One day this past winter, a Denver Public Schools (DPS) fifth grader phoned a therapist who was helping her cope with her anxiety. She missed her friends and needed to talk. A single mom a few miles south in Littleton called her teenage sons from work one weekday, just to make sure they were doing OK with everything. In northeastern Colorado, a mother couldn’t get through the day without worrying about her four children, one of whom was in middle school and recently had asked the family’s Alexa device for advice on how to put an end to his suicidal thoughts.
The particular struggles for parents and children over the past year may be different, but they’re also awfully familiar and have the same root cause: pandemic-induced remote learning.
Jada Williams* knows the challenges. She’d seen her daughter’s slow academic slide begin late this past summer, just weeks into a school year that had started with students at home because of the novel coronavirus. After months of remote learning, DPS gave her 10-year-old daughter, Nia,* the option of in-person learning at east Denver’s Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment this past winter. Williams declined.
It was “the hardest decision of my life,” Williams, who is in her late thirties and Black, says. She knew how important it was for Nia to be in a classroom, but she also knew the risks associated with COVID-19, which has hit Black communities at disproportionately high rates. Williams worked two jobs, and she didn’t have the luxury of missing a paycheck if she got sick. Ultimately, sending Nia back to in-person schooling “wasn’t worth the risk” to her family’s health or their financial situation.
Williams watched her daughter’s reading aptitude slip each night as the two read before bedtime. Nia was a hands-on kid, so it was inevitable she’d eventually become lonely and disengaged from her schoolwork. Williams always believed her daughter’s situation would be temporary, but a sense of helplessness seized her as the pandemic dragged on through the summer and into the fall and winter. “I never imagined,” she says, “that this is what school would look like.”
Williams, who also has a three-year-old son, didn’t have any cushion in her budget to hire a tutor for her daughter. Nia cried when she learned of her mother’s decision to keep her home, where she would log in to school each morning as her mother took calls for her day job as an eye-examination scheduler for a managed care company. “How do you tell a child you’re keeping her from her teacher and her friends?” says Williams, who also cuts hair to supplement her income. “I want her to go back so bad. I don’t have a good answer for anything. She keeps asking me when she’s finally going to see her teachers and her friends. I keep saying, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ How much longer can I do that?”
Nearly 100 miles north of the Williams’ home, 14-year-old Brett Shaw* sat hunched over a laptop at his kitchen table, trying to ignore his mother. His first-semester final exams were to begin the next day. Snow was piled around his family’s rustic, split-level home in the hills west of Fort Collins. It was mid-December, but indoors it looked much the same as it had every other day during the pandemic, with Brett wearing a pair of shorts, sitting next to his two younger sisters as they logged into their classes.
Brett—wiry and friendly, with a thin face and a wisp of black hair peeking out from under the back of his Dallas Cowboys beanie—had earned mostly B’s and C’s in middle school the year before. As with so many American children since then, the pandemic had upended most everything in Brett’s life. Both of his parents had temporarily lost their jobs during the previous nine months, which had been devastating to the family’s finances. Brett rarely saw his friends. He loved competitive wrestling, but he hadn’t worked out with his team in months. Of the roughly 80 days that made up Brett’s first semester, only 10 had been in an actual classroom. “I barely got to know my way around,” he said as he logged onto his English class, where the students were studying Romeo and Juliet. With one week remaining in his first freshman semester, Brett was in a bad spot academically. He had three D’s, one F, a bunch of unfinished work, and a frustrated mother trying to hold things together.
Over in the family room, Brett’s mom, Kelly Shaw,* sat at her desk. Her job as a medical coder for a hospital gave her flexibility to work from home when her husband returned to his full-time job in construction. Like most parents working through the pandemic, Kelly, who is 41, was fighting doubts about herself. One day, she’d worry she was neglecting her work and focusing too much on her children’s schooling; the next, she was certain she was ignoring her children’s schooling and focusing too much on her work. She thought about bills that would soon come due and was often angry that her school district hadn’t opened its high schools. “I feel like I’m the one who’s failing,” she said.
Kelly opened Brett’s school portal, which gave her access to attendance records, grades, and assignments. She took a deep breath. Her back stiffened. It was as if she were preparing for a crash landing.
I'm hoping schools will be fully back to normal soon, and by August at the absolute latest, the beginning of a new school year. But I can't help but think that it'll be a long time before we fully know the effect of the Lost Year of COVID on America's kids.
It didn't have to be this way, but Trump and the GOP made it so.
Never forget that.