Working & learning from home at the epicenter of Covid-19

I secretly always wanted to try home-schooling when my kids were very young. Now the current health situation has compelled me and my husband to keep our asthmatic kiddo with respiratory issues (and her sister) home from school to protect her and me (more of those troublesome lungs), and the one thing I know is that we’re all about to learn a lot.

While some nearby districts and private schools have closed, our large urban, public district is open. My husband and I are both currently WFH in Seattle, the epicenter of #Coronavirus in the U.S., per our employer’s guidelines. We’re lucky in this way, and also lucky because our kids are old enough that they can be largely self-sufficient (if this was Little House on the Prairie, our older daughter would be entering teachers college soon, on her way to be managing a class of her own). We recognize many other parents do not have the support from their employer or the kind of jobs that allow them to do what is best for their families’ health at this time, and we’re grateful we do.

We took the weekend to plan as parents and as a family how we could empower an almost-13-year-old and a 14-and-and-half-year-old, both with very different work styles, to drive their own learning. We agreed they would follow their middle- and high-school daily schedules from home as much as possible. We started the week early this morning by emailing each batch of 6 teachers plus the school principals and nurses, to let them know the plan and ask specific questions around how the kids would track along remotely, especially given that our district hasn’t released any remote learning guidelines and standards yet although it has stated that students staying out for health reasons are excused. Our main questions included whether the teachers would be updating the existing online coursework tracker, Schoology, daily; how the students working from home would take tests; and whether paper packets/worksheets could be picked up. We did these communications before our work day at Microsoft began, so the kids could get situated with focus time before we needed to dig into our own work. Needless to say, they were not happy that their first day of Coronavirus Home School didn’t start with sleeping in.

Because our house is at the tail end of some renovations that have some of our square footage closed off (added fun!) we designated the big dining room table as a home office for everyone. Technically the kids could work in their rooms, and for part of the day they did peel off, but primarily we wanted to keep our eyes on them and use social proximity (the opposite of social distancing!) to pressure them into good work behaviors. I know from my work on data-driven technology that helps workers and companies be more productive that behavioral science tells us one powerful way to influence people’s actions is through group dynamics 😊.

The home office schoolroom dining table disaster zone.

Our 14-year-old was able to track through her work well, and classmates called her into a class so she could complete group work, which was awesome. Our almost-13-year-old spent some time on current math work, got a head start on a Spanish project, and then got distracted with art (not a bad thing to fit in a subject her usual school day doesn’t include) while waiting for Schoology to update.

Part of our hesitancy in keeping our kids home from school is that they are at risk of falling behind, and systems are not fully in place to support remote learning. It’s eye-opening to see what families with medically fragile kids contend with year-round, making hard choices and trying to sustain consistent learning through health challenges. For us, this is a necessary trade-off but also a good experiment in learning how to form new productive habits and push our school districts toward a more digitally focused approach. We believe this is essential, Coronavirus or no Coronavirus, to prepare the next generation of workers for a competitive and digitized job market.

On the 7th grade middle school front, 3 of the 6 teachers responded to our outreach by end of day, saying that Schoology would be updated daily. One teacher said that starting tomorrow they will be using an online program that students can access from home, details forthcoming. Chemistry will be conducting 3 days of labs and our daughter was told she will have to find and rely on a classmate to supply her with data in order to complete the work. This will be challenging but we hope she won’t fall too far behind.

We empathize with teachers, who are juggling their own health concerns with added pressure from an increasing number of remote students. There is also no emergency plan already in place that implements online learning in a district where the lack of access to computers and internet for many students (not to mention food and a reliable place to study outside of school) is a serious issue of equity. We are privileged in that we have a house full of books and high-speed internet, so no matter what our kids’ learning doesn’t need to pause. Amid the chaos we are looking for ways to support other students’ access to resources and learning across the community should schools shut down.

By mid-morning our high school freshman had received answers from most of her Seattle Public Schools teachers with additional notes of support from both the nurse and principal. I have to say there was a marked difference in response for both kids. Every teacher who responded to our high-schooler said thank you for taking care of yourself, and the principal’s email included this: “I have sent one reminder to teachers to be accommodating to students who have to self-quarantine and I will be sending another today as well. I wish your family the best of health.” This reminds me of Microsoft’s frequent messages to employees over the past week, reassuring us that our health is the company’s top concern and they are here to support us.

With all this new stuff going on, it was challenging to accomplish everything on my own work task list. But maybe that’s not so different from a typical work day?

Day 1 of an unintended work-from-home, school-from-home new reality in the books.

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