Well before the pandemic began, even at the beginning of our older son’s school days, it was clear to my husband and me that our kids, much like ourselves, are built to think outside of the box, and would likely be stifled by any educational system that sought to box them in. We had decided that since, in our own experience, public school was pretty great up until about 3rd/4th grade, we would keep them in public school until then and then shift to homeschooling from there.
Our now 9 yr old was diagnosed with speech delay before age 3, and has thrived with the support of the special education services he has consistently received from his public school. He has since then been diagnosed as being on-the-spectrum, and in the fall was for the first time in both Special Education and the Gifted and Talented programs. Our now 6 yr old was beginning to show signs of ADHD/dyslexia at the start of the spring semester of this year, and had begun to be evaluated for that right when the school shut down began. We learned early on in his school days that he makes a great line leader, and a terrible caboose! Both of them have specific learning needs that cause standard education to leave them often feeling like fish being asked to climb a tree.
The homeschooling we had envisioned -which was to begin next year for our 9 yr old, and in a couple of years for our 6 yr old, is a far cry from the virtual schooling we experienced at the end of spring, and is presumably a far cry from what we expect of virtual education in the fall, as it would’ve included connecting with a group of homeschoolers and a learning focus on each of our childrens’ specific strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Of course, we had no expectation that there would be many similarities, given the complete removal of standard social learning options, but we were still in some way pleased with the transitional quality that pandemic schooling offered us as a family.
Both of our boys are social creatures, and neither of them ever really fit in with their classmates in a way that they felt a sense of belonging. It quickly became clear to us in the spring that it was good for them to take a break from not fitting in with a group of their peers, but after nearly six months of zero socialization outside of each other’s company, it has also become clear that they both, like any of us, would very much prefer to be a part of a group of peers with whom they could feel a sense of belonging.
It wasn’t until the Thursday before this spring break, that our older son was compelled for the first time to write a note to invite a bus-mate to begin a playdate relationship outside of school, and he is still a bit bummed that he never got the chance to hand that note to his potential friend.
It’s not that they don’t have friends, it’s just that the friends they do have are not in their neighborhood or in their classes. Their friends are out-of-town cousins, the kids of our friends, and the kids with whom they have bonded being a part of the community of kids who share 18 magical days together annually at the Kerrville Folk Festival. There, our family has camped from Memorial day through the first week of June since it was just my husband and I, back in 2002, and even before that, when my mother brought me along as a child.
Community camping, for 18-24 days, is not so much camping as it is living in tents -intense living, with community support. The tribal life skills acquired in this setting are priceless to human development, and the sense of belonging found there is a catalyst for collaborative creativity which knows no bounds. Those who belong to this community are regularly compelled to convince everyone they know that they, too, belong there, such that it feels like describing a cult, though it is assuredly not. What we find and co-create there is a magic that we all long to sustain year round, and in the absence of that ability, we fill our cups for 18 days, and sip from them sparingly throughout the year until we can return to fill them again. We aspire to envision a world that functions with this magic at its core, to realize a year round lifestyle where the ‘getaway’ is the way, and in being as such, requires no retreat.
When the pandemic simultaneously removed from us both the retreat and that from which we needed a retreat, we were left with our four selves and a lot of time. For the most part, thankfully, we have gotten along splendidly in each other’s company, playing family games, playing music together, watching movies together, gardening, cooking, organizing and culling the herd of our material clutter. The boys are so very different in their needs and wants, but have done well to get along with each other, and to take personal space when needed. That said, it will be necessary for their sibling serenity for them to have some measured time apart for their individual developmental needs, at some point in the not-so-distant future.
The virtual end of the spring semester, for our family, was a mess, consisting of regularly falling short of learning goals, and doing our best to participate enough for a passing grade. Gently getting the boys used to a reality where so much of what was once stable is now -and will indefinitely remain flipped upside down, included relaxing our expectations of them, and patiently allowing them the space to grieve in their own unique ways: that which is lost, that which never was, that which they don’t yet understand, and that which they may never know. Extending that gentle patience to ourselves as well took a bit more mindfulness, and is still a very conscious effort.
