At schools around the region, a new ritual has been taking place. It’s the back-to-school, COVID-era laptop distribution, as almost all public schools in the state have begun the year with remote learning.
On a recent warm September day at Keithley Middle School in Parkland, south of Tacoma, students waited in line with their parents, mostly moms. The school is next to Pacific Lutheran University in a part of Pierce County that’s racially diverse and lower income – 1 in 4 kids lives below the poverty line.
The kids expressed a range of emotions about starting the school year this way. Emily Moreno Ramirez is 11 years old and starting sixth grade. To her, it’s appealing to attend school from the safety of home because she’s got some middle school jitters.
How is she feeling?
“Happy, so that I don’t get lost in here,” she said.
“The school is so big, she’s like, ‘Mom, I’ll be lost,’” said her mother, Elizabeth Ramirez. “I’m like, 'No, you’ll be fine.’”
So virtual school can delay that inevitable feeling of being lost in a sea of older kids. Elizabeth said she’s relieved school is not starting in person because she’s worried Emily could catch the virus.
“If she brings it, she’ll bring it for the whole family, and then her little brother has asthma, so we don’t want that,” she said.
Other kids and parents are feeling less positive because online learning means being kind of isolated. That’s one thing that Jonas Hernandez and his mother, Jordan French, brought up. Jonas is 11 years old and entering sixth grade.
“There’s not really much socializing. It’s more just — get it done,” he said. “There’s no actual socializing. That’s another important part of school.”
“Yeah, I have a kindergartener going in and it’s crazy. I mean, I get why, but kindergarten is so much more than reading and learning to write,” Jordan said. “It’s the socialization, learning that skill. Even in middle school.”
“It’s like a long-distance relationship,” Jonas said. “It never really works out in the end.”
A TEACHER'S VIEW
Jonas may be kind of a pessimist about distance learning, but teachers are trying to make it work. One of them is Ryan Davenport. He’s a social studies teacher who has welcomed me to follow his class throughout the year.
Ryan gave a tour of the school, pointing out where kids play soccer at lunch, where his new classroom will be now that he’s switching to teaching seventh grade instead of sixth, and the gym that got flooded once because the water wasn’t turned off correctly. Normally this place is buzzing with 900 kids. Ryan said starting the school year this way lacks the usual energy.
“I think there’s going to be a huge problem because usually September is like when things kick back into gear,” he said. “It’s exciting, it’s new, we’re back, I’m going to go visit this teacher — and there won’t be any of that.”
Ryan is 29 years old, a thoughtful guy with an impressive array of tattoos, including one showing a crescent moon that honors his dad.
“Every day of my life, he wore that necklace. It was just that crescent moon, and he wore it every day of his life,” he said. “And then when he died, my sister and I both got it tattooed on us.”
The schools he attended in New Jersey were mostly white. But he said he’s glad to be teaching at a school where kids of color make up more than two-thirds of the student population. And one thing he loves about teaching is proving that middle schoolers should not be underestimated.
“We’ve talked about police brutality in sixth grade. We’ve talked about sexism and other forms of oppression in history,” he said. “They innately, intuitively have some understanding of those things before you say anything to them about it.”
Now he’s wondering how he’ll get those kinds of discussions going when school is virtual. It was kind of frustrating when he was teaching sixth grade in the spring.
“Less than 10 percent of sixth graders who came on live video enabled their cameras,” he said. With a new school year starting that way, “you might not know what half your kids look like.”
'MORE LIKE NORMAL SCHOOL'
But now things are different. Expectations for remote school are higher.
“In the spring, we didn’t push a lot of new learning. We tried to hold onto what kids had had,” said Carolyn Treleven, executive director of teaching and learning for the Franklin Pierce district, which includes Keithley Middle School. “This is much more like normal school, right? They’ll be getting new learning. They’ll be getting lots of feedback from their teachers, they’ll be held accountable for their work. They’ll be getting grades.”
Then the morning of Sept. 8 arrived — the first day.
“Alright, it is 8 a.m. Classes take off in T-minus 30 minutes,” Ryan said in one of a series of voice recordings he made during that first day.
He’s in the process of changing classrooms and that’s been delayed, so he’s working from home in the company of his two cats right now. “Hoping for a big turnout, hoping for no tech issues, hoping kids can log in,” he said.
His hope was soon dashed. Just like in Tacoma and Seattle, the first day in the Franklin Pierce district was rocky. Ryan’s first class had no students in it because of a technical issue and he got some frantic emails from parents. And then by late morning, the district decided classes would not proceed that day.
“School’s canceled for students for the rest of the day as IT figures out their issues,” Ryan said in another voice recording after he got word from the district. “This is incredibly frustrating because we’ve sort of had since March 13 to work out some of these kinks.”
Luckily, the next day, school was back on and he was able to connect with his classes. His mood had brightened.
“It was great because of the student turnout. I had 20 out of 30 students show up for every class,” he said. “To put it in perspective, in April, I was having classes where out of 34 kids, five kids showed up.”
Why the other one-third of students did not show up now — that’s something Keithley Middle School will have to address. And it’s a challenge all schools doing remote learning will face as they start a year unlike any other.