“Turn it OFF!” protested my almost-2-year-old as I sat in the kitchen on Wednesday morning, on a Zoom call with DARIAH folks from across Europe and the US. I plied her with a snack, but ultimately she prevailed when, during the one time I was trying to say something on the call, she sidled up to me and announced, “My poo-poo butt.” I had to depart for a diaper change.

The accommodations for virtual kindergarten have, likewise, been met with resistance from the oldest kid. I’m certain his teacher meant well when she focused the second Zoom call for his class on the social-emotional “toolbox” they work with, particularly the “Quiet/Safe Space” tool. I know I could use a Quiet/Safe Space tool right about now, and props to his classmate who answered that "A Quiet/Safe Space is kind of imaginary.” It feels more imaginary than ever, kid.

But that’s not where he’s at right now. By all indication, he’s having the time of his life on what he’s dubbed “Coronavirus Break”. Practicalities being what they are, he gets way more screen time than on regular school days, he gets a lot of say in what we do for the curriculum-of-sorts, and with two younger siblings, and he’s not lacking for company. Especially as the oldest kid, he’s doesn’t have to navigate social scenarios anywhere near the complexity of kindergarten; he can just wrestle his brother to the floor, or gently antagonize his sister.

On this recent kindergarten call, when he looked So Very Done with this Educational Experience, I introduced him to the dark art of multitasking on boring Zoom calls. Apologetically, I explained that grown-ups do it all the time when they have to be in meetings that they’re getting nothing out of. So he found his own “Quiet/Safe Space”, away from all the talking about quiet/safe spaces, with the math workbook we got him. He was learning how to read charts and graphs. I gave him a big hug and told him that charts and graphs are really important for understanding things in the world, and it’s something a lot of grown-ups struggle with. 

Good parenting? Bad parenting? One way or another, it felt like the right answer for this kid, at this moment.

There are other situations that are part of our lives now where my default parental approach doesn’t work. Before the shelter-in-place order, I didn’t think twice about going out around town with all three kids. They know the non-negotiable rules (e.g. stopping at the end of sidewalks so we can cross the street together), and yes, it does sometimes give other people heart attacks to see two kids barreling down the sidewalk, not slowing at all as they approach the street, until they come to a screeching halt right at the edge. But let strangers yell at me about it if they want — it’s not hurting anything. Except now there are rules for being in public. Maintain six feet of distance from others. Plus all the things the shelter-in-place order doesn’t bother to spell out, like “don’t lick things”, “don’t climb things”, “use your elbow, not your hand, to press the pedestrian crossing button”, “don’t roll around on the sidewalk”. The things that before I would discourage but usually not yell about — the foibles of energetic children — are perceived, not incorrectly, as a health hazard. So coaching quickly ramps up to yelling, then snapping. Hands grabbed and pulled along; the only way I can hold up my end of the social distancing bargain with strangers is to make sure that the kids stay close to me. I loathe being that way with them — to the point where I don’t take them for walks anymore. It doesn’t feel worth the trade-off. I’ve never been so grateful for the tiny patio where at least they can run amok without me yelling at them.

We got an email today that the school district is officially launching “distance learning” on April 6th. There’ll be three 35-minute sessions on Zoom for kids every week, plus work packets with a suggested daily schedule. There will be “attendance” taken based on how much the children engage with the material. If school district funding weren’t tied to attendance, I’d opt my kid out of it all. It might be a nice break for parents with one kid, or where the kindergartener is the youngest, but it’s weird and disruptive for the preschooler and toddler to have the leader of their pack sequestered away with a computer — and for him, bored on Zoom, while I try to keep the others entertained in the next room. Meanwhile, in the local whirlwind of semi-structured chaos that passes for home-based education around here, he’s been learning lots of math, some cooking, and some Korean, and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has been the perfect stretch reading level for him. The things that have been most valuable about being in real school — navigating social situations, spending time with people outside his family, the after-school activities, having a separate space and life of his own — aren’t meaningfully available anyways until things are different.

We’ll muddle through, for however long we have to. If the younger kids are able to resume daycare at some point, it will radically change the dynamic, too — maybe the kindergartener and I can sit together and work on things, alternating who’s on a Zoom call, with the person not on the call making silly faces at the other. It’s hard to imagine right now, the idea of not feeling permanently jet-lagged in relation to my colleagues, with my “day” not starting until 1. It’s like living in my own time zone, maybe some subset of the Twilight Zone, where Muzzy the multilingual space alien has eaten all the clocks, which stretches days and weeks into taffy, leaving everything sticky. When I’m no longer holding virtual teaching office hours every afternoon, I expect the recovery of those two hours will feel like the greatest gift of time I’ve ever received. Dare I dream that they won’t all be rerouted to Zoom calls?