Oh. My. Goodness. This has seriously been the longest school year ever. I think that’s in part because it’s been 14 months since the kids have sat in an actual classroom. Last summer, there was a lot of uncertainty about what school would look like. Our school district sent out surveys for parent and student input and tried to put together a plan. My vote was actually for a hybrid schedule where the kids went to school 2-3 days a week with a small cohort and did remote the other days, but I get the feeling most everyone else voted for all or nothing. Eventually, the district said they would offer a full remote option or a full in-person option for elementary school. I was not a fan of either choice. I watched all the informational videos, attended the virtual community meetings, and read every single email, but just didn’t feel great about the in-person plan. I also wasn’t a fan of my kids doing all their schooling through a screen. At some point, the mom of one of Ellen’s really good friends floated the idea of doing a learning pod. We would sign the kids up for remote school and then hire a tutor to help the kids get through their lessons in the morning. Other than the price, this seemed like a genius idea. Ellen would still get the social interaction she so desperately needed, but in a smaller, safer environment and an adult that wasn’t me would be able to make sure she was understanding her assignments. Poor Cooper didn’t have such an opportunity and we eventually opted to sign him up for the remote option since it would at least be more consistent and he sometimes struggles with inconsistency. (Although this has gotten a lot better as he’s getting older.)
At the beginning of the school year, things seemed to be going really well with Ellen and her pod. She got along great with the kids, the tutor (a retired school teacher) was lovely, and the remote teacher seemed willing to work with her. Cooper’s start of the school year was a little more rocky though. The school district basically said every school was on their own in providing remote and in-person options. Our school seemed to have an awkward split that made it so they had to combine several in-person grades and several remote grades to make things work. Ellen was in a mixed 2nd and 3rd grade class with the teacher she’d had the previous year. Cooper was in a mixed 4th and 5th grade class with a very passionate teacher who had previously been the school’s gifted and talented teacher. Two weeks into the school year, the school had to let her go because of budget cuts and reshuffle the teachers. I was pretty upset about this and wrote an email to the school board. (Which they did not respond to.) Cooper then got a new teacher who was starting her third year at the school. The poor woman had taught a new grade every year she’d been there. It took awhile for her to get her feet under her, but she ended up being extremely organized and communicative.
Cooper still has an IEP that gets him a few extra services at school. He has worked with the same ladies since he transitioned from pre-K to elementary and they are awesome. Over the summer, the head of special ed made the decision to retire and the speech therapist decided to take the year off due to the pandemic. I completely respect the decisions those ladies made, but it also made it so Cooper was starting fresh with a new team. It took the new team quite awhile to get their feet under them. Things were pretty rocky in the beginning and we had to call an emergency IEP meeting which is something I’ve never done before (usually we just do the scheduled annual). Cooper was in so many Zoom meetings he hardly had time to breathe. We decreased his hours and made some other changes so we could do something more manageable. The services were . . . okay. I gave people a lot of grace because this was such a crappy year, but I kept wondering what are families doing with kids that need a lot more help than Cooper does?
How we ended up homeschooling Ellen
As I mentioned, things started off really well with Ellen’s pod. The kids seemed happy and the adults seemed happy. The pod met at our house two days a week and at another family’s house the other three. After a few weeks, there started to be some tension between our tutor and the remote teacher. The pod parents called a meeting to get everyone on the same page and felt really good about things . . . but then nothing changed. The teacher didn’t seem willing to work with our tutor, so instead of being able to teach and interact with our children, she was basically a warm body making our kids watch Zoom meetings. The other parents were really frustrated and went to the principal who talked to the teacher. Again, we thought things were on track, but it didn’t last. We hobbled through September and in October things started to go downhill. The teacher started accusing our tutor of doing the kids’ assignments (she wasn’t) and getting into power struggles with her over which of them should be correcting the kids behavior when they were off task, etc. Two other things happened in October. Our tutor’s son tested positive for COVID and we had to pause the pod. This kind of burst our delusion that we were in a safe bubble. The second was that we had parent teacher conferences and the teacher basically went off on each of us parents about how our kids were going to have to do third grade over again and that they were basically terrible, ill-behaved monsters. This both alarmed and perplexed all of us. We knew our kids weren’t angels, but we couldn’t imagine it was that bad. We also knew that this wasn’t working so we called a meeting and made the sad decision to disband the pod. This was a really emotional decision because we all loved the tutor and wanted our kids to have that social outlet. It was also a hard decision financially. We had all signed a contract to work with the tutor until Christmas break and none of us felt like challenging it, so we had to pay for five weeks of tuition without actually getting any services.
