In the latest episode of “School Talk,” the Reaching Higher staff discuss our own families’ experiences with a year of pandemic learning.
I’m Sarah Earle and this is School Talk. This month marks a year since all of our lives were turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Reaching Higher team consists of four moms with kids ranging in age from preschool to college, and while we’ve been observing and reporting on the effects of the pandemic on education over the past year, we, like so many families around the country and around the world have been living them as well. So, today I’m talking with my colleagues, Nicole Heimarck, our executive director, Christina Pretorius, our policy director, and Sarah, Robinson, our senior project manager, and we’re simply going to share our own experiences with shepherding our children through a year of pandemic learning.
Sarah E.: Okay, so let’s start with a quick challenge. What one word would each of you use to describe the past year?
Sarah R: Exhausting.
Christina: I’ll second that. Wild.
Sarah E: And I think mine would be eye opening. … Okay so let’s expand on that a little. I think most of us have experienced extreme highs and lows over the past year. For me, the lowest low was probably watching the dominos fall one by one for my older daughter, Laura, who was a senior in high school: her music trip to Disney, which she’d been looking forward to for four years, prom, graduation, all of that. And then the highest high was actually just kind of an ordinary day a week or so ago. We are all just sitting around sipping coffee together on a Sunday morning, and the kids were teasing each other about their respective hair-dos because, I think, last April in — I think it was some sort of act of rebellion against forces they couldn’t control — they both decided to shave their heads. So they’re in these great growing-out stages right now. And they were sitting there talking about the classes they were taking and their plans for the coming year, and I just remember thinking, they’re okay. They’re going to make it.
So how about the rest of you? Tell me if you can, a high and a low from the past year.
Sarah R.: Should I jump in? I think it’s going to be me, the overly extroverted one. This is Sarah Robinson, the senior project manager for Reaching Higher, and I would say some of the lowest lows have come from the Groundhog Day that my kids are experiencing, and their inability to change anything about it. My husband and I chat about, well he and I have cell phones and text messaging, and personal agency, and my kiddos don’t have that, and they’re really, really feeling constricted in their ability to advocate for themselves and their own existence. And it’s evolved into some very difficult behaviors at home that have made me question my ability to parent. And of course when I’m framing that for myself I’m never framing it as, oh there’s a worldwide health crisis, it’s just that I’m not capable of managing, which isn’t fair, but I think we have a tendency to do that to ourselves, right?
And some of my highest highs have come from my realization that I like my family, that I like my kids and I really like my partner, and I like the decisions that we’ve made together. And also, my kiddos’ teachers — shout out to Concord School District — we’ve had some exceptional educators in our very short public school careers. We got some very beautiful validation from their teachers that my kids are going to be fine. Even if they missed this whole year, they’re going to be okay. And so that really made me feel good about what we value at home and what we really want to get out of all of this.
Sarah E: You made me think about all the ways that I’ve gotten to get involved with Katie’s education. A real high for me was getting to dress up in a banana costume and dance in a Spanish video. I never would have gotten to do that!
Nicole: That’s amazing.
Sarah E: So anyway, who’s next?
Nicole: I can jump in here. So I’m Nicole Heimarck, and I’m the acting executive director of Reaching Higher NH, and I think I’ll begin with highs. I would say a high for me and my family is that we have spent an inordinate amount of time together. In a typical year during typical times, we are guilty of being extremely busy and being one of those overscheduled families, with both Mom and Dad commitments and volunteer responsibilities and kid commitments and their activities. And while it was disappointing that so much of that has disappeared in the past year, it has also been freeing for us as a family to have all four of us under the same roof on many occurrences 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So the high is that it’s really forced us to connect as a family, get to know one another better as individuals and who we are and what we value as a tight-knit entity. My husband in ordinary times works in Boston, so we didn’t see much of him Monday through Friday. So the high has just been this uninterrupted family time, focus on family, focus on kids, every night as a family, cooking together every night as a family. So that has been sort of a newfound opportunity for us, and I’m sure that’s shareable or relatable by a lot of families, particularly those who feel like they’re on the hamster wheel of always driving to activities.
