April 12, 2021

Despite Online Learning Challenges, Families Find Some Value In A Year At Home

Original story from   IPBS-RJC

Article origination IPBS-RJC
Jessie Wong's two daughters bonded with their neighbor during the pandemic, giving them a chance to find some social time during a year when many people became more isolated because of quarantine and social distancing rules. - Provided by Jessie Wong

Jessie Wong's two daughters bonded with their neighbor during the pandemic, giving them a chance to find some social time during a year when many people became more isolated because of quarantine and social distancing rules.

Provided by Jessie Wong

Andrea Maltese laughs as she remembers the build up to the pandemic. At the time, she just wanted to get it over with, and was sure it wouldn't last long.

"We're practicing on bringing the iPads home, they had this system set up in school. And I was just sort of thinking, 'OK, let's call it now. Let's just start shutting down, get ahead of this, and it'll probably just be a couple weeks, things will return to normal,'" she said.

Her two elementary age kids didn't seem worried. She wasn't either, until everything changed.

"So I remember we were sitting at the dinner table, when all the devices started going off. Everybody's phone ringing, to say – it was just like it usually does on a snow day. But it was that we weren't coming back to school the next day," she said.

She was nervous to tell her kids they wouldn't go back to school, but they didn't seem to mind too much. 

In the fall, her kids would continue online learning. They had the resources to do it, and she knew other families might need to send their kids to school. 

Maltese is part of a group of parents in Bloomington who kept their children online this school year. And while other parents in well-resourced households similarly did not want to clog up classrooms by sending their kids back in-person, the decision wasn't clear for all of them. 

Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe almost sent her first grader back. But when she got details, she wasn't convinced – despite preparations she made over summer.

"We were waiting on the district to send the information and waiting to hear what this was going to look like, and when we got it, the class sizes were going to be pretty large. And they were still going to be going back and forth and using the cafeteria. And I just, I didn't feel super confident about that," she said. 

It hasn't been easy; heightened tension at home, lack of social time, and finding engaging materials not all based on a screen has been tough. Godby Ingalsbe says she's not sure they've figured out a routine, and it's been a year.

But families see more than just challenges.

Erika Lee's son doesn't want to go back to school in-person, and she sees why. He's used games and technology to customize his work – he made a video game for an environmental project that normally would have been created using cardboard and other craft materials. His mental health needs have changed too, and he likes not waking up early for school. 

Overall, she said, it's been a mixed bag.

"He's gotten so much more sleep. He was in therapy for anxiety and was being bullied during recess, and that's all gone away, right? He's had other issues; he's depressed sometimes, he's anxious, he doesn't always want to do what he's supposed to do – and clearly time management issues are gonna continue to haunt us – but he has become more independent," she said.

Parents recognize that pandemic-spurred independence comes with potential benefits. 

Pam Cocalis likens her son's experience to a sort of trial run for the self-starter mindset he'll need for college. 

And she's gained things too. It's his last year of middle school, and while he has missed out on some of the experiences he would have gotten during a normal school year, the time they've spent together, she says, has been invaluable.

"You know, there was a lot of turmoil going on, so to be able to actually like, sit and maybe watch some news or look up some news and then talk about it and not feel so frazzled from, you know, being at work or doing something else – just having that sort of time is really been the best thing about this year," she said.

Intense time together during the pandemic means something different for Jessie Wong and her family. Her parents live in China, her daughters are young, and traveling takes a lot of time.

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After learning they can work from pretty much anywhere, Wong and her husband are making a significant life change, to enhance the connection between their kids and their extended family members half a world away. 

"We've thought about this for a long time, and thought if the vaccines are becoming available, and our parents are not getting any younger, and it is really hard for us to visit them or for them to visit us. So, we finally made the decision of moving to a coastal city on the West Coast where it will be a lot easier to visit families," she said. 

When it comes to the much talked about return to school buildings – whenever that is – some are more apprehensive than others. The challenges and benefits of a year online are different for everybody, and there's no guaranteed end date to the pandemic.

But these families do have one more thing in common: they're ready to get back some of the kinds of experiences they missed out on in 2020, and just let their kids be kids again. 

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included a photo caption that said Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe's son Nicholas had started at a new school. That was incorrect. He started first grade remotely.

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