The Pandemic Diary: July 22

Between February 10, 2020 and May 27, 2020, I kept a daily diary chronicling my thoughts, impressions, fears, anxieties, and outrages in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. It ended up being over 120,000 words worth of personal therapy for me but I stopped updating it once doing so ceased to be therapeutic and, instead, began to anger me and fill me with despair. I am, however, updating it once in a while, when warranted. 

 

July 22: School in New Albany, Ohio usually begins in mid-August. These are not usual times, of course, so for the past couple of weeks the New Albany school district has been trying to figure out what to do about that. They recently came up with a plan. There are choices involved. Here are the choices for my kids:

Option 1: Go Back to School

Yes, they are planning on sending kids back to school in-person. Unlike some places this is not a mandate from some governor who seems hellbent on denying reality. Rather, it’s a district-by-district decision, and my kids’ district has decided that for the first week they will split it up, with half the kids going a couple of days and half the kids going a different couple of days.

During that first week they will use the reduced class load to train everyone how to behave, how to distance, when to wear masks, and all of that. They will also prepare everyone with at-home learning resources to be used in the event the pandemic grows dire again, things shut down or partially shut down again, and the county or the state forces students to be at home, either on a full time or part time basis. At that point they would revert to an impromptu remote learning arrangement like they used last spring. I’ve taken to calling that the “head-to-the-escape-pods” scenario.

That possibility aside, after that first week they plan to have a full class load, full time, five days a week. At my kids’ high school that means 1,600 students in the crowded classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, and lunch rooms.

Option 2: 100% Virtual Learning 

Last week they presented parents with an alternative to sending kids back to school, which they are calling the Virtual Learning Program or VLP. It’s a 100% online learning platform administered by a company called SchoolsPLP, which from what I can tell is used for at-home schooling and other remote education applications. If we choose it, we have to commit to it for at least the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year. They can choose to continue it in January if they wish or go back to school then, but they can’t toggle back and forth at will. 

SchoolsPLP’s website lists NCAA accreditation and accreditation with a few states, though people on Reddit say they’re housed in a suburban Phoenix strip mall. I have no idea what their actual deal is in any amount of depth and whether I should care that a remote learning outfit does not have a robust in-person presence, but my kids’ school says that they consider SchoolsPLP’s program to be sufficient for these purposes and in line with their own standards. At the very least they say that it will keep the kids who choose it “on track,” which I’ve learned is code for “no this will not screw up your kids’ future or make them less likely to get into college.” New Albany says they’re going to give the kids who choose it full credit on their transcripts, as if they took the VLP classes at their actual school. They say the are likewise assigning each kid who chooses the VLP an actual teacher from our school as a liaison of sorts. I presume to make sure they don’t get lost in the ether.

All in all, it sounds sort of like New Albany is going to allow something they’d probably never subscribe to in the normal course but which they’ll go with [assumes extremely pandemic-era car commercial voice] in these uncertain times.

There are numerous pros and cons here:

  • Under the VLP the kids will be at home, isolated, and away from a potential COVID-19 hotspot;
  • I do not know really how good the VLP classes will be, how much support they will have, and whether they will challenge my — and no, I will not be falsely modest about it — pretty damn bright kids;
  • If the curve flattens dramatically this fall and things become normal, the kids will still be locked into the VLP until January;
  • If a kid chooses to go to school, and things get bad again, however, and school shuts down, they cannot then switch to the VLP. They will be on that separate, impromptu remote learning plan administered by their own teachers which, while we appreciated it last spring, was lacking in a number of respects. VLP kids, in contrast, will see no interruption in what they’re doing;
  • Not all classes the kids would take at school will be offered via VLP so there will have to be some schedule shuffling;
  • Kids will have to give up some electives and extracurricular activities — my daughter is in orchestra, and you can’t really do that online — but they will be able to rejoin such things once they return to school, be it in January or fall of 2021;
  • If they choose the VLP they will be away from their friends and will not get the same sort of school social experiences that, however annoying they can sometimes be, are pretty critical to one’s upbringing.

Ultimately, of course, this had to be a family decision, not me just deciding for them unilaterally, so I first discussed it with thier mother and my wife, and then I discussed it with each of the kids separately. Anna, who is going into the 11th grade, was at work on the day we finally got all of the necessary information, so I forwarded her the relevant links to peruse during her down time and said we’d discuss it later. In the meantime, over dinner, I spoke to Carlo, who is going into the 10th grade.