In terms of lows, there have been a few of them. I would say two distinct and discrete lows come to mind for me. One was actually at the start of the pandemic, and our family being in a sheer sense of pandemic, because when the emergency order went out by our governor, we were closing on a home, closing on two homes, the sale of our existing home and the acquisition of our new home. And our new home unfortunately was not ready for us, so we had to quickly deviate and figure out a new living situation when New Hampshire and when the world closed down. That truly was a moment of panic and anxiety about what that was going to look like for our kids and for us. So that brought a great deal of respect and values and admiration for what we have had as a family and forced all of us to navigate some really trying times. And then the other low for me is very much in line with Sarah Robinson’s. I have two children: a daughter who’s 14 and another who’s 10, so when the pandemic hit last year they were 13 and 9, and 13 and 9-year-olds are very very different beings and have quite different needs, and so while they were both impacted, the isolation really took a toll on my 9 year old. And as our teachers pointed out — and a shout out to our teachers — those tween years are a really awkward phase in this pandemic because they don’t have cell phones, and yet they want to be independent, yet they still rely on their caregivers, their families, for executing that social connection. So my 9-year-old witnessed her sister, Natalie, being able to remain connected with her friends through her cell phone, and that was absent for Meredith. So we really had to grapple with our values and how we were going to create means for our youngest to stay socially connected. And so that was a real low watching her struggle with that and find words to express that frustration and the unfairness of it and then deciding how we were going to address that and make sure that social well-being was intact for both of our girls.
Sarah E: Can you share anything that you did to help the younger one?
Nicole: I can. We did end up getting her a cell phone after grappling with it for a few weeks. A number of her peers had them, and we felt that the social isolation was taking too much of a toll, that we needed to revisit our family rules around having cell phones and having access to connecting with her friends. It did come with some pretty strict parameters, and we did use it as an opportunity for the girls to work together to design their own cell phone social media contract that they presented that went through many, many revisions. So it created the opportunity where the girls really led those conversations and helped us in crafting those boundaries and rules and learning how a contract is made and what happens if we break that contract. We’ve had a few experiences where the contract has been broken and we’ve had to lose that privilege for some time.
Sarah E: Christina, are you ready to talk or are you —
Christina: Yes, I’m just moving to another room…
Sarah E: Don’t worry about the noises.
Sarah R: It adds to the ambiance of the conversation.
Christina: So in looking back, we haven’t had necessarily the same adjustments as everyone else has. My youngest is 2. Nothing has changed for him. My middle, Jacob, is in preschool. That was probably the most difficult is explaining to him why he couldn’t return for a second year of preschool. He didn’t quite understand why he couldn’t see his friends, his teacher. So that was really difficult for us. In thinking about the highs, having all three of them together all the time has been really great. Watching our first-grader trying to teach her brother how to do the math, how to spell things, that’s been really great, because not only is it cool to see their interaction, I think it really reinforces her own learning. She’s teaching what she’s learning and talking through it which I don’t know would necessarily happen if she were in school full time. And personally a high for me, I’ve always worked from home. I’ve been here with Reaching Higher for six years now, and I’ve always been a remote worker, and it’s been really great to connect with the team daily, multiple times a day, through Zooms and chats and things like that. It used to be a little isolating being home when everyone else was at the office.
Sarah E: Wow, so you’re more connected now.
Christina: Ironically I am more connected now, which is really cool. It’s been really great.
Sarah E: Yeah, Christina, while you’re talking … what I find really interesting and kind of mind blowing about you is that you have been doing this juggling act all along that a lot of us are just learning to do now, with three kids, and two of them home most of the time. So what is it? What is your secret? How do you make the working home with little kids underfoot work?
