Back in March 2020, as COVID-19 ripped through our suburb just outside of New York City, our son’s kindergarten teacher tested positive. (Thankfully, she recovered.) But I was sufficiently freaked out. My family was sick in mid-March, and our then-5-year-old, Jeremy, was the first to come down with cold-like symptoms with an extra helping of lethargy. The school district never notified us that our son had been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case of the virus; it’s possible his teacher didn’t develop symptoms until after the lockdown. I know we learned so much more about transmission from March to September and have better state-mandated protocols in place for contact tracing, but I still preferred to keep our kids in our home to protect them and ourselves. It was the wrong decision for our family. Even though the virtual “learning” from the spring had become more-structured virtual learning (no quotes) by fall, it wasn’t a good fit for my now-first-grader. He would shut off his tablet in the middle of class. Holler over his teacher. Cover his camera. Rip up paper when he should’ve been practicing writing on it. Retreat to the bathroom and lock the door until, surprise, class ended. And he’d scream, kick and run away when my husband, part-time sitter, mom or I tried to get him to do his asynchronous assignments on his tablet. His reading skills were gradually declining. His behavior was rapidly declining.
We asked the teacher for advice and bought this giant, hanging schedule so Jeremy would always know what happens next. We stuck to a routine. We bribed. We had a behavior chart with points. His sitter offered plenty of suggestions too. Get him a school tablet separate from his play tablet. Have some fidget toys out on his desk before she arrives in the morning. Have a snack at his desk. We did every single one, desperate to have some help in the house while my husband and I worked from home. Nothing helped, from my perspective. Jeremy crumbled his Chex Mix to fine crumbs that are still in every crevice of his bedroom. He still lashed out at us and the sitter. She quit. Some days, I wished I could too. Our 'aha' moment came after Jeremy met with the school psychologist in the building. It was one of the first times he’d gone indoors anywhere that wasn’t our house or my parents’ since March. He talked with her. Played games with her. Sat (mostly) patiently with her, six feet apart, for over an hour. She said that the behavior I’d described to her was nothing like what she witnessed. He clearly did better in person. Soon after, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with ADHD. Virtual learning is a tough environment for a kid who has inattention and impulsivity challenges. I wrote a long, pleading email to get Jeremy back in the classroom at his home school, even though I’d smugly signed away that right over the summer. The kind principal contacted me right away agreeing to accommodate him. He started back in a real classroom just two school days later. Around the same time, to my chagrin, two staffers at the school who had been in close contact with each other were diagnosed with the virus. Their class had to stay home for two weeks. I’m still terrified that Jeremy will be next to get sick (and, let’s be honest, to have to return to virtual school), but there has been clear communication and lots of measures in place to reduce spread. So far, they seem to be working.
It’s only been a couple of weeks, and Jeremy is doing much better in every way. Yes, he still has behavior issues, and we’ve started therapy (and if you’re thinking, “wow, what a privilege,” you’re right; we were so fortunate to get off the waiting list for a low-cost option through a local university. I recommend checking with the colleges in your area for similar services if your family could benefit). His teacher and school psychologist said Jeremy’s doing well. Of course, that can change at any moment. Maybe one day, I’ll regret sending him back. I hope not. But it’s impossible to know whether your decision about virtual versus in-person school is the right one until you try it because even experts can’t agree. Every district is different. Every family is different. I’m just thankful that we were allowed to change our mind. That’s parenting, though. You can do all your research, but you never know how it’s going to go until you’re in the situation with your kid. I hate that I put Jeremy through something that was so difficult for him (heck, I hate that I put the sitter and my mom through it too). All I can do is learn from my mistake—which to be clear, might be the right decision for your family—and keep trying to figure out solutions that work better.