Back to school with the Bodkins

It’s back to school week for our girls … sort of

August 23, 2020

Nayvie, Parlie, Emerie

Our kindergartener plopped a new outfit onto the couch next to me.

Unicorn T-shirt with pastel-blue skirt. White shoes, pink laces.

Nayvie, 5, had waited weeks to hit the back-to-school sales with my wife, Nicki. She spent nearly an hour in her room Tuesday choosing what to wear for her first day of school later this week.

She gushed over the unicorn’s pink mane. I praised her choice but wondered how we’d find a face mask to match it.

She hates masks.

Face coverings are just one factor making this fall feel less like back-to-school season and more like a foray into the unknown. Unlike students throughout much of the Treasure Valley, our three daughters can at least return to their elementary school in person this week.

Sort of.

Uncertainty over the start of the school year prompted leaders in our district to implement a “soft” reopening for two weeks beginning Monday. The girls will be back in school just three days during that time, with various health precautions in place.

Like many of you, we’ve wrestled with what an in-person return to school will look like for our family. Time will tell what large-scale school re-openings will mean for the coronavirus. I’ve worried that our kids could bring it home to Nicki, who has asthma and is expecting a baby in December.

We have online options, but our hope in effective remote learning for youngsters is slim — especially for those learning to read.

  • Nayvie is sounding out letters and seeing words for the first time.
  • Our third grader, Parlie, is transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.
  • Our first grader, Emerie, is somewhere in between the two.

And uncertainty still swirls around the coming months. What happens if there’s an outbreak in the district? Nicki and I have jobs, and finding time to spearhead learning was a struggle last spring.

And we at least have a home computer — and a home. My EdNews colleagues and I are working to tell the stories of families and students on the fringes in the coming weeks. How does a homeless student learn remotely? How do parents balance their jobs and life while playing teacher in the evenings? How are teachers adjusting to instructing kids through a computer screen?

And life as we know it doesn’t end during a pandemic. Last month, I made the award-winning decision to sell our home at the outset of the most uncertain school year of our lives.

Parlie gave me the death glare when she learned she may be at a new school by October.

Then there’s the baby. While Nicki shops for a crib, I’m scrolling local markets for homes suitable for six humans and two dogs.

We’ll be happy with a healthy new one, regardless of the gender. Still, I’ve been calling it Little Buckaroo around the house. “How’s Little Buckaroo today?” I asked Nicki recently, while patting her belly.

She gave me the death glare.

Your situations may be more daunting. How are you adjusting? Has the uncertainty impacted your job or other major facets of life? How do you cope? I’d love to hear your stories at [email protected]

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Our kids are ready to be back in school. We’re struggling with our options.

July 22, 2020

The Bodkins, from left: Nayvie, Nicki, Parlie, Devin, Emerie

I’d just settled onto the couch to watch TV when my daughter blindsided me with the request.

“Can I paint your toenails, Daddy?” my 6-year-old asked, wielding tubes of pink and silver polish.

I began to explain that Daddy doesn’t paint his toenails, when I noticed my wife, Nicki, side-eyeing me from the other end of the couch.

“They’re bored,” she mouthed with a concerned look.

By “they,” she meant our three daughters, ages 8 and under. The concerned look meant that I should be more considerate of our 6-year-old’s need for interaction and activity. She’s been away from school and most of her friends for months. It was a clear cue from someone who’d spent more time with our kids that day than I had.

I removed my socks.

My 6-year-old, Emerie, paints my toenails.

Playing nail tech is one of the countless ways our girls have stretched their creativity and tried to establish some semblance of structure amid a lingering pandemic. Each day feels more like a six-month summer vacation — without the vacation part.

But you can only paint toenails — or walk to the park or walk the dog or take a drive — so many times during a pandemic.

Our girls are starving for the structure and activities with friends and other adults that school provides. They’re ready to go back. We’re struggling with our options.

Amid a renewed surge of confirmed coronavirus cases in Idaho since June, both Gov. Brad Little and President Trump have made clear their expectations that kids return to the classroom. Less clear is how that decision will impact the spread of COVID-19.

Idaho is letting local leaders shape their reopening plans. Our district has infused some choice into its model, with options for face-to-face learning or an online alternative for families more apprehensive about sending their kids.

An in-person return would mean more structure and activity. Homeschooling for us this spring — if you can call it that — was a struggle. With Nicki and I both working from home, we tried, but we can’t reach the level of instruction and interaction they get at school with their teachers and classmates.

Sending them back to school may be the best option for us, but it would have its downsides. As a former teacher, I know how quickly a classroom can turn into a giant petri dish. Fortunately, Nicki and I read about how younger children are at a lower risk for serious symptoms and spreading the virus. Still, I worry they could bring it home to Nicki, who has asthma and is expecting a baby in December.

The online option would minimize that risk, but our kids are young. And online learning is largely foreign to them — and us.

They’re also learning how to read, at varying degrees. How do you teach a kindergartener to read through a computer screen?

That’s on top of the fact that Idaho’s online schools rank among the state’s lowest performing, year after year. The approach works for some students, but it’s a tough go for many others.

That leaves us with a continued stab at “homeschooling.” With both of us tied up with jobs during the day? Yeah, right.

With leeway from state leaders, school will look different from district to district, school to school, student to student. Kids will come and go at different times, learn through different means.

And while returning might be the best option for one child, staying home might be better for another.

Questions linger. Like many of you, we’re gearing up for another round of tough choices this fall.

What are you considering for your kids? How will you decide what’s best for them? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]

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Sports can mean everything to teens. They did to me.

July 10, 2020

I remember it better than any algebra class.

Senior year. Holt Arena. Our hopes of a state football title fading with every agonizing tick of the giant clock above the end zone.

Century High School’s football team — with some help from the officials, as I recall — would advance to the state championship that year. Not us.

The game ended. They rushed the field. We lumbered back to our locker room struggling to hold our heads up as Coach had encouraged us to do so many times.

That was 16 years ago. But at a risk of reliving my glory days, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have a lasting impact on me.

Sports had that kind of effect on me. In high school, I savored every moment of basketball, football and track season. The excitement on the first day of practice. The first game. The last game. My coaches, whom I still consider to be some of the most influential people in my life. Even the musty stench of the locker room somehow seeped into my blood.

I remember so much of it. But biology class? I got nothing.

So I can only imagine what so many of our student athletes must feel as the coronavirus now threatens fall sports. The Idaho High School Activities Association hasn’t called the season off — yet. But earlier this week, a top state health official warned leaders that sports could complicate efforts to reopen schools.

And if sports do return after already being cancelled this spring, it could happen with limited crowds, travel and opponents. It won’t be the same.

I feel for those who might miss out, especially our high school seniors. Not because I think school is less important or that bigger things don’t await, but because I know sports can mean everything to a 17-year-old.

They did to me.

They also kept me connected to the classroom. I had a habit in those days of keeping my grades high enough to play on the team but low enough to avoid any strenuous classwork. (I don’t recommend doing this, athletes — I had a lot of ground to make up in college.)

I’m not proud of it, either. But looking back, I appreciate how sports kept this lackluster learner in class day after day, paying attention at least some of the time and sticking it out until graduation day.

Sports also taught me lessons I didn’t learn in the classroom. How to compete. How to win. How to lose. How to listen closely enough to avoid an ass chewing from my coach. How to recognize when I deserved an ass chewing. How to respect my coaches and teammates — lessons that have carried over well into the workplace.

Sports helped in other ways, too. When I lost a brother to a car accident as a freshman, I walked right past the school counseling office and into the bathroom, where I curled up on the floor. I asked a few perplexed peers who saw me there to go get Jeff Marshall, my head basketball coach and assistant football coach — someone I trusted.

Coach left his class to come sit next to me on the bathroom floor and listen.

“I never lost a brother,” he said quietly, “but I lost a mom.”

That helped, a lot.

