Parent-teacher conferences were in full swing Thursday following the conclusion of the second term at our daughters’ elementary school.
“I’ll see about half of the families I normally see in-person this time around,” our daughter’s third-grade teacher, Ms. Folsom, told us at a small table in her classroom.
The sparse attendance made things feel different from last term’s conferences. The hallways were mostly empty this time around, with a few families like ours stepping in and out of classrooms for in-person meetings. Several teachers sat in empty classrooms, either waiting for a family to show up or conferencing remotely with parents on the phone.
Ms. Folsom’s class was our first stop. Then it was on to our first-grader’s and kindergartener’s classrooms, respectively.
One factor hampering turnout: Local parents just aren’t as enthusiastic to meet up during the second round of conferences as they are during the first. “It’s normally slower,” Ms. Folsom added.
But like nearly everything this school year, COVID-19 also played a part. Last term, conferences were held in-person. This time around, parents could Zoom with their kid’s teacher or arrange a phone call.
That didn’t help Thursday’s turnout.
Still, contacting all parents in some form or fashion is important, our kindergartener’s teacher, Ms. Allen told us — especially for the little ones laying the groundwork for learning.
She flashed a plan for meeting with each of her students’ parents last week — some in-person, some remotely.
“Parents still need to know the realities, good or bad,” she said through a face mask.
A better grasp of reality is one reason my wife and I went in-person Thursday. Midway through the most disruptive school year of our lives, we wanted to know how our three elementary age daughters are holding up.
Our kindergartener’s been our biggest concern. Fortunately, her prognosis was pretty good.
Nayvie, 5, can identify rhyme words and count to 100. She had some trouble recognizing a hexagon during a recent assessment.
Geometry was never my strong point, either. Hexagon… is that a stop sign or a two-dimensional house? I wondered, when Ms. Allen hit us with some more reality.
Nayvie can identify 46 sight words, which is apparently pretty good. And the list is growing, her teacher told us.
Hearing that Nayvie was mostly on par academically felt good, but what about her social life at school? How’s she doing with the other kids?
She has “lots of friends,” Ms. Allen assured us.
And that’s with Nayvie navigating a global pandemic during her first year of public education. I thought of all the masks, limited interaction with peers and revamped school schedules.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” I asked the 36-year teacher.
“No. It’s wigging me out,” she said, referencing a rare moment when she recently removed her mask in front of the kids.
“They’ve seen my face a couple times this school year,” said Ms. Allen, a faithful masker who’s received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Looks of surprise filled the room.
“Hey, you have a face, teacher,” one student blurted out.
A 6-year-old goes months without seeing her best friend
February 15, 2021
Indiana Fenwick hasn’t seen Amira all school year.
The girls bonded in kindergarten a year ago — “best friends” as Indiana puts it. Then COVID-19 halted their burgeoning relationship after Amira’s parents put her in an online school.
Indiana still attends Pocatello Community Charter School in-person a couple days a week, but she misses her friend.
“I haven’t been able to see her,” she recently told me over Zoom.
Longing for friends is a reality for Indiana and her two older siblings: Elijah, 12, and Taylor, 9. For nearly a year, the kids have weathered a hybrid instructional model, learning half at home and half at school during the lingering pandemic.
A short stint with hybrid learning threw my family into chaos earlier this school year, from all-out rebellions from our kindergartener to emotional meltdowns from our third-grader. Fortunately for us, our kids’ school reopened for fully in-person learning after a few weeks.
Some Idaho parents and students are seasoned homeschoolers. But what about families who’ve had homeschooling thrust upon them for months?
Last week, I put a call out on Facebook for feedback from parents. Whitney Fenwick, the kids’ mother and an acquaintance from college, responded with four words: “It’s been a ride.”
“We felt ready at first,” she told me. “I work from home. We have technology. We have good jobs and high-speed Internet. We have every advantage a parent could have, and (hybrid learning) hit us like a ton of bricks.”
Part of the challenge has been helping her two younger kids understand what’s happening — and why time at school was cut in half.
Fortunately, Indiana wasn’t even a year into public education when the pandemic hit, her mother pointed out. So an abrupt changeup hasn’t cut as deep as it has for the other kids.
