We interviewed families of middle school students to get a closer look at how the pandemic is affecting their educational experience and their day-to-day lives. Hear what students all over the country are struggling with and what they want their educators to know right now. This is the first in a series of interviews that we have done with educators and families to give you an inside view into their differing experiences and points of view.
Darbi and Lane
In one home in Beal City, Michigan, eighth grader Lane and his siblings in kindergarten and fifth grade are preparing for transitions as they wrap up their school year learning remotely. Their mother Darbi has been working from home at night and helping the kids with homework by day; their father worked several weeks into the pandemic, but like many Americans has been temporarily laid off. Often at the beginning of the day, “everyone gets up and we argue about when to start schoolwork.”
Darbi and her husband bought the older kids chromebooks so they could do their work without fighting over a computer. Her biggest challenge has been “Not feeling like I’m having two worlds.” Being both an employee and a mother at home while helping her kids with schoolwork means feeling like she hasn’t gotten anything “done” around the house, even though she’s constantly working. Another issue the family deals with together is the “overwhelmed breakdowns” that happen every couple of days when new assignments come out and the kids find out they are behind on certain assignments.
Some of Lane’s biggest concerns with school are knowing when he has missed assignments and showing his teachers that he’s trying. “I’m not very good at art,” says Lane, “but it seems when I’m in the class and around other people and feeling normal I tend to do better. But when I’m here it seems like it’s all just horrible and sloppy and doesn’t look that great. But I just want them to know that I’m trying.” He doesn’t go to many of his teachers' drop-in sessions on Zoom; Lane would much rather work with a pen and a packet of worksheets on his own. Subjects like math, science, and history are easy for Lane to work on independently, but others are more challenging.
Since Lane’s school is pretty small, with about 60 students in his class, most of the parents know each other and stay in touch through Facebook groups. The transition to remote learning was pretty quick and seamless since the school had already been using Google Classroom for a few years. The students are not receiving standard grades during the pandemic; they will receive credit or no credit for the work they do. Darbi says she hears “more positive than negative” from other parents on the school’s approach. When it comes to communication with teachers, Darbi would like to better understand how parents can support the work teachers and students are doing together and which resources to point her kids to when they need help. She adds, “I can tell them all day long how to Google something and figure out the answer because that’s what I do in life, but I don’t know if that’s what they’re looking for.”
Darbi has had to clarify with her employer that even though her kids might be old enough to stay home together here and there, that won’t work for the duration of the pandemic. “We’re not home because I’m afraid he's going to set the house on fire,” she says. “I’m home because we have to help support them...to let you know that it’s okay and that you’re doing a good job and that your teachers aren’t going to fail you because you turn it in an hour and a half late or missed your Zoom call...We just need a lot of grace.”
Each child has different ways of staying in touch with their friends; Lane’s sister in fifth grade voice chats with her friends while they do schoolwork together and Lane waits until he is done to talk with his friends and cousins through Xbox Live. Though Darbi is more emotional about missing eighth grade graduation than Lane is, he does miss his friends a lot and worries that he might show up for high school next fall feeling prepared only to find that “everyone else knows what they’re doing and I’m off in a corner and I don’t know what I’m doing.” For the time being, he wants his teachers to know “I’m trying.”
Megan, Owen, and Ryder
Owen (fifth grade) and Ryder (eighth grade) attend a Catholic school in Dayton, Ohio. Their mother Megan, a medical assistant, still goes in to work from time to time. When she’s at work, Megan texts Owen and Ryder to see how they’re doing with schoolwork. She says, “If I don’t hear from Ryder for a while I’ll ask Owen, did your brother go back to bed?” When she does get to work from home, she has to fully concentrate on work and takes breaks throughout the day to keep up with chores around the house. Their father is working overtime (55 hours a week) because his company produces components for hand sanitizer dispensers.
At the time of interview, four weeks into quarantine, Owen and Ryder were just starting their spring break. Their school stayed open as long as they were allowed to in March, while public schools were on spring break and got additional time off while teachers were figuring out what to do. The private school was able to send students home with all of their textbooks and materials, and they kept going ahead with lessons as planned. Additional assignments were posted online as time went on. The school had announced that they would stick to their academic calendar with just a little over a week for spring break.
The school is still giving students letter grades, though some teachers are giving more leeway than others. Megan points out that this makes it very difficult to keep track of which work to prioritize. Ryder and Owen are divided on grading; “Ryder is really frustrated with everything and getting real grades...there’s no instruction and he’s kind of left to figure it out,” says Megan, while Owen says “I think it’s fair that we’re getting grades. But I feel like they should be a little lighter on the grades right now because nobody knows how to do this.”
