The coronavirus has disrupted the education world to an unprecedented degree. WUWM put a call out to the people who have been directly affected by the school closures and the unplanned shift to online learning.
Teachers, students and parents sent us voice memos and emails describing their new normal.
“I go through periods of highs and lows,” says Brookfield middle school science teacher Laurie Horne. “One day I feel like I’m on top of it and I’ve got this and I’m doing well. And then the next day it’s overwhelming and the pace is too much and I just want to crawl in bed and sleep.”
Horne’s school pivoted to online learning in March, and she says it’s been hard to adapt her hands-on classes.
“Normally, I would have access to microscopes and skeletons and things that would make hands-on learning more vibrant in the classroom,” Horne says. “And those things are not accessible to my students right now and I’m finding that to be a challenge.”
Horne says another challenge has been establishing boundaries between work and personal time. When a student texts her at 10 p.m., she feels obligated to respond.
“Home is usually your respite away from school. You come home and you have some downtime and you downshift from that school mode. But when you’re home 24/7, you don’t really ever have that physical reminder that I am now at home, I am not at work. And it’s hard to shut it off, I guess," she says.
There are lots of factors causing anxiety for educators right now. Willie Williams is worried about how the school shutdowns will widen the achievement gap for his students – and how their mental health will be affected.
Williams is the middle school dean at Carmen Northwest, a charter school in Milwaukee that enrolls predominately black students from low-income families.
“My biggest question and my biggest concern is when will be able to go back to school and get the ball rolling again,” Williams says. “We know there is an educational gap for black and brown students, and we can’t waste any more time.”
Williams' job focuses on building positive school culture. He says it’s a hard thing to do when school is online. If virtual learning continues in the fall, he's not looking forward to it.
“I really enjoy being around scholars,” Williams says. “That’s the reason I got into education, was to teach and have interactions and relationships with kids. And it’s very difficult now to have those same relationships.”
On the other side of the screen, families are coping with losing the structure and respite schools provide.
“The first couple weeks were probably the hardest,” says Amy Ulmen. Ulmen is a registered nurse who lives in Greendale with her husband, and her 16-year-old son Lucas, who has special needs.
“He understands why he can’t go to school, he’ll say, ‘I don’t want to catch the coronavirus,’ ” she says. But Lucas still has frequent breakdowns during quarantine.
“The first week or two he would have almost every day a little meltdown about something. It would be at the end of the day, he’s tired, he’s hungry, he wants to find a specific toy or a book or a Pokémon card and he’ll lose it. And then we quickly learned OK, this is his way of getting that anxiety out," Ulmen says.
She and her husband have been working throughout the school closure, rotating days at home. When she is home, Ulmen sits with her son and helps him through his online assignments.
“You know, it really is a full-time job in a way,” Ulmen says. “I have friends on Facebook and they’re not essential workers or they’ve been stay-at-home moms anyway, and they say, ‘Oh I’ve taken up this hobby during the safer at home, I just made sourdough, what are you doing with your quarantine time?’ And I feel like, ‘Honey I can’t even get my bathrooms cleaned. Amy’s not cooking bread today.’ So it’s certainly a different experience. I think everybody’s been affected differently.”
Nat Davauer’s family is living a more simple, off-the-grid life since schools and businesses shut down. Davauer owns a bar in Shorewood that’s had limited operations since March. Instead of hunkering down in Shorewood, the family of six went to his family farm in Fall River, Wis., north of Madison.
“We have transitioned to living at the farm where I grew up and focusing on the childhood I had with more of a free learning situation,” he says. “And with this we have sort of ignored some of the virtual learning instruction of Lake Bluff School.”
Davauer says the teachers are ultimately understanding about his family’s decision to stay on the farm and forgo virtual learning. He’s happy his four elementary-aged children are getting a taste of what he experienced growing up. The kids have been building forts, playing in a nearby river, and raising chickens.
“One of the highlights for them has been caring for these chickens every day,” he says. “Going and getting the eggs, making the eggs for breakfast. They named all the chickens. That hands-on experience, clearly kids respond to that.”
He is wary of too much screen time. If schools stay online in the fall, he says they'll probably homeschool.
College students are weighing similar decisions. Rowan Hawthorne was in the last half of her sophomore year at the University of Vermont when the pandemic hit. She came back home to Hartford, Wis.
“I miss my walk to class from my dorm every morning a lot,” Hawthorne says. “Because I would see the mountains every morning, and it would always be beautiful.”
A couple of weeks after Rowan’s classes shifted online, she says she woke up and felt a complete lack of motivation.
“I knew I had a bunch of assignments, and instead I played the guitar or did some art or spent a lot of time procrastinating on my phone," Hawthorne says. "I’m typically a pretty good student so it was hard for me to see myself go to that, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out of that either because it just – school wasn’t as valuable to me at that point in time. I didn’t see as much of a point in doing it if I were doing it online.”
If the University of Vermont stays virtual in the fall, she says she’ll take a semester off. That’s a big question for colleges and K-12 schools: If the virus keeps people at home, how many will opt out of digital learning?
If schools do reopen, middle school science teacher Laurie Horne envisions a logistical nightmare.
“People are like, ‘Oh just push your desks apart farther,’” Horne says. “My desks don’t move because I have lab station tables. So the only way to space kids out is to have every other seat filled. That would mean instead of 30 kids I’d be at 15, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. There are just so many questions.”
Greendale parent Amy Ulmen says she’s trying not to dwell on the unknown about what next school year will look like.
“What can you do? These are things I can’t control,” Ulmen says. “I really don’t think school’s gonna start in the fall the way it used to. So my husband and I preparing ourselves for that eventuality.”
Over the next month or so, large school systems like Milwaukee Public Schools and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are set to announce their plans for fall. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is keeping students, parents, and teachers in limbo, wondering how long this new normal will last.
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