And Taylor, a third-grader, shared some positive observations from learning at home part-time. Moving from multiplication to division this school year has been fairly smooth because she’s had more “help from Mom.”
But adjusting to a hybrid model alarmed Taylor early on, Mom said. The youngster became angry at times and regularly pelted her parents with questions as she struggled to understand the disruption.
Periodic seclusion from peers has further complicated matters. Taylor quarantined from school for two weeks after possible exposure to COVID-19. No friends. No going around people.
Elijah weathered his own two-week quarantine after one of his teachers tested positive for the disease. He discussed other “weird” realities: plexiglass “everywhere” at school, a half-empty classroom and slashed field trips. The back-and-forth of online to in-person learning has been particularly tricky: “We’re always switching.”
Elijah smiled during much of our discussion, but the challenges have grown burdensome at times. When asked what he would tell decision-makers unaware of how the pandemic has played out for kids, he paused. “It would be nice to let kids have some more social time with each other because it gets lonely.”
That insight hit home for Whitney — and for me.
A few weeks ago, our third-grader snuck off with a cousin during a brief snowstorm — in tennis shoes, jeans and a jacket. After getting on her case, my wife and I learned how burnt out she was from being stuck at home and how she yearned for the kind of social life she had before the pandemic.
Elijah also snuck off to take a walk by a river with some friends. “He still talks about it a month later,” Whitney told me.
Things are getting better, the kids reported. Elijah gushed at the prospect of a field trip to a ski resort with classmates.
Whitney pointed to new insights and awareness about her children. After recalling Elijah’s trip to the river, she highlighted lessons the pandemic has provided on the “emotional needs and desires” of her kids.
“In the end, that trumps everything,” she said, “from getting a good grade or getting to go somewhere.”
We scored some seats … to a high school basketball game
January 31, 2021
A fast-break dunk sent the Blackfoot High School student section into a frenzy.
For the first time this season, the swarm of teens packed the stands to support their beloved boys basketball team.
“It’s good to see them back,” Blackfoot athletic director Cody Shelley told me from the other side of the gym.
On Jan. 21, the State Board of Education met Gov. Brad Little’s directive to let more spectators into school sports games. Following blowback from parents and lawmakers and improving COVID-19 case numbers, gyms can now fill to either 40 percent capacity or four spectators per student-athlete.
Prior to the change, I’d been watching my two Blackfoot Bronco nephews play ball from my cell phone, via Facebook Live. Out of sympathy, their mother put my wife and I on the short list to watch in person Wednesday night.
We scored some seats … to a high school basketball game.
Over the years, high school hoops have brought us some respite from Idaho’s long winters. Wednesday’s game underscored growing desires for normalcy during a lingering global pandemic — despite COVID-19’s ongoing impacts.
The familiar scent of buttered popcorn filled the concessions area outside the gym, as masked spectators exchanged cash with masked students.
In the gym, families sat mostly in clusters, many in masks.
The limited crowd cut the decibel levels of a normal January game in half. No pep band. Few kids traipsing the darkness under the bleachers.
Quieter games have brought unexpected challenges, Shelley said. “We’ve had more parents than I’ve ever seen get escorted out. The refs hear everything.”
“There’s definitely some pent-up aggression,” an assistant principal interjected.
A muffled dig from a fan during Wednesday’s JV game was the last straw for one ref, who stopped the game briefly to address a gaggle of hometown parents.
“Folks, no more comments, please,” he said, threatening ejections.
Despite limitations and challenges, Shelley is glad more families are back in the gym. Prior to Wednesday’s game, 50 parents were allowed in. The student section sat empty.
“Our kids aren’t really getting sick,” he added.
Research is still emerging, but schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, especially when masks and distancing are in place. Yet some indoor athletics have led to infections, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in papers published Tuesday.
“What about spectators?” I asked Shelley. “Is it too early for them to come back?”
“Nobody has to come,” he said, adding that some community members, including some of his own family, are staying home out of concerns for getting sick.
Enter Janet Cox, mother of 13, who lives in the West Ada School District.
As a father of three elementary-age daughters, I listened with interest as Cox outline during an Idaho Education News parent focus group her positive experience and passion for homeschooling her seven children who currently live at home.