 

Carlo looked at all of the material. He noted which classes he could take and which he could not take if he chose the VLP. There are not obvious substitutions for two classes he was looking forward to, he said, but he could probably take one of them next year. The other one — a college-level world civilizations class — also had no real equivalent. Sort of troubling, but this is not math or physics, I’m pretty well-educated in the social sciences and humanities, and I’m pretty sure I could augment whatever substitute he chooses to give it a greater degree of depth, so it’s not super critical. If things break right I’ll have the boy well-versed in Karl Marx by Thanksgiving.

We then talked about the potential social ramifications of him being away from his classmates for another four months. Carlo is not a joiner. His friend group is a small but tight one with whom he is in constant contact even during the pandemic. He does not really care what the bulk of his classmates are doing and, while there are things that are beginning to dislike about all this isolation, he ultimately decided that it was not a particularly big concern for him, at least for a semester.

We then talked about whether he could maintain the self-motivation that the VLP would require and not lose focus like he did at times during last spring’s impromptu online learning efforts undertaken by the school itself. He’s a procrastinator like his father. He has any number of distractions in his room. When left to his own devices he reverses his sleep schedule within a day. So yeah, I do worry about this. But, he assured me, he understands that he can’t mess around like that and promised that he could handle the responsibility. I told him, in turn, that I will be bird-dogging him a lot more than I might otherwise do, at least at first, until I’m confident he was taking things seriously.

Finally, we talked about whether any amount of smart and conscientious health practices could, truly, make being in a high school a little over a month from now safe. Carlo was, properly in my view, skeptical. Neither of my kids seem to be super unsettled by the pandemic, but they are informed and they are, like me, critical of how it’s all been handled by public officials. Carlo said that no matter how good their intentions and their plans, he doubted that the school could do a great job, at least at first, given all the variables and so many damn kids and that it was not worth being a guinea pig for that.

With all of the information presented and all of it assessed, it was a pretty easy decision: Carlo chose to do the VLP.

 

Two hours later I picked up Anna from work. She got in the car.

“So,” I said, “we need to talk about what we’re going to do about–”

“VLP” Anna said flatly.

“Well, OK, but I still think we should go over all of this,” I said. “Carlo and I talked about it for like an hour and there’s a lot to cons–”

“Online school sounds dumb, but it beats dying,” Anna said.

I looked over at her.

“What?” she said. “Seems pretty simple.”

So that’s how that went. Anna will see you next January, New Albany High School. I hope that’s enough time to prepare.

 

In the end I’m relieved we got where we got, however we got there. I say this because, at bottom, I think we’re still way too deep in the red in the pandemic and that it’s not worth risking my kids’ health or the health of those with whom they may come into contact who could be sickened if they went to school every day. Maybe their opting out of school is a drop in the bucket — as I’ve said many times in this diary, this pandemic called for a uniform, national response and we’ve gotten nothing close to it — but if even one interaction is made safer by virtue of my kids not being in school, it will be worth it.

That said, I am still pretty wary of the online school option. On a micro level I, like a lot of parents, worry about what this will mean for my kids’ education and development. Maybe some of that worrying is unreasonable and maybe some of it is fueled by the get-my-kid-into-a-good-college industrial complex, but I can’t shake it. On a macro level, I feel like this whole pandemic is creating increasing opportunities for for-profit enterprises to muscle their way in to what are properly public functions.

No, private online school is not on the same level as the CDC being replaced by some big Trump campaign donor named, like, DisappearingData LLC, but it’s also the case that one of the top goals of the conservative movement is to elevate private education — and for-profit education — at the expense of public education at every turn and I don’t want to be part of encouraging that. No, I’m not paying for this separately — it’s being paid for by the school district — but it still feels kinda icky to me. I feel like, in two years, we’ll be reading stories about shady businesses whose fortunes turned thanks to pandemic profiteering and I sure as hell hope I’m not supporting that here.

Still, I am going to keep my complaining to a minimum. Sure, any choice I could’ve made here brings with it some potentially unacceptable risks. But I am aware that I am very, very lucky to even have choices. Most parents who are getting ready to send their kids back to school don’t have any at all.

(Featured Image: Library of Congress)

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.