Christina: I’ve got to say, I don’t know that there’s a secret. It’s like a day-by-day thing really. Even in this past 10-15 minutes that we’ve been talking, I’ve switched spaces, I’ve had to jump to do something else. It’s an exercise in multi-tasking, and I know that a lot of people say if you’re mult-tasking you can never do one thing right. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. But I have a really great support system. My partner is absolutely wonderful in helping me. My kids see me working, which I really love. In non-pandemic times, they would come with me to the State House, they’d sit in on hearings. It’s just a really cool experience. I really enjoyed doing that for them and giving them that kind of exposure. But as far as the workflow goes, we have a really strict routine, and if we deviate from that routine, I go nuts.
Sarah E: I can’t imagine that.
Christina: It’s just kind of a day-to-day thing. I’m super committed to the mission, so you just kind of make it work, just like everyone else is making it work.
Sarah E: I always enjoy seeing what you’ve got going on on Zoom. Kids running around …
Christina: They always make an appearance. Almost every Zoom meeting I have, somebody pops in.
Sarah E: Okay, so Nicole, you have a lot of experience in public education. I wonder if you could provide kind of an educators’ perspective on what you witnessed at home with your own two children as they adjusted to remote learning, hybrid learning, in-person learning, whatever combination your family experienced.
Nicole: Yeah, so thank you for that, Sarah. It’s actually been really fascinating to watch it play out in my house. My two children could not be more different. They are polar opposites. One is very extroverted and gregarious and tackles the world with no restraint, and the other is very quiet and reflective and introspective. Similar to their personalities they had different reactions to the pandemic, and I think what’s been most fascinating to me with my educator hat on is that the district where my children go, they’ve been given an option as to whether they want to be remote students or in-person students, and I’ve had a child who selected to be a remote student for the year. It happens to be my oldest child, Natalie, and she is, I would say, soaring in the remote environment. It’s not perfect, but she without a doubt is just excelling in this environment because she’s the kind of person who’s quiet, she does like to be in command of her time, she’s somewhat of an independent learner and a quiet self advocate. So the remote design has really drawn out the efficiency of her learning and learning style; whereas my younger one, she needs to be in school and she recognizes she needs to be in school. She will say, remote learning does not work for me, Mom. She needs the structure and predictability of the classroom. She’s also four years younger, and so as an educator, that reminds me, and I think Sarah Robinson hinted to this: Age really, really does matter during this pandemic. Your older students who have a bit more independence and time management and sort of those soft skills, they can work more efficiently and fluidly in a remote environment, but our younger students, our K-5, K-6 students, the predictability and the social structure of the classroom is just so vital to their development as students and as human beings. We’ve really seen that in this household. I think we’re more cognizant as a family, and myself as an educator, reflecting on the ages of our children, what are reasonable expectations for their ages, and also their learning styles. Because their needs are so different, we have to make sure that those needs are being met. And I have to say that our school has been really good in creating those flexible models. I think as an educator it brings me to a place where I wonder what will this look like long term? What lessons is public education or education in general, and what lessons is my local school district going to glean from this experience ensuring students have what they need to move forward? I do think that’s been another high of the pandemic. It has elicited conversations that would not have happened if the pandemic hadn’t hit.
Sarah E.: Everything you said really rings true for me, too. I think I have felt grateful that my kids are older and self-sufficient, and I feel like I haven’t experienced the same upheaval and chaos that some people have.
I wanted to ask you about that, Sarah Robinson, because I know you’re a total extrovert, and I think maybe your kids are too, I’m not sure. And I know you touched on this a few minutes ago. But I remember you sharing with us that one of your daughters was really having a hard time over not being able to see her friends and things like that. So I wondered what it’s been like for your family having your social connections cut off, how you’ve coped and how specifically those social-emotional issues have affected your kids’ learning.
