Michelle Quist: We are creating computer zombies who hate school

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glenda Woodring, who teaches 4th grade at Jackson Elementary, sees her first day of school online cut short due to the wind storm on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, that left many of hers students unable to log in due to power outages.

I’m going to try to take my own advice from last week’s column and stay out of the ineffective partisan jibber-jabber days before the election. I voted. Make sure you vote.

There are more pressing matters anyway. I’ve written about the shecession before — about how the pandemic is causing a recession that has affected women more detrimentally than men.

The NPR program “All Things Considered” ran a segment about how single moms are struggling. As the report states, “There are approximately 13.6 million single parents in the U.S., raising 22.4 million children. Eighty percent of those single parents are moms. Women have lost more jobs than men during the recession, and others are quitting their jobs in frustration from the demands of child care. However, quitting is just not an option for most single parents.”

Unemployment numbers released in May confirmed the bad news for women. A report in The New York Times stated the current economic crisis “for the first time in decades ... has a predominantly nonwhite, female face.” This is “the first time since 1948 that the female unemployment rate has reached double digits.”

As the “All Things Considered” segment stated, “In September four times as many women as men dropped out of the workforce, many of them to deal with family life and home schooling.” As one mom said, “It is very heavy.”

I’m one of those women. I had to take a leave of absence to manage my kids' online schooling. I’ll have to return soon.

Yes, there is a lot of bad news for women. But it’s even worse for kids.

Currently, Salt Lake City School District is the only district in the state that is 100% online.

And it’s a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.

I have five kids in the district schools. I have one child — my son with Down syndrome — who attends a private Montessori school (with scholarship help from the state) so he can get his therapy services in class. He has had no interruptions with kids getting sick at school. They take precautions, including masks and temperature checks. (If he’s 6, with disabilities, and can wear a mask, so can you.)

My older kids in high school and junior high are doing OK — educationally at least. Except for the high schooler in AP classes that won’t even start until November. They miss their friends, and the social impact on teens can’t be understated; 45% of parents say their child’s emotional and mental health is suffering.

Yes, these are sacrifices we’re all making because of COVID-19 to keep one another safe. But Salt Lake City kids are the only ones being asked to bear this burden among their peers.

My younger kids in elementary school are completely falling apart, even with me at home on a leave of absence.

My sixth grader has a breakdown almost every day, usually over assignments he doesn’t understand or internet that bugs out or computer programs that don’t load. The various teachers ask the kids to use different programs and different websites, some of which load and some of which do not. Did you know that YouTube won’t load if an 11-year-old is signed into his Gmail account? It diverts to YouTube Kids, which means the YouTube link the teacher sent won’t open. I know that now, but it took six weeks to figure it out.

Take those relatively small issues and multiply them by 10. For each child. There is always something that doesn’t work. Corporations have information technology departments for a reason.

The solution is always something like just check out a school computer. Well, those have both broken down, too. In one, the trackpad stopped working; in the other, the headphone port didn’t work. Back to school to get replacements. It’s just constant frustration and interruption into the learning process.

And let’s talk about the learning process. My 7-year-old twins are in second grade. They are expected to sit in front of the computer for 5½ hours with a lunch break and a few “recesses,” which entail them running around the house for 10 minutes and then getting into a fight with each other. Every single time. They transition to something new every 20 minutes and inevitably can’t find the book or their pencil or the nose on their face. Because they’re 7.

The learning part just isn’t working. My twins get 25% on their reading tests because they just don’t care. I tell them to slow down and try again and they’ll respond that I’m not their teacher and that they don’t have to get it right, they just have to try.

But they’ve stopped even trying.

My sixth grader has a D-minus in choir. Um, excuse me? He’s literally on the Zoom call every choir lesson and he has a D-minus?

Physical education is a joke when they stand and bounce a ball for 20 minutes. I was thrilled to see a session last week when they brought in a dancer and had the students making shapes with their bodies. That was amazing.

The younger ones use the computer to search other websites, play games, listen to music, or whatever else they can find while the teacher is teaching on Zoom. Unless I’m standing right behind them, I have no idea they’re on another website because they’re wearing headphones.

Why headphones? Background noise, apparently. I had a teacher email me that my son’s submission videos had too much background noise and that we needed to find a quieter place for him to do his schoolwork. Oh really? I have five kids in this house doing online school. Where exactly do you think I can move him?

School districts and child advocates have spent years telling parents to watch our kids' online activity like a hawk. But now, internet safety is gone. I’ve had to remove every parent control and website lock and time limit and website restriction just to allow all the school links teachers send. My kids could be watching porn on YouTube and unless I’m standing behind them, I can’t stop it.

We’re creating computer zombies who hate school and not even talking about it.

When 2 p.m. comes, we all sigh with relief. I escape to my bedroom to cry in a puddle over my abject failure as a mother. Then I send aggressive emails to teachers who are trying their best and they respond with things like “I am confident we can figure it out” and, to my son, “We got this kiddo. You and me together.” Which honestly just makes me feel worse for being such an awful human being.

I understand the complexities of the issue. Families with kids in school complain about the disruptions of going back and forth, in and out of quarantine. I understand the importance of keeping our teachers and school staff and kids safe. I recognize that infection rates are up, and the danger is still present. I understand the risks involved.

But what we’re doing isn’t working. And the kids are getting left behind.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.