The failing on our part to help our kids foster the relationships of geographical convenience that came naturally to us, as latchkey kids of the eighties, wasn’t recognized as tragic for the boys until the lockdown limited them to such in-person interactions. Of course, their newly developed Messenger Kids and Zoom skills have kept them virtually in touch with distant friends and relatives, and for that we are grateful, but having no local family or friends is a tough stone to carry at any age, through these pandemic times. We are thankful to have one good friend who lives only an hour away who is in our Covid bubble, and visits us on most weekends!
The summer has been inexplicably both rapid and endless, with no change of scenery, so our backyard has become essential to diversifying our at-home options for entertainment -now including such amenities as a swing, a hammock, a pool with slide, misters, sprinklers, a firepit, and a garden. We have set up the new tent in the living room, and pretended to camp. We built and launched rockets in the large field behind our backyard. We are living our best quarantined life, all things considered.
In mid-March, and again in mid-April, we buried feline friends we had known the companionship of since their kittenhood, in 2002. In July we declined to attend the funeral of my husband’s great-grandmother, which was hard to do, but easy to decide on as the best choice for everyone involved. We are currently willing the rest of our elderly loved ones to stay alive at least until such a time as we will have had the opportunity to see them again in person, and when it will again be safe to gather to lay them to rest.
The boys have been writing weekly letters to their great grandparents, and that has been a delight for everyone involved! It is pressingly sad to consider that these interactions may be their last connections with these family elders, and the weight of this potential loss is heavy, but that burden has been lightened by their pen pal relationship.
Time has been relative and at times irrelevant, with March and April passing like molasses, and May through July more like a hybrid of the tortoise and the hare. Now that August is upon us, we are fully engulfed in the ocean of uncertainty surrounding the fall school semester. In mid-July, I joined the South Austin Quaranteam Facebook group, to get my finger on the pulse of what parents were doing to prepare for pandemic schooling. There I learned about the hub/pod, and how it, among other options, stands out as potentially both a problem and a solution for issues of equity that have always been embedded in public education.
Seeing clearly that there is no hope in stopping the exodus of the privileged from their public schools into private pods whose cost is negligible for them, and that the already existing cracks in our systems -through which marginalized populations and lower income families fall, are at great risk of being widened to catch many more families who have until now been, or for the first time now are teetering on the edge of said cracks, I was compelled to get more involved in the discussions around equity in pandemic times. This has resulted in my attendance of many Zoom meetings, and newly formed relationships with a variety of people who are passionate about service to others, and a vision that all students could be provided with similarly advantageous learning situations, with the right amount of coordination, communication, and a specific focus on families whose needs are greater than their means.
Through work-trade agreements, we have managed to find a place for each of our boys, in hubs/pods committed to following AISD virtual curriculum, and are hopeful that these arrangements will for the most part work out as intended. It is clear that communication across the lines that divide us is critical to our ability to develop a framework of virtual learning solutions that will provide those with greater needs the resources they lack, while also creating awareness among more privileged families of the unintended consequences of their exodus, thereby hopefully influencing them to include equitable practices in their pandemic plans, which includes staying virtually enrolled in AISD, and holding space in their pods for a member or two who cannot afford to pay, or who doesn’t have time to participate in a trading of duties in a co-op setting.
We are committed to sticking with the public school in this virtual pod/hub way, for the foreseeable future, and have put a pin in our plan to shift to homeschooling -partly because it appears that plans are developing in a way where we can get more of what our kids need and less of what they don’t need, while also considering and supporting the system that sustains the needs of many other families with an endless variety of their own needs, and partly because much of the homeschool vision was centered around pre-pandemic possibilities, many of which are now and indefinitely inaccessible.
I am also committed to continually participating in the dialogues and movements that are working tirelessly to understand and meet the needs of the underserved and often underrepresented members of our community, and to promoting awareness and communication to those in every different reality that exists side by side in our city, that our actions and outcomes are intrinsically connected, and that we are all better off when we are all better off. When the feedback loop of the shared story generates a mutual understanding of how we can develop community supports and safety nets, and why we must be mindful that our focus on the interests of our own includes a focus on filling the cracks of inequity for others who may have previously been in our blindspots, we will begin to build sustainable and duplicatable community resilience.