In early March, Ezra Harvey sat in his sunny classroom at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School surrounded by his kindergarten comrades in their matching navy tops and khaki bottoms. But just a few weeks later, Ezra walked down the halls of his neighborhood school—past teachers and colorful artwork—for the last time.
Today, Ezra attends school in his garage. It’s a cold November day, and the now first grader, dressed in skull jammies (he wears pajamas every day, his sister confides), is doing his morning lesson with his mom, Katie Gill-Harvey, inside the toasty (thanks to a fancy space heater) structure behind his Roland Park house and next to the half-pipe his sister built with his dad. His mom once used this space for her online crayon business, A Childhood Store, and there are still splatters of colorful wax remnant on the floor.
Now, the shelves are stacked with books and games and big binders full of finished assignments, and a white board covered in a math lesson sits in the corner. There’s a number line taped to the floor that Ezra will use later to jump back and forth for subtraction and addition problems. It’s still school, but different.
Ten months after the pandemic first closed school doors, families have all experienced some sort of destabilizing disruption—from going all virtual to venturing nervously back to school, masks firmly in place, to some mix of the two. This fall, 35 of the nation’s 50 largest school districts opted to educate students remotely, according to Education Next, a peer-reviewed journal, and that included Ezra’s school district—Baltimore City.
“Spring was a disaster [for our family],” says Gill-Harvey. There was no actual in-person teaching—just lots of videos. Nola, her fourth grader at the time, struggled. Gill-Harvey would plant herself between Ezra and Nola—the only way they would sit and pay attention—and Google “how to homeschool.” But the idea of pulling her kids from their classrooms didn’t feel right. She was sure the fall would be better, and she felt guilty that homeschooling was even an option for her.
“As a parent who can devote time to that, I understand it’s a privilege,” says Gill-Harvey, who works as a part-time art teacher at GreenMount School, where her oldest daughter, Jude, is a seventh grader. The family survived a summer that’s usually filled with adventures and family trips and settled back for what they hoped would be an improved fall. But by day two—even with its enriched plans, daily lessons, and teachers that looped (that is, moved up with their students from the previous year)—Gill-Harvey was feeling despondent. Technology would glitch out, which would trigger a spiraling anxiety in Nola, and Gill-Harvey felt like she had to sit and spoon-feed them what the teachers were saying.
“We lasted a week,” she says, before submitting the official paperwork to homeschool full-time. “We get a Scholastic magazine addressed to the ‘Harvey Garage School,’ so we’re official,” she laughs.
“WE HAVE TONS OF INEQUALITIES BAKED INTO OUR SOCIETY, AND STUDENTS NOTICE.”
The Harvey family is not alone in a year that can best be described as a rollercoaster ride. Private schools—with more resources and fewer kids—were able to pivot quickly to online learning. Public schools—including Baltimore County and City—faced bigger problems: how to make school equitable for a student body who might not have access to laptops or the internet. In late spring, the city passed the Children and Youth Fund Permanent Fiscal Agent Ordinance in an effort to help close the digital divide. The bill, which was introduced by Councilman Zeke Cohen on behalf of now former Mayor Jack Young, allowed the city government to provide emergency funding for food access, digital devices, and expanded internet connectivity.
“We have tons and tons of inequalities baked into our society,” says Hunter Gehlbach, a professor and vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “The pandemic has exacerbated a lot of that, and students notice,” he says.
To make matters worse, it’s still impossible to know where the finish line is. How much longer? And what else could possibly go wrong? (The Baltimore County Public School system being the victim of a ransomware cyber attack, of course.) As of press time, as COVID numbers skyrocketed, some private schools that had started the year in-person (or some hybrid of in-person and virtual) were back to all online. And public-school systems are still up in the air as to whether or not students will come back this school year at all. Despite the uncertainties, Baltimore County principals got the okay in November to begin spending federal CARES Act funding on much-needed supplies for their staff and students—from air purifiers and personal protective equipment to signage around school and sanitizing products.
“We know the numbers currently are way outside of what the state recommends and what the county’s own plans for in-person re-opening is, but we want to make sure that we are absolutely ready for the return of our students and educators when the time is right,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski at a press conference.
Zach Chait, a seventh grader at The Park School of Baltimore, has been lucky. His private school went back to a hybrid schedule in early October after every student was tested for coronavirus. Zach attends Park in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays and learns from home the other three days.
“I was super excited to go back to school and see everyone—all my friends and teachers,” says Zach. “Normally, with a new school year I’d have a little bit of nerves. But this time I had no nerves.”
