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Learning Curve: Moms Help Students Navigate Distance Learning


COVID-19 cases are spiking all over the country. New infections have surpassed 100,000 every day for almost two weeks straight. School districts that were doing in-person learning in some way are now making plans to go virtual again. That means tens of millions of kids are learning remotely. They're sitting at kitchen counters, dining room tables, makeshift desks in their bedrooms, clicking on link after link for their classes, doing all their schoolwork online. If they're lucky, maybe there's a parent around to help them. Most of the time, though, those parents are working themselves.

We're following a handful of parents as they navigate this exceptional school year in a series we're doing along with Weekend Edition Sunday called Learning Curve. Here are three of the parents - Farrah Newom Jackson of Atlanta, Cassie Piggott from Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Skye Timmons from Charlotte, N.C. When we talked with them as the school year was getting started, they were all anxious but trying to stay positive. I called them all back up recently to see if that optimism had started to wane.


MARTIN: Hey, Farrah. It's Rachel Martin.


MARTIN: I'm OK. How are you doing?


MARTIN: So let's see. The last time we talked was, what, six weeks ago?

JACKSON: I think so. Yeah.

MARTIN: Six weeks.

OK, Skye. Thank you for doing this again.

SKYE TIMMONS: Yes, ma'am. Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start with Farrah. Remember, her family had the most advantages going into this. Her mom is living with them to help with the kids, so Farrah and her husband can both continue to work full time. They've got enough money for good computers and Internet, but it was all supposed to be temporary.

JACKSON: We thought that our oldest was going to return to school in-person learning mid-October, and then about two weeks before she was supposed to go back, the school board decided that they weren't ready. They felt like the caseload levels were too high for coronavirus, and so then they pushed it to January.

MARTIN: At this point, though, are you emotionally or psychologically preparing for the possibility that your daughter might be home for the entirety of her, what, second-grade year?

JACKSON: Yes. And that is going to be devastating to me.

CASSIE PIGGOTT: That's my fear, is that we're going to have to keep him home for - until May.

MARTIN: It's sinking in for Cassie Piggott, too. She quit her job as a teacher over the summer when it was clear someone was going to have to stay home with her 9-year-old son, Jack, to help him with online classes. Jack has an immune disorder, so even though his school is now doing some in-person learning, Cassie says it's too risky.

PIGGOTT: We're still in the process of considering when to send him back. His teachers ask him pretty often, hey, Jack, are you coming back in January? And he wants to go back, but our - right now, I think he might be home for the rest of the year.

MARTIN: And why do you think that?

PIGGOTT: The COVID numbers around here are not looking good. Like, you go to the store, and there's people not wearing their masks. And there just seems to be a lot of people out and about acting like everything's A-OK, so it feels kind of "Twilight Zone"-ish, like I'm the one who's, you know, doing the wrong thing. It feels like everybody's kind of going about their business, and we're just trying to survive it.


MARTIN: Skye Timmons has had the most change in the past couple of months. The single mom of three got engaged, and she got a new job, which gives her more financial stability. But she and her fiance still work full time, so her 13-year-old son is still at home trying to manage his own schoolwork and that of his younger siblings, too. His grades are falling. Skye is worried he can't handle all the pressure. There could be some relief if her school goes forward with a hybrid schedule at the end of this month, but if her kids are assigned to in-person learning on different days, the situation is going to go from bad to worse.

How are you keeping it together?

TIMMONS: I don't know. I honestly don't know. Sometimes I just feel like I'm just here. Sometimes I got to put my own feelings, how I'm feeling, what I'm going through on the back side, you know, because I feel like I'm having a mental battle with myself to not break down and just lose my mind, like, you know, just go crazy.

MARTIN: I get it. Sometimes it's easier to just keep moving forward because then if you stop to think about it, then...


MARTIN: ...Then you want to collapse. Yeah.

TIMMONS: Definitely.


MARTIN: That's what it's like for parents, mothers in particular, as they navigate this bizarre school year. Some are just managing disappointment. Others are just managing to survive, and others, like Rosie Reid, are feeling the pressure from both ends of the virtual classroom. She's the mother of five, and she's a high school English teacher. This is what life sounds like in her house.


ROSIE REID: No, you guys. It's time to get started again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on, teenagers. Go get to work.