The pod disbanded the second week of November and we all tried to have our kids do remote school the same way the other kids in the class were. The damage was already done with our kids’ relationship with the teacher though. (Side note: Ellen had this teacher for second grade and they didn’t exactly hit it off. She once got in trouble for touching a wall on the way to lunch. When things went remote at the beginning of the pandemic, she seemed way more chill over Zoom though, so I had decent hopes things would work out with third grade.) Ellen lasted four days in regular remote school. The teacher was constantly picking on her and the other pod kids. Lecturing them in front of the class for stupid indiscretions like looking at something off screen. Once, she made the former pod kids stay for an extra meeting to show them how to use Google classroom (they all knew how to use it). Every time one of the kids would try to interrupt her to tell they knew how to do things, the teacher would cut them off and tell them they didn’t know how to do anything because their tutor did everything for them (the truth is, most of the time they were showing the tutor how Google classroom worked). Twice Noel and I intervened during her various lectures to question what the teacher was doing and she wouldn’t stand down. After four anxious days, I’d had enough. I am a former public school teacher and both of my parents work at a public school. I am very pro public education. I have always said it would take very extenuating circumstances for me to consider homeschooling, and there we were. I wrote the principal and the teacher an email to let them know we would be homeschooling Ellen and filled out the paperwork with the district. The principal and I have worked together on a lot of things and he did call me to see if there was anything he could do to change my mind. He even offered to let Ellen transfer to a remote class at a different school, which I did consider, but ultimately decided maybe Zoom wasn’t the best learning platform for her anyway.
How we did homeschool
Our district doesn’t really have any homeschooling resources. There are two charter schools that have homeschool programs that we could have joined, but I wasn’t super interested. Several people have asked me what program we used and guess what, we didn’t really use one. I looked at homeschool programs you can purchase and the price tag was a turn off. I’ve always been into DIY and I am a former teacher, so I decided to put together my own curriculum. Ellen got to keep some of her workbooks from school, so we decided to work our way through those. I bought a subscription to IXL for skill practice and looked up the Colorado standards for 3rd grade. I pieced together lesson plans from Google and Teachers Pay Teachers. Not surprisingly, putting together the reading and writing lessons were my favorite. This was a lot of work, but I also thought we’d have more success if Ellen’s lessons were tailored to her.
There was definitely a honeymoon phase with homeschool. At first, Ellen was so happy to not be yelled at on Zoom for hours. Everything seemed fun and novel, but that wore off pretty fast. We did get into some sort of a groove though and things were going decently okay through the beginning of February. During all that time, my work schedule had been fairly light. I’d have an occasional busy day with multiple clients, but for the most part I was home and able to manage most of Ellen’s schooling. (I will note that I was much happier on the days I worked, but Ellen’s school went much better on the days I didn’t.) At the end of February/beginning of March though, things picked up. Older adults (my main client demographic) were now partially or fully vaccinated and itching to get back in the gym and lose the “COVID 19.” Suddenly, I was working more than I had pre-pandemic and Ellen was left largely on her own with Noel checking in on her and doing short lessons in between meetings. In the afternoons, I would come home and do any catch-up we needed to. It’s been exhausting and not ideal. We basically crawled across the finish-line and collapsed in exhaustion. It may take us awhile to recover.
Are we considering homeschooling for the future?
Every time someone asks me this, I’m tempted to laugh like a hysterical lunatic. Homeschooling is not my dream. It was nice to direct Ellen’s curriculum towards issues that I feel are important, but ultimately I’d rather have that be a fun addition to what she’s learning at school. Cooper will go to middle school in the fall and Ellen will return to her elementary school. Ellen needs someone that isn’t me to be her teacher. Someone she won’t yell at and hopefully won’t lie to as much. They both need to learn and grow around other kids. I also need to not be responsible for teaching them everything and not be juggling so much.
Did we make the right choice?
I honestly don’t know. Parents really got hosed this last year no matter what option they chose. My friend sent me this podcast on The Agony of Pandemic Parenting and I felt it so deep that I openly wept while listening to it. All I can say is we were given terrible options and we choose the one we felt most comfortable with at the time. School ended up being safer than I thought it would be, but the in-person kids at our neighborhood school still had a rough fall. They were largely remote with a short in-person stint. Towards the beginning of the school year, I had a Zoom call with the social emotional specialist at the school related to a committee I chair and she started to cry about how awful things were at the school with all the protocols, being short staffed, etc. The spring has seemed better, but there have still been multiple instances where classes have been quarantined because cases popped up. As COVID restrictions have lessened the last month or so, the remote kids have been invited to participate in things like field day and a 5th grade pizza party. Those things have meant so much to the kids and my heart hurts a little thinking of all the socialization they’ve missed out on this last year. I have definitely had my moments were I’ve panicked and wondered if we made a huge mistake and have irreversibly damaged the children. Ultimately though, I believe kids are resilient and honestly, I think all of the options this last year carried some level of trauma.
On the positive side, we definitely came out on top as far as consistency goes and the kids have learned some important skills like being more self-directed and responsible. I think Ellen had a more academically rigorous year than she would have if she’d been remote or even in-person. She struggles with focusing sometimes (we’re trying to get to the bottom of it) and I think she really benefited from one on one attention when we were able to give it. I think Cooper’s year was less rigorous than a typical fifth grade year, but since that’s how it was for everyone, I’m not super concerned. Mostly I’m just so, so grateful that this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad school year is over.