Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Families process the abrupt shift to distance learning in the school year that just ended


The Seattle school district is starting remote summer school this week and six times as many students are taking part compared with prior years. Even as the focus shifts to what school will look like in the fall, families are still processing the unprecedented school year that just ended and what it meant to abruptly shift to online schooling.

It’s hard to generalize because each family’s experience was so different. Some parents said their kids were happier at home, while many others reported that their children were sad not being able to be with their friends and missed their teachers.

Nevertheless, there are a few common themes that come up when families describe how they experienced remote learning.

A lot of parents felt like they were thrown into the deep end of the pool without any swimming lessons.

Parents were trying to help their kids continue with their schooling, while many also juggled work at the same time. They discovered that teaching your own kids something is different from when a teacher does it.

Karla Kuepker has twin daughters who just finished kindergarten in the Renton School District. She said one time she was practicing penmanship with them and one of her girls was really stressed out.

“She just melts down and she just flops back and she’s crying within 15 seconds, 10 seconds of me telling her the right way to do it,” Kuepker said.

So families described these small battles and meltdowns over schoolwork that happened at the same time many people felt pushed to the brink because of enormous stressors like a deadly virus and a recession.

Parents felt overwhelmed by the hodgepodge of applications and websites they had to navigate.

The sheer number of apps and websites parents and students had to use was challenging for many families. There was everything from management platforms like Schoology and Canvas, to video conference programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to apps such as Flipgrid and ClassDojo.

Peaches Thomas is a mother of triplets in Seattle. They’re about to enter middle school.

“I’m not very tech savvy so even with working with these different platforms and Zoom meetings and other things, it’s just been a hard adjustment,” she said.

But Thomas said her family is in a better position than most. Her husband got them set up with a Google family link account that allowed her to monitor what the kids were doing online, because she was worried about just letting them loose on the internet unsupervised.

The state superintendent’s office has said districts need to simplify their online platforms if remote learning continues in the fall. But ultimately these choices are up to district leaders and school boards because so much of education in Washington state is controlled locally.

Many parents said the remote learning offerings were not rigorous and no substitute for in-person school.

Districts walked a fine line between trying to help students continue their learning at home without penalizing students who couldn’t keep up, possibly due to things outside their control, such as a lack of internet or adequate technology at home. For example, in the Kent School District, students’ grades were frozen where they were before the school closure.

But that left many parents frustrated. Bryon Madsen has a son who just finished his freshman year at Kentwood High School. Madsen said the district was slow to launch a remote learning plan, and it consisted more of check-ins with teachers than actual instruction. Based on that, he doesn’t have much confidence about school in the fall.

“Even if I take the current online program that they’ve come up with to date and even increase that by 50 percent in quality, there is no way that comes close to preparing a child for college or living on their own,” he said.

Madsen said his family has decided to rent a home out of state so his son can attend school elsewhere in the fall. He declined to name the state.

His choice likely isn't something many families can make, but there is growing concern among many parents that their kids will fall behind and their educations will suffer long term.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging that schools reopen in person as much as possible. They say school plays a critical role in child development and well-being and there are a lot of risks to continuing remote education, including severe learning loss and social isolation that also can put some kids at risk for abuse.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.