In March, my second grader and I cleared out his cubby at Dexter’s Beacon Elementary.

I knew in my heart as we waved goodbye that we’d be out for the rest of the school year. But I never imagined that we would still be doing school at home nine months later–now at A2 STEAM at Northside.

My son is now in third grade and his sister in kindergarten. For the most part, they are proud and excited to be in school. Their teachers are engaged, committed, and highly responsive. And their father and I are fortunate to have their grandparents supporting our children at virtual school while we work full-time.

But I worry about the impact a year of missed friendships is having on my kids and the depth of learning in the virtual classroom.

“School isn’t as interesting because you don’t get to meet with anyone,” my third grader tells me. “I feel like my classmates are a bunch of robots because I can’t see them in person.”

And even with help, running a home school can be hard. I recently cried at a virtual staff meeting while hiding with my laptop from my screaming children and stressed-out mother. I once walked in on my son during class to find him splayed on the floor, Zoom mic and camera off, shoving staples and thumbtacks into a crumpled ball of scotch tape. And there was the day when my daughter flatly refused to do school at all.

Wondering how other Ann Arbor Public School families are coping, I talked to parents, teachers, and administrators. And I posted to the Ann Arbor Townies Facebook page, asking how virtual learning was going for other families.

Amber Mansfield Prior responded, “Last week I was sitting on the couch flanked by a 7- and 10-year-old, both crying and frustrated. And I was supposed to somehow be working?!? I know I’m not alone. This situation is absolutely unsustainable.”

“Way too much screen time for my five-year-old daughter,” Mike Black wrote. “It’s putting a major strain on our relationship, we both get very frustrated … I’ve lost sleep many nights over this.”

Others had better experiences. Amber Brown wrote, “I’m really impressed with how well all the kids’ teachers have been able to shift to managing online classrooms, and how much help, cooperation, and flexibility everyone has shown.”

Anne Bacon moved to Ann Arbor two years ago with her partner and seven-year-old son, who attends Bach Elementary. “I think having come from a not-well-funded school in San Francisco gives me a different perspective because I am so impressed and amazed by how organized and communicative the district has been,” she says. She even sees some benefits to the virtual classroom. Her son “is a super fidgety kid who is in constant motion and last year that caused problems for him. This year he can be on his yoga ball or have his feet tapping or hum or sit on the couch or into the blanket fort or work outside … and not be distracting to other people.”

My family is among those relatively satisfied with online school, but I can relate to the struggles. Two days a week, I take my third grader to my office, where we work across the hall from each other. It’s not terribly productive for me; he comes into my office many times a day with various needs and running commentary. He complains often about the class time that is either missed or wasted addressing technology issues.

My daughter logs onto Zoom and Schoology like a pro, but so much of kindergarten is learning through play and interaction, which is impossible to replicate on Zoom. Instead my daughter sits in front of her iPad for hours each day. Her teacher is also concerned about prolonged screen time, but she is required to teach morning meeting, reading, math, word study/phonics, one to two specials, and social studies every day. Science and writing will be added soon.

Eavesdropping on my daughter’s class, “I can’t see your screen” is the phrase I hear most often. Children without help close at hand have the most difficulty.

Heather Foster has to have her second grader work in his room with the door closed to keep her toddler from distracting him. But children, she says, “are intimidated by the technology and being on their own.” At the other extreme, some of her son’s classmates “are in a room with other children and a babysitter, and there are all these different conversations going on.”

“My sixteen year old is doing great,” says Kaimarie Green, a single mother of three who works at U-M hospital. “My eighth grader and fourth grader, not good.”

Her daughter, a junior at Pioneer High, is in charge while she’s at work from seven a.m. to three p.m. four days a week. “It’s hard for the eighth grader to follow along with the teachers,” Green says. The district’s remote learning platform, Schoology, “is a problem for him. Half the time he doesn’t understand what to do. And it’s hard for him to sit still and get the lesson after a certain amount of time.” Previously on the honor roll, he is now falling behind. Her fourth grader also runs into problems.

“I had called tech support on two different occasions, and the lady wasn’t very helpful,” Green says. “What I got from the eighth-grade and fourth-grade teachers is that, ‘You know, this is hard for everybody, and everybody is pretty much just trying to figure out what to do.'”

Many of the parents I spoke with believe that the online learning format is not suited to their children’s learning styles. Genevieve Grainger moved with her fourteen-year-old daughter to Ann Arbor from Florida a year ago. “As a single mom working full-time, watching my daughter go from a straight-A to an E student is not good.” She feels her daughter requires in-person instruction to learn, and the lack of textbooks and high teacher turnover makes it difficult to follow along–this fall, she’s already had three biology teachers and two geometry teachers.

“My emails don’t get answered by my teachers, and I feel like everything teachers say goes in one ear and out the other,” writes her daughter.

