DENVER — Editor's note: Matt Bell is a photojournalist at 9NEWS and a Colorado father. He'll be blogging about this upcoming school year. Scroll to the bottom of this article for his full bio.
The last few weeks have been uneventful. Things have felt normal. Aidan has been going to school, socializing, learning first-hand in a learning-conducive environment—and most importantly—making friends.
Aidan is a great kid and good person but cursed with a shyness he gets from his old man. It’s the one trait about myself that I had always hoped he wouldn’t inherit. At least I can be sure that the origins of the shyness are world’s apart from my particular set of childhood challenges.
This year has been remarkable for how fast Aidan has made good friends. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s circumstances, maybe it’s just a stroke of good fortune. Whatever it is, it has been wonderful to see.
Which is why last night’s email was so hard to talk to him about.
It was nearly bedtime (for me, not him) and Westminster Public Schools sent a mass email. The subject line: WPS to go to all remote learning.
“Oh no.” I said out loud. Aidan, having been in the room behind me asked what it was.
“You should probably come here and look at this," I said. I always make him an active participant in his own life.
His face sank.
I told him it says it’s for two weeks but “you know that’s just a guess, right?”
He understood. The prospect of being ripped out of his routine, his normal, his social life had none of the novelty that we all felt on some level back in March.
In March, this had been unprecedented. "Future Bar Trivia" we often joked when we still hadn’t grasped the severity of the pandemic.
To have it happen again in late October is a grim sign of so many things. Misunderstandings, misdeeds, mismanagement, whatever led us here, it’s another fairy tale trope vanished. Among the many lessons of life that we oversimplify for children is that sacrifice gets rewarded. That short term suffering leads to long term reward.
I could instantly see in his face the vanishing of these ideas, these “truths”. Nothing we had been doing seems to have worked at all. Even the “new normal” that school quickly became.
I asked Aidan how he felt about this and he shrugged and said “fine. I guess.”
Kids also oversimplify life to adults.
I asked what he will miss the most and he immediately said he’d miss his friends. It’s exactly what I had expected him to say and it’s precisely the thing I will miss the most for him.
So, on Monday we go back to the online routine, temporarily ... but probably not. And I go back to being teacher, administrator, father and friend.
I worry about Aidan maintaining those friendships. I worry about his feelings of loss. I have known a lot of adults who have embraced the Zoom happy hour thing, but every kid I know has found it lacking and unattractive. It barely happened last semester.
Maybe adults just need a reason to drink, but kids need something more from these relationships. I haven’t found that the in-personness is something that can be replicated with technology. At, least not for Aidan, a kid who needs proximity.
A kid who needs an energy.
A kid cursed with his old man’s shyness.
Each year Aidan and I take a father-son trip to commemorate a special occasion in our family. This occasion happens to fall in late September. Over the years I have been proactive about working with his teachers to ensure that he doesn’t fall behind in his classes.
The trip we had originally planned would have involved an airplane ride, a border crossing and at least a week of missed classes. I was prepared to deal with all of that but since COVID-19 hit we had to amend our plans.
Not wanting to break tradition, we brainstormed an exciting trip within driving distance to replace the one we had lost and the bright side of that was that it only resulted in him missing two days of school. So, I was a bit surprised when, the following week, I received this in my email:
Was I really being chastised for a couple days off? Was I really being accused of lost learning opportunities? As Aidan can attest to, a trip with me ANYWHERE involves a whole lot of learning.
I’ve never been a lounge-at-the-beach kind of person, and even less so when my son is with me. When I travel, I base the itinerary around cultural events and historical displays or tours.
Even now with the pandemic, there is a whole lot of opportunity for this sort of travel as a great deal of western U.S. history happened outdoors. We had three full days of exploration, culture and natural wonders and we did it all in a very responsible way.
Over the years, while working with his teachers in elementary school, I have never been required to bring his schoolwork or been asked to have him demonstrate any knowledge gained. On the contrary, the common sentiment I got from his teachers was that he’ll learn more on our trip (and in a hands-on way) than he would in that couple of days of classroom work.
In fact, Aidan has never struggled to catch up with work missed even when our trips lasted a week. And he had no trouble catching up this time either.
I was able to shrug off this emailed nastygram for the most part just telling myself that I know he’s a better person for our trips and he’s learned something new in a way that even the best school curriculum could never replicate.
I was able to shrug it off. Until yesterday. That’s when I learned that he’s no longer with his cohort within his classroom. Apparently, and contrary to my understanding from the beginning, the kids’ groups of four have been mixed up after each hexter (a seemingly made up word that means 1/6th of the school year).
Further questioning led to the revelation that recesses have gotten completely lax. I’m told there’s just one teacher overseeing the kids outside, that they are allowed to remove their masks, and that “most kids” spend the time looking over each other’s shoulders at video games. To clarify, these are not the designated cohorts from their classrooms, these are all the kids on recess at the time.
It’s not that these revelations make me question the diligence of the school district or the individual teachers. It doesn’t necessarily make me reconsider in person learning, though it will take the surprise factor out of the probable positives to come.