Still, all the new precautions—wearing masks all day, sitting six feet apart in class with plastic dividers, and eating lunch in a lecture hall on an assigned dot—took some getting used to. “At the beginning, it was definitely a little weird, but I was just happy to be at school,” he says. “Now it’s my new normal.”
Zach’s younger sister, Samara, is a fourth grader at Fort Garrison Elementary and has attended school virtually since the beginning of the school year, so it’s a constant reminder to Zach how fortunate he is to be back in a classroom. “When I’m in school it’s easier to pay attention,” he says. “When I’m home, I have the phone next to me, and I have the urge to look at it or at my computer. In school, I just focus on the teacher.” But there are some pluses to being home, too, says Zach. “When I’m at home, I’m less tired. I find times to get up and move around. At school, I’m in a classroom a lot of the time.”
His family watches the news and talks about what’s going on, so he knows the virus is potentially deadly. It helps, he says, to focus on the positive. “I would just say it’s been a crazy time that had a silver lining…like we got a puppy, I’ve got lots of new hobbies, and I’ve gotten closer with my family over this time. I’m grateful for that.”
“AT THE BEGINNING, IT WAS A LITTLE WEIRD, BUT I WAS JUST HAPPY TO BE AT SCHOOL.”
There’s been no puppy for LaKierra Wiggins, but the mom of four—ages 19 months to 13 years old—has also managed to look on the bright side. “It’s not all terrible, but it’s a big shift for me and my family,” says the Baltimore City mom. Wiggins, a paralegal, works from home every other day. Her days in the office are more focused, but the downside is knowing her oldest two are home alone navigating virtual school. Even when she’s at work, “I’m mentally still home,” she says.
London, her seventh grader at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School in Locust Point, is able to log on with no issues. “She’s good,” says Wiggins. Ten-year-old Dinero, a fifth grader at Federal Hill Preparatory School, “requires a little more oversight.” Wiggins calls London on the days she’s not home. “Make sure your brother is logged in,” she says. Even logging in is easier than it was in the spring since every device now has a WiFi hotspot thanks to Baltimore City Public Schools. But her kids “miss the social aspect of being around other people and seeing friends, being able to interact.” That’s the organic piece that can’t be replicated virtually, says Wiggins, her voice weary. “But I’m so happy that they are safe.”
Students have three fundamental psychological needs, says Gehlbach: social connectedness, motivation, and self-regulation. “In normal face-to-face school, these three components interact a lot.” And they are anchored in relationships between teachers and individual students, teachers and the whole class, and students with each other.
“If we need all three of these things for learning to happen—man, it gets hard in a time of remote learning,” he says. It’s no surprise that extra work falls on the shoulders of teachers. (Along with all the other superhero feats they routinely have to perform.) The little tricks that a teacher might use in a classroom—walking over to a desk, raising a voice—are much harder to pull off remotely, says Gehlbach.
And it’s those teachers that Wiggins sees as another positive in these challenging times. “The relationship I’ve built with my kids’ teachers this year has been great,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know them on a more personal and more intimate level.”
That connection is invaluable, says Gehlbach, who himself is a former high-school teacher and a parent to two school-aged kids. Seeing a teacher in their own home with, say, their cat making an appearance on camera also strengthens that bond. It creates a much-needed camaraderie. “We’re all in this together.”
Which is kind of what we all need right now. It’s hard being a kid any day of the week, but especially now, when what’s expected of them hasn’t changed but literally everything else has. There have been tears, admits Wiggins. And major disappointment that things can’t be normal. “I try and take a step back and not be so hard on them,” says Wiggins. “We still want them to be kids. I’m trying not to yell or get so upset. I try to put myself in their shoes.” For Wiggins’ oldest daughter, that means twice a week virtual therapy that has been instrumental for her mental health.
In some ways, for Wiggins, the new routine is now beginning to feel, well, routine. “At this point, I’m just trying to stay positive and know it’s for the greater good,” she says. “And I don’t set my expectations too high.” Though the same can’t be said of her ever-rising food bill. “They have breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack,” she says, joking. “It’s like triple groceries.”
For Gill-Harvey, there’s been a big difference in her kids since she started homeschooling. “Ezra is living in his glory,” she laughs. “He wears his pajamas, goes to school in his garage, where I let him sit in his favorite chair, and in the afternoon, he has free rein. He’s going to have a hard time with reentry.”