Sarah R.: I’m happy to share, and thanks for the question. I think it’s initially manifested the most in my youngest child, and I think it speaks to the essential nature of public education in our communities. My kiddos value being autonomous beings away from their parents and learning how to be a member of a community without me looking over their shoulder. My youngest one has absolutely struggled the hardest, and the lack of self advocacy has manifested in interesting ways. In our household — I’ve laid down with my youngest one every single night since the pandemic started, whereas before she had no issue falling asleep by herself, but that went right out the window. But, you know, this is a temporary thing. She can’t go to college like this, you know what I mean? So I also have to recognize the extreme amount of privilege that we have in navigating all of this, because my kids are home with me, and I have the privilege of working for an organization that understands my need to be home right now, and that is not normal for everyone, for essential workers and single parents whose kiddos maybe don’t have the luxury to act out at home because they’re not even at home. So when I say that we’re dealing with behavioral issues, I also take it with a small grain of salt because she has the privilege to work through these difficult things in a safe environment. And we’re moving through it, it’s going to get better eventually. But I would even say for myself, my lead role in our organization is community engagement, and I’ve felt very disconnected from my community. As a community organizer, I love being with people, it’s what lifts me up. And similar to Christina, my kids are always with me. When we were planning Concord Pride, my kids were at the State House with me moving tables at ages 5 and 6 respectively. And yeah, they’re just used to moving and shaking with us, and that’s how we roll in our community, and I like to think they value their own role in their private community, and it’s really caused me to value what public ed does for us as a family, and for individuals.
Sarah E: That’s such a great point. Okay so to wrap things up, what’s one lesson you’ve learned as a parent of school-age children over the past year, one thing that maybe will stick with you long after you’ve started sending your children off to school every day, maybe even without a mask?
Nicole: So Sarah, I was going to jump in for a minute and I don’t know how best to frame it as a lesson, but I can tell you pre-pandemic when I would have Zoom calls — because I had Zoom calls prior to the pandemic — with people who are at great distances, like all over the country, not necessarily in these circumstances where geographically we were not that spread out, and I previously worked from home too and only went into the office said number of days. But pre-pandemic I remember being really anxious or uptight about having my children disrupt my time in front of the computer or worried that they would come into a Zoom call. And I think one of the lessons learned or taken away is that my kids have gained great insights into the work that I do because of the pandemic. They are like fully dialed into the issues of public education, and our family now has dialogues pretty routinely about what they see Mom or Dad doing. They hear conversations pretty consistently. When my youngest comes home from school, whether I’m on Zoom or not, she always comes into the office and pokes her head in, so they’ve just become acutely aware of what we do and how passionate we are about our job choices and giving back to our communities, giving back to our states, and they’re beginning to make connections between what they see on social media, or they might have the news on at night. The big lesson for me is, I was always really protective of that and worried about the interruptions and worried about what they would hear for no real reason at all, and so a blessing of this has really been the unveiling of what parents do and how passionate they are about what they do. It’s been a teachable moment I think, at least in my family.
Sarah E.: I love that. I hadn’t thought about that really, but you hear the jokes about, what does your dad do? I have no idea, he goes to work, right? And now we’re right there, and they see what we’re doing.
Sarah R.: I’ll build very briefly off what Nicole said. I’ve really been able to give more humanity to people and I received more humanity in return, and I think it’s this seeing people in their homes. We all have this common denominator, and if I can give that to my kids and other people’s kids too, we’re not siloed anymore, we have this shared experience, and I hope we don’t lose that, that allowing the kiddos to come into the meeting, because yeah, this is hard for everyone, so I’ve really valued that lesson in my own life, just letting people be people.
Christina: For sure. I totally agree, and I think something for me that I’ll take away is just really acknowledging kids as human beings and their need for being social and all of those things. For so long — my oldest daughter is 6 — last year I cried my eyes out when she left for kindergarten. I didn’t have to cry my eyes out this year because she’s fully remote. She’s going into second grade and my son is going into kindergarten. Normally I would have lost it but I see what they do in school, I see their interactions, I see their need for being in that community, Sarah, like you said, being in the world outside of my wing, being their own person. And so that’s going to make that September good-bye a little easier, knowing what they’re doing, knowing where they’re going, what their teachers are doing. Not that I wouldn’t know anyway, but it just gives me a different perspective.
Thanks again to everyone for joining me today. School Talk is produced by our intern, Henry Lavoie. To stay up to date on education news, follow us on Facebook, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org, and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts.