Fountains of Wayne was one that legitimately brought me joy. I don’t know that I can say that about any other band. Musically, stylistically, thematically, lyrically… maybe the fact that we both have roots in New Jersey, and that featured prominently in FoW’s work… whatever it was, I felt a connection with their body of work that I can’t recall feeling for any other artist or band of any genre, including bands I would otherwise classify as my favorites.

I’m getting back into my feelings again. I’m not usually this guy and I’m wondering how much of how I’m reacting to this news has to do with the above paragraph and how much has to do with the cumulative impact of everything that has happened regarding the pandemic over the last few weeks.

One false move, baby, suddenly everything’s ruined…

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.