What bothers me is that I was chastised for taking my son camping. That I was tacitly accused of wasting an opportunity. The invocation of state law as a threat and the insinuation that I don’t take my son’s learning as seriously as I should.
Maybe the school should give parents the benefit of the doubt and assume we insist our children learn even while on vacation. And maybe the school should take the kid’s health as seriously as we parents take their education.
Earlier this week there was a viral video about people in Southern Utah demonstrating against masks outside a school administration building. Among other things, they claimed that masks were a form of child abuse.
I watched that video on my phone in the drive line while waiting to pick Aidan up from school. Before we even left the parking lot I asked him if his mask has ever constricted his breathing.
He said no.
I asked him if he ever felt like he might suffocate. He looked at me sideways but answered “no”.
I asked him if his mask ever felt like it might be a danger to him in any way, shape or form. By now we’re turning out of the parking lot and he’s had just about enough of this line of questioning. Rather than answer, he asked what on earth I was talking about.
I told him there was a news story in Utah, where we happen to be taking our last camping trip of the year, and in it people claimed that masks equated to child abuse. I told him that they had rallied outside a school district building and at one point, reportedly tried to storm the front door…to what end was unknown.
He was amused that people had done that and said to me “it’s a minor inconvenience, that’s all.”
I told him he’s already more of a grown-up than some adults out there.
As the only school-aged kid in the family he’s often interrogated about his day-to-day routine and how he feels about it. It gets tiresome for him to keep answering these questions but it’s important that he answer if for no other reason than to keep any unlikely reactionaries pacified.
In the viral news story there was a questionably unethical interview with a small child who parroted a “fact” at the reporter that, by the way, was wildly outdated. This child was taught and coached by an adult and exploited by a journalist. But it was a window into how these falsehoods spread, often unquestioned.
I constantly explain to my son that it’s important that he takes responsibility for his own opinions and that he know why he feels however he feels. This has never been better exemplified. This story shows how disengaged grown-ups can sway the opinions of the individuals actually experiencing a situation to damaging effect.
We adults shouldn’t be telling our kids how they feel, we should be asking them.
We adults shouldn’t be telling our kids their feelings are wrong. We should be proud of their versatility.
We adults definitely shouldn’t be misinforming our kids, we should be empowering them with knowledge.
We adults should be as grown-up as our kids.
I was prepared for a lot of surprises this semester but sometimes the biggest surprise is that I’m surprised at all.
After a few weeks back in in-person learning what I’ve discovered is that Aidan had way fewer expectations than I did with all this. In true kids-are-resilient fashion, they show up and establish the normal with very few concerns about the past.
As a parent -- and a grown-up in general -- I could do with learning a lesson from the children. We do get entrenched in our individually-biased expectations of the world around us.
The truth is none of us really have a reasonable expectation for how to handle a pandemic of this magnitude. How dare we expect anything at all. We know that the health and safety of everyone is the core motivation, so when I hear that some of those “best-laid plans” from early August have shape-shifted into a life that Aidan looks forward to participating in each morning.
The “no-sharing” rule, I’m told, has been more flexible than the administrators led me to believe it would be. After all, some kids just don’t have the supplies they need from day to day. Why is not my business, but if a simple whiteboard marker (or lack of one) is going to subvert a child’s learning than I’m 100% in favor of teacher autonomy when considering the best way to get these kids on equal ground. If that involves wiping down a marker or a pair of scissors, so be it.
The original plan for recess said only kicking games (like soccer) would be allowed because it requires proper distancing and hand touching was an unlikely event. I’m told now that games involving passing by hand are a common occurrence on the playground and when asked about the “soccer only” rule, Aidan replied, “I don’t think they even have soccer balls.”
I’m making my peace with this playtime violation because they still have to diligently wash and sanitize their hands. And I’m pretty sure the temperature checks are still strictly enforced.
Aidan has become fast friends with his “cohort” and is happy to spend his days with this new group of friends. Who knows, maybe this experience will bind them through high school and beyond.
I suppose more surprising things have happened.
Here’s a first day of school conversation with my son:
“How many kids were in your class?”
“31! That’s more than there used to be pre-COVID!”
“Maybe it was 21, I didn’t count.”
“Well, was there space between everyone?”
“So, there couldn’t have been 31, right?”
“I guess not.”
This was the conversation I had with Aidan on the drive home from his first day of seventh grade. It’s a typical ordeal trying to machete my way through the solipsistic world view of a near-teenager.
Perhaps if I had asked him, “if you occupied every desk in the classroom, how many yous would there be?” This is a tactic I may employ today if I don’t get a more satisfying answer to my questions.
When we arrived at school for drop-off, I was surprised to be the only car in the drive line. It hadn’t occurred to me that the lowered classroom cap might not even be met if more parents than not had opted for the virtual academy.
But for the first time, I wondered if Aidan might be one of just a few kids in his class. My prevailing desire for him to socialize again was shaken and I spent the day wondering if he’d tell me he wanted to go virtual just to have screen time with his peers.
Those fears were dashed within a quarter mile of the school that afternoon. The pick-up line was woven through the parking lot and backed up onto Lowell Boulevard.
