Boomer grandparents can give working parents a virtual hall pass for kids' online school

Internet US 2020-08-01 12:30:49

A lot of people my generation — the over-65 population — have gone more than four months without hugging our grown children. Odds are, it will be several more months until we can again. Senior citizens like me follow a strict protocol for socially distanced bubble-living: groceries delivered, no visitors, no unmasked contact, no weddings, no funerals. We are lonely but well (if distantly) cared for.

For those unhugged young adults, life under COVID-19 is more complicated. Our millennial son, single and in his early 30s, lost his tavern job during quarantine but shares his house with roommates and gets by on unemployment insurance and savings. He was in middle school on 9/11 and assures me that he and his cohort have grown up remarkably resilient to catastrophe.

His Generation X older sister’s hard-won work/family balancing act is a lot more complex. In March, like most of New York City, her husband’s media office moved onto their dining table and their fourth grader’s school shut down — just as all my daughter's documentary filmmaking projects were at a critical point. Hospitalizations surged. Domestic bedlam followed.

Traditional schooling upended

They weren’t alone. In March, more than 1 million NYC students were sent home to continue their studies virtually.  Before long, nearly 55 million school children nationwide would be forced to do their classwork online.

The Bureau of Labor Statics calculates that of the more than 19 million families with children between the ages of 6 and 17 years old, in 13.7 million of those families the parents are all employed. Corporate human resources departments are facing a looming personnel crisis. In an April survey of its members, an employee retention firm found 20% of parents considering leaving the workforce entirely to stay with homebound children. By June, the number had grown to 1 in 3.

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In Brooklyn and Manhattan, mid-life professionals, used to waving children onto the school bus before arriving at their respective workplaces, were thrown into deep disruption and despair. At first, there was a collective breath-holding among distraught mothers and fathers hoping remote learning was merely a temporary pandemic provision to "flatten the curve."

Soon, managerial men and motivated career women dug in and developed short-term strategies to coordinate children’s schooling with their own professional obligations. Those who could flee, did. Over one weekend, my daughter’s whole family including the lizard, and a small but assertive dachshund mix, packed up for an extended stay to an empty family house 80 miles north.

In the spirit of all-hands-on-deck, and a profound sense of being underutilized, I texted my beleaguered daughter asking how I might help them adjust. She didn't hesitate before texting back, "If you could help with school it could be a game changer."

Boomer grandparents can give working parents a virtual hall pass for kids' online school

One week later, I became my 9-year-old grandson’s daily study buddy. As claustrophobic and profoundly limiting as the lockdown has been — and as endlessly dragged out a realistic reckoning foresees it will continue to be — the saving grace of global pandemic for me has been hanging out with the boy I call “Doodle,” my favorite human living 350 miles away. 

Tackling our daily lesson plans

As Doodle and I got into a screen-centered rhythm for how to sequence assignments and when to take breaks, elsewhere in the under-furnished house, we could hear his mother and father participating in video meetings with their colleagues.

I watched his sweet face computing sums on his personal math links, and marveled at how social justice awareness illuminated his lessons, prepared by his remarkable teachers back in Brooklyn. The young educators pre-recorded short videos while he and his classmates were sleeping; on the videos, I often heard ambulance sirens outside their apartments.

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For 12 weeks my darling boy and I had a standing appointment on Zoom where we attempted to decipher the opaque interface of Google Classroom on his shared screen. We used my iPhone and his iPad to keep an open video call during school sessions. He could see me watching him from his small screen, and I could look at him from two different angles in a cruel approximation of three dimensionality. Over his shoulder, I could see my daughter’s sunny front windows and the tiny dog running the household.

The entire fourth grade showed up in live Zoom sessions a couple times a week. The 9- and 10-year-olds saw each other’s faces, but voices were muted until the host instructor turned on their microphones. Amongst all the wiggling and twitching pre-adolescents, arrayed like a game of "The Hollywood Squares," I noticed several silly clown faces and a few shy waves aimed at classmates in the other boxes. A random parent sometimes walked into the frame behind them.

Boomer grandparents can give working parents a virtual hall pass for kids' online school

Such technology did not exist when I gave far less attention to my own reluctant children’s schoolwork in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Yet, despite daunting interfaces and my charge’s waning tolerance for reading “persuasive texts” and “critical writing” assignments, I found in myself a surprising well of patience and untapped talent for listening.  

For 12 weeks, in this human-contact drought, I was thrilled to be spending an hour or two a day chatting with my incurious but delightful grandson, as he mustered though the daily lesson plans. 

Doodle completed his curriculum on June 26 and advanced to fifth grade. His report card affirmed he had achieved the “meets standards” level. This month, as COVID-19 cases continue rising in much of the U.S., school districts across the country are announcing or considering online-only classes when the school bell rings this fall.

The New York department of education announced a hybrid plan offering one or two in-person days, supplemented by virtual classes the rest of the week, leaving panicked parents searching for private tutors and alternative options. My daughter signed me up early to be theirs.

There are literally tens of millions of able-bodied boomers essentially under house arrest across the country. I wouldn't be surprised if overcommitted 40-something professionals with families will be showing new appreciation for their parents-in-law come September.  

Bonnie Goldstein, a former U.S. Senate investigator and network TV producer, is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @kickedbyanangel.

Boomer grandparents can give working parents a virtual hall pass for kids' online school

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