The struggle to homeschool has been a hallmark of the pandemic, both for us and families everywhere, including thousands in the Treasure Valley still grappling with shuttered schools and abrupt shifts to hybrid and virtual learning.
I called Cox almost immediately after the focus group ended. What gives? How could she have come to enjoy homeschooling so many kids? And is it really working out for them?
To be fair, it’s not her first go with homeschooling, Cox told me. She’s taught all of her kids from home for over 15 years.
Her children are also used to it. They have a routine. Home learning hasn’t been thrust upon them in the middle of a health crisis like it has millions of others.
I felt a little better about our struggles from earlier in the school year. Plus, I told Cox, my wife and I work full- and part-time jobs like so many other families. It’s nearly impossible to make it happen in that scenario.
“My husband and I work, too,” she said, detailing her 40-plus hours working from home per week and his 20-plus.
She pointed to other resources that have helped over the years, from the use of daily schedules to an online-learning program that provides access to certified teachers through a school district some 300 miles across Idaho.
Having a full-time teacher is helps, Cox said, because it allows her to assume more of tutorial role in helping the kids understand and make sure they’re learning.
“I’m more like their TA (teaching assistant),” she said.
Having mom as a fallback when they “get stuck” helps a lot, Cox said. “It works for us.”
What about not being in a public school setting with their peers? How does that impact their social lives, going to college or entering the workforce?
“(Home schooling) has actually been good for us in that regard,” Cox said. She pointed to her 20-year-old son, who scored a 35 on the ACT (a 36 is a perfect score), earned a bachelor’s degree at 19 (homeschooling helped him complete his high school coursework early) and garnered recognition as a National Merit scholar — all after homeschooling with Mom for all but his fifth grade year.
Cox credits her son’s self motivation and comfort with asking questions at home with helping him excel in college.
That’s another nice part about homeschooling, she said. One child might excel and advance quickly in one area but struggle and need extra time and help in another.
And Mom’s always there to help them work through it all.
It’s not always easy, said Cox, referencing a recent struggle to get her first grader to do math.
I coule relate.
Still, the pandemic has shined a brighter light on something she’s feels strongly about: Some learning approaches work better for some than for others.
And for some, that might mean a public school setting. For others, it might mean learning from home.
“That’s one of the big take away from this whole pandemic,” she said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all model.”
It wasn’t Santa at our door, but it might as well have been
January 17, 2021
A knock at the door sent our three elementary-age daughters into a giddy frenzy.
News of a visitor over Christmas break had reached our home. It wasn’t Santa Claus the girls were waiting for, though it might as well have been.
Our third-grader beamed as her beloved teacher stepped through the front door, presents in tow.
Ms. Folsom had announced her plan to visit the girls ahead of the holidays, and to see my wife, Nicki, who had had our fourth daughter days earlier.
The girls gushed at the teddy bears they each received. Nicki smiled at a gift of her own: a sweater with “Mama Bear” emblazoned across the front.
No sweater for Papa Bear? “You’ll live,” Nicki told me.
We discussed afterward how thoughtful the visit was. As a former teacher, visiting students at home during my precious Christmas break had never crossed my mind. Plus bringing them gifts?
But it wasn’t Ms. Folsom’s thoughtfulness that stuck out most. It was watching her and Parlie interact. I barely know her. But to Parlie, Ms. Folsom is the real deal. We hear it in the way she talks about her teacher. And in how much she talks about her teacher.
They’ve established a full-blown relationship.
Perhaps it makes sense. In her 9-year-old world, she’s with Ms. Folsom more than any other adult, aside from us. Even during a global pandemic.
We’ve told our daughters how lucky they are to be in school with their teachers and friends this school year. Aside from a couple weeks off, they’ve been in their classrooms full-time.
Millions of their peers have been forced to navigate a year fraught with school closures and remote learning.
Like so many other aspects of the pandemic, the long-range impact on student-teacher relationships will emerge with time. Still, many have questioned how the pandemic’s assault on in-person learning will shake out.
Hechinger report editor Liz Willen probed some of the fallout last spring. Even then, teachers expressed longing for their students and lined up in their cars to honk and wave at kids stuck at home.