REID: Here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I never even got started.

REID: No, no. I got to go work in my room. My class is about to start. Come on. Come on.

MARTIN: Rosie was teacher of the year last year at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Calif. She's now at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord. Rosie is an achiever. She fights through bad days with a smile, and if something's not working, she finds another way. So if anyone was going to make this distance learning thing work, it was her, for her family and her high school students. But reality is now sinking in, and Rosie finds herself at a crossroads.



MARTIN: Hi. How are you doing?

REID: I'm OK. It's been really, really hard, but I'm doing OK.

MARTIN: Her younger kids are doing OK with virtual school, but her two 16-year-olds are struggling, along with the teenagers that Rosie teaches.

REID: I have so many kids coming to me and saying, you know, I feel so isolated, I feel so alone. And I try to create all of these structured activities for them to work together, to make friends, to collaborate, to community build, and that's usually the thing I specialize in. You know, I do a really good job with that in normal life, and a lot of it is just really falling flat. And I ask the kids, why did that fall flat? And they say, because it's all so awkward.

And these are not kids who don't want to connect. They are kids who come to office hours just to say hi to me, but then with each other, they're not really willing to put themselves out there. I - not really willing to makes it sound like it's a real choice. I think they feel very, very scared to put themselves out there. And when I ask a question to the class, many of the students answer the question via chat in Zoom, but most of them put it to private chat so only I can see it.

MARTIN: Are you noticing an academic effect? Are students actually falling behind?

REID: Some students are falling very behind, and I also know, as a teacher, that I've had students who are behind academically, and we can catch kids up real fast, especially if they're motivated to get caught up. Again, I always go back to - to me, it's more about the social and emotional effects right now.

MARTIN: I mean, how do you communicate to your kids? Are some of your students feeling anxious about the year and their grades or how they're going to be measured and what this year's going to mean for them academically?

REID: So I don't know if this is a good decision, but I really am working week by week with my students. And part of that is that we don't really know where we're going to be in a month or two months, and I don't want to make a year-long plan and stress them out about that plan when we have so many unknowns.

I know that as a district, we are talking about going back from distance learning to hybrid learning in January, and even just the possibility of that has students, teachers, parents, everybody so stressed out because of, you know, the moral dilemmas. Do we go back to school as teachers and try to have these experiences with our students who we really connected with? Do our students come back and try to have some real, authentic learning experiences? And at the same time, that's more exposure for ourselves and for our families, and that pressure to make a decision - because all students will have a decision - is really weighing on a lot of families right now. So for me, for my classroom, the sphere that I can control, I am really trying to look at things week by week with my kids.

MARTIN: Which sounds like the right approach to not overwhelm - but you bring up the fact that you're currently all virtual, but the plan for your district, for your school is to go to a hybrid plan come January. How do you feel about that?

REID: Oh, it's so stressful, and I live with my 73-year-old dad. And we have all of these kids and my husband, and I don't want to expose any of them to COVID, especially my dad. I would feel so terrible if something happened to my dad because I went back to work. And then the flip side of that is I do feel incredibly connected to my students, and I would feel like I was abandoning them if I didn't come back to the classroom.

MARTIN: So let me ask you, then, I mean, do you still feel good about your decision to stay in the classroom? Have you had any second thoughts these past couple of months?

REID: I have. Yeah. I have never thought about leaving the classroom before. I have always thought, you know, I'm a lifer. I'm going to be a teacher. This is what I do. This is my calling. And there have been a few jobs that have come up over the last few months, you know, coaching positions, working with grown-ups, working in internal offices, working in nonprofit, and there has been a small part of me that has said, you know, maybe I should go for one of those jobs, maybe it's time.

MARTIN: You told me in our last conversation that you're about action, right? Like, you just move forward one step at a time - but that sometimes, you shared with me, at night, before you're going to bed, despondency can sneak in. I wonder how those late hours are with you right now.

REID: I would say that they start a little earlier in the evening, and they happen a lot more frequently.


MARTIN: High school teacher Rosie Reid from Walnut Creek, Calif. We also heard from Farrah Newsom Jackson, Cassie Piggott and Skye Timmons. For more on our series with Weekend Edition Sunday Learning Curve, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.