“My brain shuts down after about an hour on a computer. I have cried so much due to the stress of online school, and I think it’s taking a huge toll on everyone. My mental health has been so bad. I want to see my friends, and I want to meet new people and I want to meet my teachers. I miss school more than anything, I always got excited for it, but now I’m so ready to quit.”

“I wish there was a way to help the students get to know the technology before we started implementing it,” says Jen Gould, who teaches special ed at Bach Elementary. “Some of these families struggle so much with the technology that it impacts their progress and ability to get to where they need to be at a certain time.” Many of her students come from families with little access to technology, and teaching them how to use it is harder when you’re not face-to-face.

Gould has one student “who really struggled in brick-and- mortar school with aggression and this environment is working really well.” But keeping her other students engaged and on track has made this “the most difficult year I’ve had in seventeen years of teaching.”

Ellen Daniel, who teaches sixth and seventh grades at Tappan, says that getting students invested in school is her biggest challenge this year. “It’s not the same as a classroom conversation where we are actively building knowledge together,” she says. “I think my job number one is to be present, ask questions, try to notice, and build relationships. That’s really hard digitally.”

Foster, whose second grader goes to Logan, is concerned about comprehension. “If you need people around you to bounce ideas off of before you can understand and learn you will not be as successful as the person who might be a self starter who can take the information and run with it.”

Fred Klein, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, says this year has been incredibly challenging for teachers. But it has also introduced innovations that he hopes may be retained long term. “One of the best things–and we discovered this in the spring when we shut down and went into remote learning overnight–is the Teacher Learning Network.” Creating online lesson plans and tracking student progress remotely are enormously time consuming. The TLNs allow groups of teachers to develop subject-specific content and share it with teachers throughout the district “so that people aren’t all inventing the same thing.”

Parents have to master new technologies, too. Marie Barksdale has five stepchildren, all in the AAPS: a kindergartner, second grader, and fifth grader at Burns Park, a third grader at Logan, and a seventh grader at Scarlett.

Barksdale grew up in Ann Arbor and had a good experience in AAPS special ed classes, and she and her husband decided to move back because their third grader is cognitively impaired and wasn’t getting the services he needed in Wayne County. She feels fortunate to be able to stay home and help the children with school.

Keeping up with the high cost of living in Washtenaw County has been a sacrifice for the family, but the AAPS Food Distribution Plan has been an enormous benefit. “The kids are growing more because they are getting enough food,” she says. And because it’s delivered to their home, her children have more time to eat than they did at school.

But certain learning applications have been difficult for her. “I also have a learning disability, and they work with me on that,” she says. “It makes it really hard for me to work on Seesaw,” a digital learning platform.

Wednesdays are set aside for “asynchronous learning,” when students are expected to work independently on assignments through various learning applications. Every parent and child I spoke to says that Wednesday is the hardest day of the week.

Superintendent Jeanice Swift says that there are bound to be problems less than two months into a completely new system. “We expect that with an implementation being used by approximately 60,000 people,” she says. “And yet, week over week, for those areas where we’re struggling, improvements are occurring.” She says that successful login rates have increased from 85 percent to 91 percent and call volume at the help desk has decreased.

“October is the time, even in a traditional year, where we begin to see where the challenges are, and what are the additional supports that are needed to ensure that students are doing well,” Swift says. These include online teacher office hours, and social workers, psychologists, and learning specialists who can meet with students one-on-one in a virtual setting.

AAPS is working with community partners to offer limited small group, in-person instruction through the Connections Plus program. Parents are clamoring for it, but it currently has room for only 300 students. Swift says they’re working to expand the program, and are planning for the day that all students can safely return to class. But as long as the county is in phase four of Governor Whitmer’s Safe Start plan, the vast majority of students will continue to study online.

Klein says the teachers want to go back to the classroom: “Being in front of students is where we do our best work. But teaching in rooms with no windows or poor ventilation is just not safe.

“We know that the board is getting pressure from parents to reopen schools. We took a survey last week, and 81 percent of our teachers said they don’t want to return to in-person instruction. To avoid the seesawing from open to closed, our position has been to remain virtual until science and data show us that risks are minimal to return to face-to-face instruction.”

Swift affirms that. “We said in May when we set up the learning framework that the settings on the dial this year would be fully virtual, hybrid, and fully in person.” The AAPS COVID Metrics Dashboard tracks the spread of the virus and informs decision-making about when in-person instruction can resume. But with daily infections in the county, state, and region rising in October, those indicators have been getting worse, not better.

Elana Levine teaches kindergarten at Haisley Elementary. She knows that this year has been difficult for everyone and hopes that parents and teachers can come together in a spirit of mutual support and compassion.

“Teachers are feeling a lot of the same struggles that parents are feeling,” she says. “We’ve got to have patience with ourselves and others and presume that everything that is coming at us has good intent behind it. We can work on this. We’re all in this together.”