The Impossibility of Pandemic Schooling

A week or so into the closing of schools for the COVID pandemic, the learning support coordinators for each of my three boys called to see how we were doing. Apparently they were required to see if any updates to the 504 or IEP plans needed to be made to handle the transition to remote learning. I couldn’t think of anything at the time.

Times have changed.

I have tried to help my boys meet their educational expectations. I have nagged and cajoled. I have praised and punished. I have hidden the gaming devices and TV remotes. I have yelled and screamed. I have cried …. and I have cried.

But it’s still a mess. My boys are not iPad learners. They are get your hands dirty learners. They are drop the rock into water to measure volume learners. They are sit with other kids in a classroom to motivate me learners. Their ADHD and learning styles are not meshing with a learn-at-home environment.

Text with teen

I warned my 7th grader one day that he was in jeopardy of failing yet another class….in a long procession of emails I receive every few days. His response was spot on: “I would be fine if I was in school.” He’s right. He was an A/B student. He was fine. “I know you would,” I understood. “I just don’t do well with this iPad sh$t.” I know, buddy. I know.

Super Tall Guy is expected to learn about Greek Gods and Goddesses from a series of Powerpoint slides. Not surprisingly he doesn’t care. I thought about the fact that had he been sitting in the classroom, he might have heard a tiny bit about a goddess or two as the teacher talked. He might have snickered to a buddy across the room about a particular characteristic of one of the gods. He and his friends might have joked about the lesson as they walked through the hallway to the next class. Something might have seeped in. But not if he’s sitting at home required to swipe through slides in just one more endless exhausting list of “things to do.”

Even the third grader commented the other day on our daily walk, “Mom, the iPad just doesn’t trigger my brain to learn.”

On a phone call at Easter, my sister-in-law noted that she’s been homeschooling her children for years, so this shutdown hasn’t really changed them at all. “But,” she acknowledged, “I have the whole curriculum supplied to me. I know what we’re trying to accomplish.” She is a teacher, an educator.  Me, on the other hand, looks at a list of what is due today or this week for multiple teachers, multiple subjects and multiple children. I don’t know “where” they are along the continuum of lessons.  The difference between home “education” and crisis online learning is huge.

We can do 10 minutes.

Mismatched to the very core of their brains’ ability to retain information, this remote learning expectation is also mismatched to the life of a working parent. Like school, my work also shifted to the home. My coffee house meetings are now draining Zoom calls. My simulation classes are now dry lectures that I’ve recorded onto Powerpoint. My comradery at the office is now gone. My brain is stressed about how to get work done because every 5 to 21 minutes, I’m interrupted to assume the role of teacher, short-order cook, Bingo number-caller, dog-walker, TV-fixer, argument-settler. My conscious bombards me with work that is not getting done. My email-response time is at least 3 days late. My to-do list is never-ending and just moves from one day to the next, from one week to the next. And one day a week, I work at our medical practice, so 20% of the week, I’m completely absent from my children. As I struggle to keep up with work, I just can’t even attempt to teach, especially as a single full-time working parent.

And I’m stressed by the sheer load of trying to understand life within the context of a rapidly transmissible, potentially deadly or life-changing virus. I’m worried about keeping my aging parents healthy. I’m worried about keeping my children healthy as we learn about unique inflammatory reactions in kids. I’m worried about the patients that I’m not seeing in the office although I go in for 10 hours one day a week to sit and make telemedicine calls. I’m worried about people around our community who are experiencing far more hardship and stress than I am. I’m worried about how much of this could have been prevented by a competent and coordinated government response at the beginning. This concept of allostatic load is certainly present in many people’s lives and for me leads to forgetting to do things, taking a long time to respond to emails or texts, and falling into complete exhaustion by the end of the day. I don’t want to clean the house or wash dishes, I just want to sit at the puzzle table or zone out on the couch.