Sports provided lasting memories — and friendships. Last November, I met up with some old teammates at our hometown field to surprise our head football coach, who was coaching his last game.

We hadn’t seen each other in years. We looked different. We had kids, jobs, bigger waistlines. But not much had changed between us. We laughed. We reminisced. We debated who caught the big pass, who got their ass chewed the most.

We’re in an unprecedented health crisis. Safety is a real concern. But I feel for kids who might miss out on sports and other activities that can help shape who we become.

Surprising Coach at his last football game. From left: Karson Honas, Devin Bodkin, Wes Wisdom, Coach Stan Buck, Kyle Tarpley, Chanler Buck, Patrick Edinborough.
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How do families adjust to school closures amid a pandemic?

March 17, 2020

The Bodkins, from left: Nayvie, Nicki, Parlie, Devin, Emerie

Last week may have marked a first in my 10-year marriage. I took stock of our toilet paper, all six-and-a-half rolls. 

With three daughters under the age of 8, the white stuff goes quickly at our place. (We’ve exhausted our supply before. Don’t ask questions.)  

My wife, Nicki, the responsible one in the house, typically restocks the rolls. But as bizarre images of empty store shelves and shopping carts brimming with toilet paper and other necessities flashed into view last week — on social media, on TV, at our local grocery stores — we both felt an unusual sense of urgency and bewilderment. 

Our toilet paper outlook appeared grim, but more unsettling was the endless stream of headlines bearing unprecedented news following the growing coronavirus pandemic:

  • The shuttering of schools nationwide.
  • A confirmed case of the illness in East Idaho, where we live.
  • The axing of big events, from March Madness to the NBA season. 

Disneyland even closed, to our daughters’ dismay.

I wondered how my parents felt on September 11, 2001, or how their parents and grandparents felt during World War II, when food was rationed.

Our thoughts turned to our children. Should we keep them home? Should we rush the stores for food? Is everyone overreacting?

The news changes by the minute, with the White House now calling for millions of families to homeschool their kids. As I write this, our daughters’ elementary school closed effective immediately, until at least April 3.

Questions linger. Like you, we have decisions to make.

Last week, we agonized over sending our kids to school. As a journalist covering education issues, I’ve spent much of the month sifting through news stories featuring advice from various experts and officials who stress the gravity of the situation. 

Fortunately, Nicki and I read about how children are at a lower risk for serious symptoms. 

Still, as a former teacher, I know how quickly a classroom can turn into a giant petri dish. 

My sick days vanished like, well, toilet paper during a pandemic my first year in the classroom. My immune system strengthened — and I got smarter — the second year, when I scrubbed my hands more and cracked my classroom windows year-round. Not all of my students liked the draft, but they weren’t the ones scrubbing the desks.

After an hourlong discussion last Thursday, Nicki and I decided to keep our kids home Friday. Our kindergartner, whose class was having Green Eggs and Ham day, wasn’t happy.  

After a weekend of reassessing the situation, we made the same call Monday morning.

Now, with school out for who knows how long, we wonder what the coming weeks will bring. Can we YouTube homeschool lessons? How will we balance our jobs with three little ones at home?

Broader uncertainties accompany the virus. How long will it all last? What will the pandemic’s reach be in Idaho? How do we keep our kids safe?

Fortunately, Nicki and I work from home, but as she put it, “We’ve shaped our life around our routine.”

Answers aren’t coming easily, and we’re finding more questions continually arise. But we have found some relief. On Saturday, my mother, who just texted me wondering if we have eggs, heaved a garbage bag full of toilet paper to our front door.

Don’t ask how she got it, but the small act has helped more than she knows.

As the virus spreads, Nicki and I still wonder — and worry — about what happens next. We’ll have the same conversations — about school, about our necessities, about our safety — every night for weeks to come.

This is our new reality. Good luck with yours.

Devin Bodkin is a full-time reporter for Idaho Education News. He lives in Blackfoot and covers East Idaho news. He taught school in Blackfoot before turning to journalism.

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