Santa Claus approached our vehicle, twinkle-eyed and rosy-cheeked.
If he wasn’t the real deal, he sure fooled our kindergartner, Nayvie, who gushed as she peered through the car window at the beard, jingle bells and white ball on his crimson-red hat.
Visiting Santa wouldn’t likely happen this year, we told Nayvie and her two older sisters weeks ago, compliments of COVID-19.
Then we learned that healthcare workers at our local hospital organized a drive-thru event for kids.
Never mind the car door separating them. Never mind it wasn’t at the mall. There he was, in all his splendor, an arm’s reach away. The Big Man. Father Christmas.
Nayvie lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Hi,” she said from behind her mask before I could roll her window down fully. My wife, Nicki, pulled the mask down so Nayvie could talk business: presents, a candy cane and a sugar cookie just for her.
Seeing Santa was an unexpected delight for our three elementary-aged daughters, who tell us Christmas feels a little different this year.
“Was COVID here last year?” Nayvie asked on the way to school last week.
They might not know it, but our girls have been relatively lucky this holiday season. Unlike thousands of kids across the Treasure Valley — and millions more across the country — our girls have been in school full-time this December.
Last week, they enjoyed four days of festivities, from crazy-hair day to wear-your-clothes-backward day. Their backpacks brimmed with treats, crafts and little gifts from their teachers and friends.
We’ve still felt the impacts of a lingering pandemic. Nicki and I recently watched the girls’ school Christmas program from cell phones in the kitchen.
A hundred kids belting “I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas” lacks its usual luster through tiny speakers. And it felt “weird” singing to an empty auditorium besides the “camera dude,” our third grader told us afterward.
Our crazy schedule has also diminished our usual emphasis on the holidays. We’re still in-between houses. And last week, we welcomed our fourth daughter into the world.
Baylie Anne and Mom are happy and healthy. But new baby means less time with Mom — and more time with Dad — for the three others.
“Really, Devin?” Nicki asked after learning I let our first-grader wash down her waffle with a soda Friday morning.
She wasn’t supposed to tell.
Presents remain unwrapped in the garage as I write this.
“Get some presents under that tree,” my dad kindly chided me during a recent visit.
At least they’re in school, we keep telling ourselves. Last week, we learned that our neighboring school district will move to fully remote learning this week amid a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff.
“Normally, the 22nd would have been used for Christmas parties,” the superintendent said. “One full, face-to-face school day on Monday, with the risk of staff and students taking the virus home for holiday, just isn’t worth it.”
Who knows, maybe more days away from school, drive-thru Santas and empty auditoriums will make this holiday season more memorable.
Limited human interaction could be harming our kids
December 3, 2020
Our 6-year-old, Emerie, darted for the front door before my wife told her she could have a playdate with her cousin, Zelly.
BFFs born six days apart, the munchkins hadn’t seen each other since Zelly’s family entered a two-week quarantine for possible exposure to COVID-19.
That’s an eon to Emerie, who couldn’t contain herself at the thought of a reunion — or await approval from Mom before forgetting her coat and barreling into the frigid night air.
Seeing friends means more than it once did for our three elementary-age daughters as the pandemic lumbers on. Limited interactions with loved ones and friends, slashed events and disrupted school schedules have jarred their budding social lives.
And then there are all the face masks — which I’m pretty sure our kindergartener, Nayvie, thinks are a normal part of school.
Effects of the pandemic have underscored for my wife and me how much kids need friends, and how heightened levels of isolation and social disruption could be impacting them and others.
A newfound “best bud” at school has been a saving grace for Nayvie, who occasionally still fights getting up in the mornings. Less friend time has brought our third grader, Parlie, to more desperate measures. Last month, she asked yours truly to be her “pen pal.” I’ve learned how obsessed she is with cheetahs. And I’m “more interesting than people think,” she recently told me.
It’s hard to say how much COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of children. Hard data is still emerging, and good research takes time.
“They’re giving up hope,” Saun-Toy Trotter, a psychotherapist at University of California, recently told NPR regarding a record number of youth suicide attempts recorded at her school-based clinic. “There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing to connect with. There’s just deflatedness.”
