How Families are Managing Virtual Learning

After Ten months, Families Find Ways of Making it Work

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Together with her podmates, Miles Miller-Smith, top L, makes the sign of a heart during the kindergarten class’s virtual morning meeting. Families all over the District found different ways to adapt to virtual learning.

As the new year begins, many students are moving into a tenth month of virtual learning. Students are taking classes in their homes, many alongside siblings in different classes, or younger siblings that are not yet in school.

But parents are finding ways to balance the learning needs of their children with their own need to work, sometimes out of the home. Here is a look at the way three different families are managing their virtual learning needs.

Podding Up
Shavanna Miller placed her eldest daughter, Miles, in a pod. It’s a group of four students, all in the same kindergarten class at Maury Elementary. The pod rotates weekly between student homes and is supervised by a teacher hired collectively by the parents, who facilitates nearly four hours of virtual learning over a six-hour schedule.

Some of the parents have completely rearranged portions of their home. Others, like the Miller-Smiths, have given over the main floor of their houses for a week each month to the small virtual learning arrangement.

For Miller and her spouse, the decision was necessitated largely by their need for childcare and what they see as the critical role kindergarten plays in socialization.

The Hill resident is the owner of DC-based floral services company Bloompop, while her husband, Aaron, is a co-founder of Savi, an app that helps student loan borrowers discover new repayment and debt-forgiveness options. They are also the parents of three kids five and under.

Miles started kindergarten at Maury this year. Before the pandemic, Smith and Miller would take their eldest to pre-K4 at Maury, located across the street, and entrust Merritt, 3, with a babysitter before each departed for their own offices (Max, now 6 months, was born into the pandemic in late May).

When COVID hit, two businesses and four and then five people were living and working out of their three-bedroom Hill rowhouse. None of it was conducive to virtual learning, Miller said. When Miller gave birth in late May, she took minimal leave, and so childcare was as much a factor as education.

“We run our own businesses. We’re not taking a ton of time off for parental leave,” she said. “If my team and I are not there to keep the business going, particularly this year, it will go under.”

Miller and Smith were as worried about the social aspects of kindergarten as the academic value.

“Even though being in a physical school building has been deemed non-essential by the city and by the region and others, I don’t think that means that the social-emotional development of these kids is any less essential than it was before,” Miller said, “and that’s, I think, the primary reason we made this decision.”

Miller said that they feel extraordinarily lucky in the pod. Parents have all agreed to COVID-19-related behavioral rules, and the families have established very open communication, becoming a social as well as educational bubble. They also feel fortunate in the pod leader, a former lead for after-school programming at a local Montessori school.

Childcare for three is a big outlay, Miller said, and she knows they are fortunate they can do it, for the short term. “It’s definitely a financial sacrifice so that we can get through this time in a way we can keep our businesses strong, and where I feel like the developmental well-being of our kids is being met.”

It Takes A Village
Sometimes, the best way for parents to handle virtual learning is to turn to their most stalwart supports: the grandparents. Ahmad Nurriddin is one such grandparent.

He is helping his daughter supervise the virtual learning of his 17-year-old granddaughter, a student at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). His daughter, a contractor for the District and a single mother, teleworks from another location, and his 17-year-old granddaughter negotiates virtual education for herself at home.

Together with their mothers and their paternal great-grandmother, he is also helping facilitate virtual learning for his four great-grandchildren, aged 5, 7, 8 and 9 years. “There’s an old African adage, it takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “We just kind of actualize that.”

The four are students at KIPP, and travel to their grandmother’s house for virtual lessons. She is located closer to their home and is able to provide space and meals for them as she works. But she defers to him on questions of technology. “When you have a problem, you call PopPop.”

Abria Law sits at her desk, across the playroom from where her mother, LaJoy Johnson-Law, simultaneously tries to complete her own work. Courtesy: LaJoy Johnson-Law

Nurriddin said he has been a part of the education of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren since before COVID, authorized as a guardian on their behalf. A former educational programmer for the federal government, he is the Chair of the CHEC Local School Advisory Team (LSAT). He helps his granddaughter navigate the services associated with her IEP.

After COVID-19 hit, Nurriddin also took on the role of technological advisor and meets with teachers on the behalf of the students.

Nurriddin helped field problems when one of the four devices given to his great-grandchildren did not work. He said that is still true for his 8-year-old great-grandson. “He is persistent and patient,” he said, “but COVID-19 has made it difficult for him to have an adequate education.”

He credits the skill of teachers and the patience of the students’ great-grandmother and mothers with making the daily learning work, saying an entire team is needed to prevent students from falling by the wayside.

Playing Ping Pong
LaJoy Johnson Law is tired. The 32-year-old single mother and Parent Support Specialist for Advocates for Justice and Education (AJE) spent the eight months during the pandemic in a campaign to represent Ward 8 on the State Board of Education (SBOE), a position ultimately won by Dr. Carlene Reid.

At the same time, she was working at her full-time job alongside her daughter Abria, 9, as the latter attended virtual fourth-grade classes from Rocketship Prep Academy.

Abria has chronic lung disease, epilepsy and developmental delays caused by an extremely premature birth. Her school IEP team has provided excellent supports and services, Law said, but virtual learning is still a challenge for Abria, and Law said there are some tasks Abria cannot do alone. More significantly, she needs to be prompted to focus.

“She doesn’t like it,” Law said of the virtual learning format. “After 30 minutes, that’s it. A lot of times, she’ll just get up and walk away.” Abria is an extremely social child, Law said. It is hard for a 9-year-old to sit for extended periods, let alone understand why she needs permission to stand up in her own house, she added.

Most days, Law sits on a couch across the room from the desk where her daughter works. From there, she does her day job and helps Abria through the school day. Sometimes, Law will set up a work-related Zoom call on the coffee table, and simultaneously try to guide Abria through school assignments.

“Trying to go back and forth, like playing ping-pong —I think that’s the biggest challenge,” she said. “It’s just been really overwhelming.”

Law knows she is very lucky that her employer, an organization advocating for access to education and health resources for all students, is understanding of her situation. Nonetheless, she regularly works late into the night in order to finish projects, catching a few hours of sleep before waking up to get Abria started for the day. Other days, she has so much of her own work, the two don’t get to school assignments until after dinner.

“There are days I feel like the best mom, and there are days I just want to hide under the bed and not come out,” Law said. “I’m just like, am I doing a good job?”

Sometimes, Law said, they both just have enough. They take breaks by cuddling up in bed and watching movies. They seek solace in reading, and in reaching out to other families online. Law reads aloud to her daughter, sharing video on Facebook in “Storytime with Abria,” a way of reaching out to the world for both of them.

Law encourages all families to give themselves grace as they balance everything.

“I know it’s a lot,” she said, “but I want folks to know that someone hears them and knows what they are going through.”