5th grader “self-portrait” (We sorely miss the breadth and depth of Art class and all the “specials”)

I fully know that my children’s teachers are trying their best to convert from their plans for the final school quarter to an online platform. They are all truly amazing teachers and I grieve the fact that my boys no longer sit and listen to their wisdom. I also know that teachers are generally trained to be in front of a classroom of children and have little to no training in being an online teacher. It’s hard on them too and they need support.

I also struggle with trying to focus foremost on the boys’ emotional needs. I worry about how much to push them and how much to acknowledge that they are also stressed by this whole situation.

So many families I speak with have similar experiences. So many agree that they were holding together for the first few weeks and managing okay. But now it has all collapsed.

I guess now is the time to revisit that learning support plan for the boys (the 504s, the IEPs). Now is the time just give it a wash for this school year. Now is the time to think about what supports need to be in place and what changes need to occur in case schools have to be closed in the fall.

Shared by a friend.

Now is the time to be honest….that for my family ….remote learning is a traumatic check-list of failure and a complete lack of “learning.”

My hope is that the boys will catch up and not shutdown any love of learning. That they will indeed rebound. That they will have a most beautiful future learning to do the things they love.

And, thankfully there’s always the joy of the puppy…..

Troublemaker: The Quarantine Puppy

Like so many people sitting at home to work over the past six or so weeks of “shelter-in-place,” it seemed like the perfect timing to get that puppy I had been contemplating for months.

Since the boys were clearly stressed by the sudden change in their lives and unable to say things like, “Gosh, Mom, I’m feeling really stressed and unsettled by this rapid change and don’t have great coping mechanisms,” they expressed this by fighting over who would get to sleep with our little cavadoodle. They cuddled up with Mitzy any time they were overwhelmed with big feelings. They found an outlet in loving a fuzzy little animal. So when a friend posted about Animal Lifeline on Facebook, we got our application in and waited for the next transport of puppies rescued from puppy mills or kill shelters in other states.

Scanning through a dozen or so photos of available puppies the following week, Mr. Ornery zeroed in on a tiny pure black puppy. “Look at those eyes, Mom,” he said, “that puppy needs us” (or the other way around). A few hours later, the boys were cuddling a black lab mix and I was signing paperwork.

All the way home, the boys argued over a name before

Amazon reminds me I purchased this in 2009

settling on Malachi. I tirelessly argued that was a boy’s name. The moment my friend texted a series of suggested M-names and I read her daughter’s suggestion of Mocha, I knew that was it. The next day, Little Guy came running into the room singing, “Grande, non-fat no-whip Mocha. Grande, non-fat no-whip Mocha, where’s my puppy Moka?” using my favorite coffee drink to remember a new name.  I laughed and I switched the spelling to match a book we’ve enjoyed.

 

Sure it sounds like a great idea to get a quarantine puppy. Why not pile on a lot more work? With the current crisis level of stress, I had started to sleep 8-9 hours a night. Now I sleep 6-7 and beg the puppy to go back to sleep in the early mornings as I lay there restlessly unable to doze off. With the constant disruption of children as I try to pay attention to Zoom meetings or put thought to paper for work, now every 20-30 minutes I have to figure out what the puppy is chewing on and take her out to pee.

But I can handle this, because having a new puppy is just like having boys:

Little Moka can’t come into the house without tracking in dirt or carrying in bits of nature. Mostly because she loves to dig the black dirt all over the sidewalk right in front of the door – so that everyone now drags in dirt! It’s especially awesome when it rains.

She contributes to the constant “I can’t find my shoe” issue. It’s been three days and I still can’t find the left flip-flop and my right running shoe. And I don’t know whether to blame boys or a puppy who picks it up and carries it around the house.

She leaves wet blotches in the carpet much like the boys do when they spill their drink and “forget” to clean it up or mention it until I find it with my socked feet.

An innocent appearing behavior, such as licking the front porch railing quickly becomes destructive and I think about all the repairs I’ll some day have to do because of the constant flurry of activity of all these little creatures in the house.

There are some lessons learned, as well. For example, when leaving the puppy home all day with the older boys while I’m at work, I might have needed to specify to remove the “solid waste” BEFORE using the spray and wet paper towel to rub the carpet! (Even magic Folex hasn’t been able to touch this stain.)

Also would have helped to be a little more specific in my note to the 11-year-old that read, “Please take puppy out every hour and feed at 12 noon.” When I unknowingly gave the puppy dinner and she groaned as she still tried to eat with a belly double its normal size, I learned that Mr. Ornery read that as “feed puppy every hour” as well as take her out.

Despite all this (and the continuing destruction that I’m sure we’ll have), I don’t regret the decision. The other night, on The Little Guy’s ninth birthday, the puppy jumped off the couch and landed on her front leg wrong. She howled in pain. The boys ran to find me and I held the puppy tight. Wrestling with whether she needed to get to the emergency vet, with time she started walking on it again. As she tucked in to sleep that evening and the younger boys cuddled into my arms on the couch watching a movie, they wept with worry about the puppy. Reassuring them, I thought, you know what, you boys are going to be okay. You have tremendous love for another creature. You have deep empathy for someone in pain. You find joy in the physical connection (even if it is a puppy licking your face). And you are learning more responsibility.

Welcome to the family, Moka. We’re all glad you’re here.

We’re Crashing: The Corona Blues

We’re crashing. We seriously thought we could do it. We rallied ourselves up. The adrenaline was high. We knew what we had to do and we could do it… Switch to social distancing… Switch to working at home… Switch to remote schooling. We got this. It sounded manageable because we were told that we were staying in for two weeks. And that seemed to be very doable.

For some, it was intense work of changing up the way offices were run, or medicine was practiced, or preschools and schools switched to home-based. For some it was endless hours of getting systems ready to run a new way. For others, it was a sudden social change with kids home all day without the usual supports of friendships and playgrounds and activities. For some, it was sudden isolation, stuck within their own four walls of the senior high rise without Bingo night or card games or opportunities to talk with each other.

And we thought we could do it.

A light: Free library in nearby neighborhood offering masks for those who need one.

But then as the weeks ran into one another and the days blended together and the time stood still, we realized we just couldn’t do it anymore. We were crashing. The adrenaline was gone. The constant stress and unrelieved worry that simmered underneath our conscious emotions began to overflow. We had prepared ourselves for the sprint. We didn’t realize we would be undertaking a marathon.

And just as the tears started to leak and the brain started to spin, we suddenly realized that all our natural coping mechanisms were gone. The tight squeezing hug from a friend. The hanging out together over a cup of coffee. The meals around the table.

Sure there’s the telephone and the FaceTime and the Zoom Happy Hours. But suddenly we realized that wasn’t cutting it. Because if nothing else, this crisis-demanding social distancing has made it abundantly clear that the human body is designed to be in close connection with other human bodies. The energy that radiates from our very cells when next to another feeds one another and refills one another. Being together uplifts one another and soothes us. Technology cannot replace touch and proximity.

Week 6 of shut-down and we’re crashing. We’re crashing because jobs are lost and money is tight. We’re crashing because we don’t want someone telling us what to do. We’re crashing because we just need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The word “indefinite” doesn’t work for us. We need control. We need a timeline. We need to know.

We’re crashing because we’ve never lived like this. We don’t know how to live like this yet. And we are not getting clear and consistent information and instructions. We don’t see a clear and unified plan. We’re crashing because we’re scared and angry and feeling helpless.

We’re crashing because our usual coping skills weren’t built for this and because we we’re hard on ourselves. We expect to be productive. We expect to get things done. We have forgotten how to rest.

We’re crashing because there are moments when we can’t see the light. The hurt and the pain that surrounds us. The illness and death of friends and family. The images of mass graves being dug and long lines of cars waiting, desperate for food.  We’re crashing because the world is so different than it used to be and feels less safe.

Zen: Adult coloring book by a friend

We’re crashing because it is time to crash. The Corona Blues have set in and we are each having to face the darkness. And it’s time to rethink what we’ve been doing. It’s time to look forward to a new world and a new way of life. It’s time keep our eyes out for the light that is there around us.

And it is time to give ourselves permission to rest. It’s time to find activities that help us make time stand still. Reading a book. Doing a puzzle. Intricate coloring. Baking bread. Weeding the garden. Long walks through the woods. Anything in which time warps and what feels like ten minutes has been forty-five. For in those moments, the body pauses, the breathing calms, the stress lessons and the soul heals.

It’s time we give ourselves those “zen” moments and encourage one another to do so as well.

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

We just have to “be”…God’s got the rest.

You Got This

Easter of a pandemic. I stayed up late for Easter bunny fun designing a nice scavenger hunt for the boys to find their baskets in the morning. What I failed to appreciate was the vicious combination of holiday excitement and poor impulse control. Within minutes, Mr. Ornery was in tears about how hard the hunt was, how this was stupid, and how angry he was about having to do this. Within minutes a fight had broken out over whose tiny piece of chocolate was whose after cracking open all the plastic eggs from the family-room-egg-hunt. Within minutes, I was tucked away back in my bed sobbing.

My expectation of a beautiful morning clashed with the ADHD expectation of immediate access to candy! My expectation of a fun bonding moment in the midst of quarantine clashed with the need to just get to the end goal. It took me awhile to bounce back and realize that we are all stressed. Holidays add stress. Decreased amount of sleep adds stress. Constant, smoldering worry of an ongoing pandemic adds stress. A complicated scavenger hunt for an Easter basket was not the right type of stress to add.

I’ve been imparting wisdom left and right about how it’s most important to attend to our social-emotional health during this time, especially the health of our children. The other day, I stood in the hallway of our medical office listening to a mother stress about how many hours of school work she was trying to get her 6 year old to accomplish. She had gotten home from work and spent about 4 hours with her kindergartener trying to get assignments done. There was stress. There were tears. There was guilt about not spending time with the younger sibling because of all the attention on school. Her voice cracked. And my heart paused for her.

“Listen, we’re living in a pandemic. We’re just hanging on some days trying to cope. There’s too much stress of trying to do work well, trying to parent well, and trying to help kids with school. She’s in kindergarten. She’s going to be fine if you just focus on her emotional health,” I spouted.

There are just a few times I’ve cried during this pandemic and most of those times have been while on a phone (or after hanging up) with a teacher or learning support teacher at my boys’ schools. I find that I keep voicing how hard this is for parents to try to do their own work from home while simultaneously trying to figure out how to help the kids. I’ve advocated for paying more attention to “how are the kids feeling?” and figuring out how they are coping with their stress.  We’ve revised 504s and IEPs. We’ve decreased some of the workloads. But it’s a work in progress.

The moment the schools closed, Super Tall Guy packed up and moved over to my sister’s house. He loves being there with her two teenage boys. He spent the entire summer there last year. And while that seemed fine when they talked about closing school for two weeks, when the governor closed schools for the rest of the year – a total of 3 months – that just didn’t seem sustainable.  I struggled with the fact that he wasn’t getting the same “bonding” time that the other two boys and I were having (not that he’d come out of his room to go on our daily family walks, anyway). And although I kept fussing about whether to “make” him come back home, I finally relaxed into persuading myself that his stay there was buffering his social-emotional health. He is happy and that is good enough for now.

There’s just no right and wrong. No clear cut answers to anything. We are all just trying to do our best each day and waking up to try again tomorrow. So I wrote this….

 

 

 

Because of Corona: Covid week 3

I tried a rap with the boys.

You’re off school

Isn’t that cool

Cuz cuz cuz, Corona.

 

Everything’s closed

Stuck at home

Cuz cuz cuz, Corona.

 

They thought it was awful.

We’ve been trying to cope with all these changes and name them. We can’t go to the skate park with our scooters and skateboards, because of Corona. Grandma didn’t get to join us in coloring Easter eggs, because of Corona. We can’t invite a friend over to play, because of Corona. “Will we go to the beach for vacation this year?” We might not, honey, because of Corona.

Because of Corona, I start all my work emails with the words, “So sorry for my tremendous delay in responding….” It’s my “Covid-delay.” You know the joke, where someone gets distracted by a passing squirrel? Well, that’s all I have in my life right now – lots of squirrels!! And there’s no space for brain power.

Because of Corona, the governor of our state just canceled schools for the rest of the year. My 5th grader is missing out on his “senior” year of elementary school – the strutting in the hallways of being the “big” kid on the block, the visit to the middle school in preparation for the transition, the grade-level picnic at the local playground as a last bonding hurrah. I know it’s a small thing in the grand scheme of health and life, but it’s a disappointment and a grieving. And it’s a stress to know that the squirrels are going to be circling me for another two months!

Because of Corona, I am now putting in full days at the medical office which means my sister is helping by watching my youngest for almost 12 hours (which gives her a total of 5 boys in the house; although fortunately the three teens sleep a good chunk of the day). And it means that Mr. Ornery is home alone for a good chunk of time watching TV. I thanked him for it the other night as I tucked him into bed and he said, “It’s okay, Mom. I know you have to help people.” It’s still a sacrifice for the family.

Because of Corona, the younger boys, the little Cavadoodle and I take a walk around the neighborhood every day. They are usually on a scooter or skateboard and I’m usually saying inane things like, “Look at that beautiful purple flower which I don’t know the name of….” We are becoming more in tune with nature and the tiny changes of the season that we would never have noticed had we been in our hectic schedule of gymnastics, hockey, basketball and on and on. It’s a time of growth for us.

Because of Corona, I am a little more irritable and snap at the boys a little more. I’m around them so much now that I start to pick on little things. I’m trying hard to get work in and realize I’ve just snapped at a little boy who interrupted my online meeting because he simply needed a hug. I sleep much more than I used to and yet struggle to feel rested. I read more. I puzzle more. I bake more. My body is stressed and trying to deal with the trauma of an upended life. It takes a toll on all of us.

Because of Corona, my neighbor and I have started to jog or walk together a couple mornings a week. We just need to move and we just need to talk. We just need the comfort of venting to one another, listening to one another. I’ve been connecting with many people electronically. I’ve had several zoom “Happy Hours,” but there’s a different physical and biological response when we’re near someone even if we’re six feet away.

But because of Corona, we’re also awkward around other people now. I fold my arms across my chest to make sure I don’t accidentally reach out and touch someone as we talk. As someone who is not all-huggy, I now crave the hugs from my great-hugger friends. My neighbor brought over sidewalk chalk for the boys and we awkwardly tried to figure out if she could hand it to me or put it down and I’d pick it up…. Because of Corona, I wonder if people worry about me baking cookies for them (so I wash frequently and use gloves to plate them). It’s a constant edginess.

I asked the fifth-grader how he felt about missing his last quarter of his school year. “Awesome!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t it a little weird, though?” I inquired. He paused. He doesn’t talk about emotions much (you know, a preteen boy). He replied as he walked away, “Yes, it is weird. …. But I’m okay.”

I’m okay. Acceptance. That’s the point we need to get to, but it’s going to take awhile. We are coping with loss and disappointment. We are coping with uncertainty and constant change. We are coping with stress and trauma. The wisdom of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief fits this age of pandemic. As individuals and communities, we worked through denial of “it’s just a flu.” We wrestled with the anger of “how can you shut down our normal routines and businesses and ask us to collectively stay home?” We start the bargaining of “Can’t I just….or….” And we feel the depression and anguish of the current state. We hurt for those experiencing intense hardship. We worry about the individual and societal and worldwide impact of this experience. The grief is real.

And we work toward acceptance and healing. We work toward a new “normal” and a new level of empathy and compassion. We work toward making sure that everyone is “okay.” Blessings to each on this journey.

Forsythia heart in a neighbor’s yard.

 

 

In a Blink: COVID-19 Week 2

She waved at me from behind the glass of the front door. We were on the phone together, we were ten feet away from each other, but the glass door kept us apart. The glass door kept the virus out, if there was a chance of me carrying it to my aging parents and my father with lung disease. I struggled to not let her hear my voice crack in sadness. I wanted more than anything to give my mom a hug of letting her know that I love her.

“Want me to throw a knife out the window?” she asked after offering me the chance to pick a bouquet of daffodils. “No, thanks, my fingernails are working just fine,” I replied as I gathered the bright yellow smiling flowers. They sit on my coffee table, a reminder of joy and new life.

And a distinct reminder of how life was altered drastically in a blink of our eyes. In a blink, the schools closed and the kids stayed home. In a blink, the offices closed and people started to work from home. In a blink, all our routines changed. All activities canceled. All restaurants closed to social gatherings. All public places closed. All people were told to stay home.

In a blink, the fear rose. The fear of catching an illness which could kill. The fear that the person near you could cough and spew minuscule, unseen particles of disease. The fear of drastic economic changes that could topple many people. The fear of losing jobs. The fear of stress increasing domestic violence and child abuse. The fear of how uncertain everything seemed to be. The fear of constant shifting change. The fear of death for families and friends. Gut-wrenching fear.

Yet, in a blink we also started to see life in a new way. In a blink we started to actually “see” our family. We started to think about activities that we could be doing together. We started daily family walks around the neighborhood that gave us moments to talk together. We spent hours creating cardboard mazes for the hamster, Lego constructions, and new fingerboard “skate parks.” We played games and watched more movies together. We roasted marshmallows for s’mores while lamenting that we couldn’t invite the neighbors over, but cherishing the moments together.

In a blink, we started to look at our neighbors differently. Did the elderly couple next door need someone to shop for them? In a blink, we encouraged each other to color on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, put bears in our windows for “bear hunts” for the little ones, and raised our glasses in salute of our community. In a blink, we started to see that only by encouraging each other to practice social distancing, uniting as a community with one goal, would we make it through this craze with as little loss as possible.

And how do we understand that the blink that happened in my world is so totally different than what happened to others. I have been able to adjust to the changes around me because I’m financially stable and have a truly wonderful support system. Others, though, have lost jobs, lost income, lost opportunities. Others have lost connections with friends and families. Others have struggled to find food for their families and lost access to healthcare and medications. Others are stressed about finding formula and diapers and baby wipes for their infants. Some are stressed by spending more time in dangerous situations of homelessness or abuse. For some people, their entire world has collapsed and they are drowning in their storm. The safety net systems are cracked and straining and the gaping inequality in our country has become exposed for all to see.  There are some local resources here.

In a blink, our very world changed. And it’s up to us figure out what we’re going to take away from this moment in time. Will we hold each other tighter? Will we show genuine love and respect for all human beings? Will we reach out and support those who are doing such hard work? Will we remember that we are all created equal? Will we grow in our faith and our commitments? Will we work to address discrimination and intolerance and inequality?

Fast forward a week to the day my father turned 80. My family and my sister’s family piled in our cars and drove over. We placed 80 candles on two small cakes, but only 5 or 6 candles would stay lit given the wind and overcast drizzle. We held up signs and sang Happy Birthday through a closed window. One of the cakes fell off the porch smashing onto the ground and we laughed. Super Tall Guy smeared a piece of cake onto my head and I resisted the temptation for a food fight solely because I knew we didn’t have access to water to clean off! We laughed. We blew kisses and mimed hugs. Hopefully we were able to convey our love and thankfulness to these wonderful grandparents.

But, oh, I miss my mom’s hugs. The grief is real.