Forced isolation during the pandemic exacerbates existing levels of depression and anxiety among youth, a new study from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found.
And Idahoans — and our children — have a history of high levels of depression and suicide. The state consistently records some of the nation’s highest suicide rates. In 2016, it ranked eighth overall, at 20.8 suicides per 100,000 people — 50 percent higher than the national average, according to 2018 Idaho Health and Welfare numbers.
Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44 that same year, the numbers show. Between 2013-2017, 110 Idaho school children, ages 6-18, died by suicide. Twenty-five of those deaths were among kids age 14 or younger.
The grim numbers underscore the trepidation K-12 leaders have had in taking learning all online. Some educators say they can’t hold out any longer. The Boise, Nampa and Caldwell districts have all shifted to fully remote learning models through the end of the year to combat difficulties brought on by the pandemic. Others, including Idaho Falls and Pocatello-Chubbuck, are sticking with mostly in-person teaching and learning.
Surveys confirm the majority of Idaho parents prefer in-person learning. Parents have pointed to a continued need for teachers, activities … and friends.
Several Idaho teens met remotely with state education leaders in October and said isolation brought on by the pandemic mingled with depression and anxiety is a top concern for them. Their mental health is another.
“(R)ight now I don’t think the main focus is school, or even extracurriculars,” student Kenna O’Donnell told State Board President Debbie Critchfield and Executive Director Matt Freeman. “We really need to be focusing on the mental health of students because this has taken a big toll on a lot of the people that I know.”
Fortunately, our daughters’ situation has allowed them to interact daily with their peers and friends at school. After some short-lived stints with at-home and hybrid learning, they’ve attended their elementary school fully in-person for months.
But friend time and extracurricular activities have taken big hits.
Last week, we watched Parlie participate in a youth basketball game via Zoom because parents can not attend in person.
“Did you see my a basket?” she asked after we picked her up.
It was Tuesday morning when our weeks-long track record of getting our three daughters off to their elementary school on time came crashing down.
Our kindergartener, Nayvie, was mostly behind the meltdown.
“Can it just be Thanksgiving yet?” she asked through tears after throwing a fit over something I can’t even remember now.
It wasn’t all her fault. Our third grader’s 8 p.m. basketball practice the night before put the girls over an hour past their 7:30 p.m. bedtime. And we know better than to let them go past their bedtime on a school night.
Our first grader’s incessant dribbling of a basketball in the kitchen and our third grader’s inherent curiosity about everything didn’t help matters Tuesday.
“Is Thanksgiving even allowed this year?” asked Parlie, 9, referencing rumors she’s heard at school.
“They can’t cancel a holiday,” I told her.
Or can they?
My wife, Nicki, and I know it’s not so simple. As a potent second wave of the coronavirus washes over Idaho, the weeks leading up to the holidays have felt different.
And they will be different for families across the state. Last week, Gov. Brad Little signed a public health order moving Idaho back to a modified version of Stage 2 of the state’s four-stage reopening plan.
The order prohibits social gatherings of 10 people or more and comes at time when, like so many others, we may need a holiday with friends and family more than ever.
Aside from a lingering global pandemic, we’ve been scrambling to purchase a new home, move the kids for the second time in three months, prep for a newborn due in two weeks and ease our daughters’ minds about changing towns and schools.
Anticipation about the holidays has largely evaded us amid all the noise.
But it hasn’t evaded Nayvie, who went on Wednesday night about the prospect of a Thanksgiving “feast” at school.
“There will be turkey, watermelon and mashed potatoes,” she told me before bed.
The feast was great, Nayvie reported afterward. But even it was different. Last year, we got to join our then-kindergartener for her class feast.
We wanted to make Thursday night a little different for Nayvie. It was my night to plan dinner, which, Nicki says, is typically “different.”
I couldn’t cook a turkey, but I did score some fresh chicken tamales from a woman selling them for a buck apiece outside our local grocery store.
Some fresh salsa with chips and beans and rice from our favorite Mexican restaurant made it a hit, even for Dad.
Nayvie loved the tamales. I told her it was turkey inside.
