Can our kids have a Skip year for 2021?

So, I have a couple kids, one going into the sixth grade (first year in middle school) and another going into ninth grade (first year in High School). It looks like my school district and many others are going with an all remote teaching program. I agree this the best option given our current situation for the safety of the students, teachers, staff and everyone at home with the children. But, I also feel like we are moving our kids forward in the educational system in 2021 with very little chance of our kids being successful. That we are doing it because we are challenged to do something different, to consider the children first and our timelines second.

I understand why

we are starting the school year like this but when do we think it will be safe? I suspect this is after we have a vaccine. But, I don’t think we expect this to be available until the end of 2021 or early 2022. Next we have to consider how will it be distributed? How long will it take for everyone to be vaccinated? Does this mean we might not be ready for in school learning until February, March, later? So then we send the kids back to school for a couple months at best?

Over about the past 10 years as my children have moved from kindergarten to the fifth grade I have volunteered in their elementary school. I have really enjoyed those days and my biggest regret is not doing it more often. The kids are wonderful, challenging, energized, sometimes dare I say a bit much. I remember helping a young student who looked lost as the teacher went through some math facts that correlated to the puzzle in front of her. She was supposed to color in the right answers to the questions. I soon realized it was a language barrier; she did not understand the question. I knelt down next to her and wrote down the question “7 x 5 = ?”. She immediately found 35 on her paper and colored it and waited for the next question with anticipation. Shortly after the Valentines heart began to emerge from the paper. I remember working with an early reader and helping to explain ideas like “when two vowels go a walking the first one does the talking”. There were lots of similar situations on those days. But, how does a teacher with 25+ students in a zoom class notice the child that is lost?

summer camp tug of war
summer camp tug of war

I remember field trips to the Zoo, to the Aquarium, to our local nature reserve. I remember how excited my son was about the fifth grade summer camp. All the kids in the fifth grade from our three local elementary schools would spend 3 nights and 4 days together at a camp in Olympia. The only thing better was how thrilled he was to tell us about his adventures when he returned home after the camp ended. Why must our children miss out on these rights of passage? What about the 2021 Seniors that face no chance for a victorious Homecoming dance after the first football game, no Prom, no graduation? I talked to one Junior from a local High School this past May and asked how things were going. In his response he said the thing that worried him the most was that the 2020 Seniors would feel even more pity for him in 2021.

I have taught classes for adults at my local university part time for a while now. I have done this in person, online and in a blended format meaning that I had both online and in-person students at the same time. In my experience in-person learning was the best. I find that remote learning is challenging for adults. Adults are challenged to find the discipline to start the homework early, ask questions, seek help and submit something before the next class. Online students are often hesitant or unable to speak up during class. If I am standing in front of a class of 25 students going over a concept I find that students will provide subtle tells that I have lost them. When I see this it is possible to directly engage with that student, I can quickly draw something on the board, animate the activity or whatever it takes to get the concept across. Now if I teach the same class online… I can’t see all the students and my lecture notes in the same way; I can’t see the those subtle clues that someone is not tracking with my lecture, I can’t improvise in the same ways. I am sitting in front of a monitor and this directly impacts my teaching style. Yes, I have found some ways to adept but I am making do, I am trying to compensate for the online limitations. Also these adults typically don’t suffer from things like ADD, ADHD or other learning challenges that many young students have. How does an educator in a first grade class successfully teach reading over zoom? How do we manage language, behavioral, and cultural differences and challenges over a zoom session?

Of course remote learning also assumes the children have access to a computer, a desk, a microphone, speakers, some level of privacy, sufficient internet access and supplies to support the lessons. Every year we would get a long list of supplies for our kids from the elementary teachers before the year started. Many children were not able to provide these supplies, how will this change with remote learning? I think of all these obstacles and it makes it hard to see how we have a successful school year in 2021.

This past spring it was not uncommon for my son to attend classes for his middle school and be the only student to show up. In approximately half of the classes less than 5 students joined the class zoom sessions. My daughter who was in the fifth grade and had zoom sessions with a few more attendees but their ability to focus, listen, and really understand the topics presented was near zero. I found that in order for my daughter to be successful we as parents had to spend 2 or more hours a day in direct tutoring. It is not that I don’t want to teach my children but it was hard to do this and work from home. I am sure many other parents simply were not able to do it. In one example with my daughter it became abundantly clear that she had no idea about the 3 methods for solving long division or how to apply them. Also keep in mind we have two children, we had to spend an equal amount of time covering eighth grade courses. There is no quick answer to the comprehension of algebraic equations it just take time and patience. The social aspect was good, our children need to know they are not alone but pressuring them to prepare for SATs, exams, standard core concepts while also removing the previously known support structure seems like too much to ask.

Can we be honest?

It sounds radical at first but I really think we should just be honest with our kids. This is not something we have done before, this is not a situation for which we have a solid plan, we should allow them to give their best effort this coming year but consider it a “skip year”. We should allow teachers to work on ideas, content and lessons with the children they can reach. However, every child should know that next year is about best effort and that school will start in earnest, in person, in 2022. Why? Because who really cares what age we graduate from High School? Life is a journey not a race, education is an experience not a timeline, we owe it to our kids to support them, encourage them and also let them have first grade field trips, fifth grade summer camp, eighth grade homecoming dance and their senior year prom. Our children should be allowed to put on a drama show, play on a school team, join a club, have a band recital and explore their potential. These experiences are part of the rights of passage our children deserve, these are the memories that help make us, build us and help with self discovery. This collection of experiences and learning is how we help a child to become an adult, to become a productive part of our community.

So, can we have a skip year, can we call 2021 a mulligan?

I live in the northwest with my wife, son and daughter. We are under the watchful eye of our family dog and all look forward to better days, except the dog.