I instantly realized that the simple fact is it’s easier to drop off than to pick up. This being the first day, we parents all seemed to exhibit a remarkable amount of patience, as did the opposing traffic who happened to be on Lowell at precisely the wrong time.
A teacher providing an information point at the entrance to the lot did his best to assure me that this should smooth out as theory becomes practice. I can certainly understand that a couple hundred middle schoolers are quite the variable to contend with. All the best laid plans are bound to get a harsh reality check in the coming weeks.
Back to the drive home: As my inquisition continued, a lot of my curiosity went unsatisfied. Prior to receiving his schedule, I had asked Aidan what he was most excited to study. He had said history, so I was bothered to see that “history” isn’t a class in seventh grade. He assured me that history was built into “literacy”. So, when I asked “How was literacy? What are you going to be learning about?”
The answer “I don’t know” was the last thing I wanted to hear.
“What about science? When I was in seventh grade, I dissected a lamb’s eye. What branch of science do you have this year?”
“I don’t know.”
The same kind of answer came about every class. It turns out that with the parade of teachers to appear before them (teacher’s change rooms this year rather than students), each and every one addressed COVID-19 and COVID-19 related protocols for the entirety of their class time. This kind of reminded me of a common complaint I have had ever since Film School: Why did I have to watch “Citizen Kane” four times? Don’t these professors talk to each other? I literally wrote one essay, turned it in four times and got four As.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the COVID-19 talks couldn’t have just been handled by the homeroom teacher and the rest of the day spent trying to find a new normalcy. But, as this is an unusual circumstance, I try to be lenient in my expectations. I only hope that today, Friday, they can get down to the business of teaching and learning.
As far as the COVID-19 related procedures, WPS did a fine job of preparing me for the days. Masks are always worn indoors. There is a recess, during which they can remove the masks and socialize at a responsible distance. Lunch is still held in the gym, which is against what I was told, but I trust that distance there is maintained as well.
Moving through the halls is done in single file lines, like a perpetual fire drill, and they only move to lunch, recess and bathroom breaks. There is a “giant tub” of hand sanitizer that has to be applied each time the kids enter or exit the room.
Aidan still feels very safe and is very happy that two of his friends are in his class again. I’m heartened by the gigantic smizes of the teachers each morning and love to see the excitement in everyone not just getting back to life but getting their lives back.
I, too, have fallen back into more normalcy with my days free of fighting boredom and unproductivity and can get back to the serious business of rehearsing my interrogation skills.
My curiosity will be satisfied.
Since the end of last semester and the earliest part of summer break, Westminer Public Schools has been committed to a back-to-school plan that has involved in-person learning.
I was a bit surprised when they unveiled a full-day 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday schedule. It was especially surprising to me when, in light of Denver’s own decision to postpone in-person learning, WPS remained steadfast in their plan. They have assured me, the parent, that this decision “was reached after extensive conversations with health experts and educators with a focus on safety for students and staff."
I have no doubt in my mind that the educators at WPS have a deep concern for the safety of all involved, but it does make me wonder how Denver and so many other districts in state could come up with such radically different ideas of the best path forward. Aren’t they all consulting health experts? I have some teachers in my family and I have some family with kids in other districts. It seems that WPS is the only one going back to basically a normal full day, full week schedule.
9NEWS BIO: Matthew Bell
It’s been the topic of choice in every familial encounter—virtual or in person—I’ve had this summer. Everyone wants to know how I feel and how my son feels about going back to school. Aidan and I have read and watched every presentation that WPS has sent us. They do have a virtual academy set up for parents and kids that don’t feel comfortable with the idea of in-person schooling, as well as the now-standard Zoom instruction for those student’s that just don’t feel well enough to leave home on any given day.
I do also have extenuating circumstances in my day-to-day life. I try my best to help out the older members of my family with necessary tasks like grocery shopping, and while I take every requested precaution while I’m mingling with the real world, nothing is more important to me than the health and safety of the people I love.
My son, however, is an only child and other than a couple instances of Zoom hangouts and some light online video game chats, he hasn’t spoken to a kid his own age in over five months. This concerns me a lot more than him most of the time. I often feel he’s a little -- or a lot -- too comfortable confined to home all day.
So, once he and I had gone over all the possible plans and considered the inevitable tedium of the necessary safety protocols that he’ll be living with five days a week, I was a bit surprised when he told me in no uncertain terms: “I want to go back to normal school”.
I agreed that we’d do that with the knowledge that should things not work out or we feel uncomfortable in any way, there is a virtual backup plan that I am happy to facilitate once more. As for my higher-risk family members, I will be putting more distance between us for the greater good. I’ll leave groceries on the porch instead of unpacking them in the kitchen. And I’ll no longer be dragging Aidan along on these deliveries, which inevitably turn into socially-distanced family gossip sessions.
I guess Aidan gets another benefit out of going back to school.
Matt is a divorced single father with majority custody of my son, Aidan (12). He works full-time as a photojournalist for Mile High Mornings and because of the schedule he keeps there, he's been able to be the full-time at home teacher/enforcer for the last part of his sixth grade semester at Westminster Public Schools.
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