Our third grader scanned the playground at the elementary school she’ll start attending after the holidays.
“Well, it doesn’t look like a prison,” she told me and my wife, Nicki, from the back seat before heading for monkey bars with her two younger sisters.
“I still like my school better,” she yelled over her shoulder to us on her way.
Yeah, we know.
The prospect of a new school has weighed heavily on Parlie, 9, since she learned we’d be moving to a new town by Christmas. New house, new school … new friends.
That last one is especially hard for her — she’s attended the same elementary school in our hometown since kindergarten.
Reality’s set in somewhat for our first grader, Emerie.
“Thanks for beeg my teachr!” she recently wrote in what appeared to be a farewell letter to her beloved Ms. Hunt. “It was super cool!”
Emerie might know more than we think, but our kindergartener is oblivious.
“Will Olivia (her ‘best bud’ from class) be at my new school?” Nayvie asked last weekend.
“I’ll let you tell her,” I told Nicki.
They’ve warmed slightly to the news in recent weeks. Last Saturday, we showed them the new place and tried to get them excited about their new bedrooms.
Emerie’s still convinced the master bedroom is hers.
“I absolutely love it,” she said.
“I’ll let you tell her,” Nicki told me.
Getting them into a routine has been a lot of work in recent months. But the effort — and much-needed consistency at school during COVID-19 — has paid dividends:
Parlie stayed up until 11 p.m. last Saturday, reading a novel she’s come to love. “I can’t wait to see how it ends,” she said after we finally made her turn out the light.
Emerie, our shyest, raved about the new friend she made at recess.
Nayvie was named “star student” of her class. (“It means I get to be in front of the line all the time this week, Dad.”) She brought home a booklet of nice things her peers had to say about her. “Nayvie likes girl toys,” wrote Rayce, signature replete with a backward “y”.
Our kids are finally loving school. We hope an abrupt move to a new city won’t wreck it all.
We decided on Saturday to let them see the new school and tear up the jungle gym.
We also did some research. The new school isn’t much bigger than the one they attend now, we assured them, there’s no hybrid learning requirement — currently, at least — and they still get to wear masks.
“Get to wear masks, Dad?” Parlie said.
We hope an afternoon on the monkey bars helped, but I won’t bet on it.
“Mom, will Olivia be at my new school?” Nayvie asked again on the car ride home.
I have a new pen pal, and she’s obsessed with cheetahs
November 8, 2020
The first letter showed up on my keyboard Wednesday.
“Do you want to be pen pals, Dad?” my third grader wrote in red ink. “That’s when I write a letter to you before school and you write one back.”
How could I say no? Parlie’s been talking about participating in a pen pal program at school. She’ll partner with a peer at another school and they’ll exchange letters regularly.
I was glad she wanted to test the water with me. Plus, it’s been a tough year for her and her two younger sisters — school disruptions during COVID-19, a baby’s on the way and we’re moving to a new town in December.
“Let’s do this,” I wrote back. “Question: Can it involve chocolate?”
A mini KitKat bar taped to an orange sticky note graced my keyboard the next morning.
“Yes Dad, we can do treats.”
Not having to sneak her Halloween candy this year has been nice. So has learning more about each other.
I have “fantastic cursive,” she writes, I should be nicer to our dog when she runs away and my hair totally looks better short.
Parlie’s hoping for a little brother we can name Cal, basketball — not volleyball — is her favorite sport and she earned lunch with her teacher for doing the right things in class last week.
She’s also obsessed with cheetahs. I can’t pin down when it happened, but it’s helping her learn.
“Do you want to see the cheetah slideshow I’m working on for class?” she wrote in a letter Friday.
How could I say no?
For 20 minutes, she scrolled through Google Slides she’s been creating in class.
“Did you know about this?” I asked my wife, who shook her head.
I didn’t even know she could create a Google Slide. And hers were jammed with information:
Cheetahs can accelerate from zero to 45 miles an hour in 2.5 seconds.
Top speed: 60-70 miles an hour.
Their bones are “very light” and they have special padding on their paws.
A single cheetah has 2,000 to 3,000 spots.
That last one didn’t seem right, so I fact checked her. It checked out.
“Any questions?” she asked after the presentation.