Both students are concerned with their academic standing; Owen wants to stay on the honor roll, and Ryder is already scheduled to take honors classes when he starts high school in the fall. “If these kids messed up one quarter and then don’t do well at this homeschool thing,” Megan wonders, “is it really fair for them not to get their shot at an honors class next year and then have that above-4.0 GPA in the end?” Overall, both kids feel there isn't the support and guidance they usually get from their teachers, and they really miss it. According to Owen, “I wish I was back in school. This is awful.” His teacher is using a system they hadn’t spent much time with before, but they did send home an organized lesson plan for parents to follow along with. Ryder’s teachers did not send home any guidelines for parents; they post assignments on Google Classroom and expect eighth graders to work independently. Both students feel they are at a disadvantage because both of their parents work during the day.
To handle their workload, Megan makes a long list of everything that’s due each week, and they cross things off together as it gets done. The whole family agrees that teachers seem to be assigning the same amount of work they did before remote learning, and that this amount of work isn’t practical. Also, “teachers are underestimating how long this is going to take.” When they say to expect an assignment to take two hours, it ends up being closer to four to five hours. Megan is in touch with another mom whose son is in seventh grade at the same school, and he is having the same issues; she also has a first grader who’s being given “an exorbitant amount of work,” three to four activities throughout the day that can take up to two and a half hours. “My friends who have kids in public school don’t seem to have as much or aren’t doing as many hours of work,” says Megan. “It feels like private schools have been more aggressive,” which she expects, because she remembers always having a heavy workload from her own experience in private school. She adds, “technically we’re on spring break and it’s a holiday, and I’m still doing homework.”
Communication between the school, students, and parents has proven to be an issue--especially with such a big workload and high expectations to keep up with. For example, Ryder waited on an email response from a teacher for three days, and then the assignment showed up on a missing assignment report. “So then I grilled him because I was like ‘why is this missing’ and he’s like ‘that’s what I emailed her about!’” Ryder wishes his teachers knew that “really they can’t grade like they normally do, especially with late and missing stuff” because it can be hard to know what work has actually been submitted in Google Classroom. Also, he would urge them: “All those people you would have in a normal school environment have disappeared. It’s just really rough for everyone.”
Both Owen and Ryder had an active social life before the shelter-in-place order, which has been drastically affected. “Before all this started, I couldn’t tell you the last weekend [Owen] spent the whole weekend at home,” Megan said. He spent a lot of time at friends’ houses, and Ryder spent many evenings at basketball and football games. “They [educators] need to remember this is affecting these kids outside of just school work,” says Megan, “Not only are they making sure they’re still pleasing their teachers, but things are tense in households…These kids are mentally breaking down.” Ryder said, “I know all of my friends...we are panicking with this going on longer and potentially being online for the rest of the year.” His eighth grade class is a really tight knit group that often relies on each other for help with homework, and they will be missing out on lots of end-of-the-year events they have been looking forward to. On transitioning to high school next year, Ryder says “it is kind of scary…just because I don’t know where we’ll be compared to where we planned to be.”
Christine and Bryce
Bryce is a seventh grader who lives in Connecticut with his mom and dad, who are both teachers, and a younger brother. Bryan sees his teacher-parents as an advantage because they are great at helping him with homework, but his mother Christine sees things a little differently: “I want him to ask me more questions. But sometimes I think that’s a disadvantage. I’m always checking because I’m always checking on my students.” She adds, “Sometimes he gets a little snippy. ‘I don’t need your help, go away.’” It can feel like she’s “on call” all the time. At first Bryce was working for at least eight hours/day, but thankfully, the school reflected on that and changed their expectations. Christine adds, “I don’t want him on the computer that long.”
As teachers with a middle schooler at home, the biggest challenge for Christine and her husband is “just being able to help him. I start my day at 7:00 and start working with students at 8-8:30. I have different students who have different needs. By 4:00 I’m exhausted and I haven’t done anything physical all day.” To parents struggling to balance work, homework help, and other responsibilities, Christine would like to say “please, I don’t want them frustrated. If you need to pause, it’s okay. I don’t want them pulling their hair out…I don’t want them breaking down and having arguments.” One thing Christine wants her fellow teachers to realize is how challenging this quarantine has been for students with grandparents as caregivers. She dropped off books for a student with grandparents as caregivers with a note of encouragement because she knew they didn’t have a lot of books at home.
Bryce is missing his after-school activities like robotics, and since it has been cold and snowy, he misses being able to play outside. Having a brother at home is nice, but they still “get on each other’s nerves.” His mom notes that Bryce’s homeroom class that meets virtually “is the only time he sounds happy,” otherwise he often seems “sullen and depressed.” Bryce would like his teachers to know that “it would be helpful to get more feedback on what you have and have not done for the week,” as sometimes “you get a certain grade and you don’t know why.” Bryce is also struggling with the technology and could use more leeway; for instance, “yesterday someone gave me an F for something I know I did.” Lately Bryce has more than 50 emails a day, and he would appreciate it if his teachers would check if he’s emailed them before entering a zero!