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    Photo by Mickie Winters

    Though I give my first-grader the news in measured spoonfuls, she knows the rules — the rigid, isolating social contract of 2020. Cheek-to-cheek buddy hugs and playdates travel in the rearview, the memory of her January birthday party at a steamy and cramped trampoline park now feels like a dispatch from a rogue, lawless time.

    She spots offenders quickly. “Mom, they’re not family and they’re in a crowd,” she says, eyeing a loose but thick group down the street. We are on a sidewalk in the Highlands in late March awaiting a “wave parade,” a sweet, surreal slice of pandemic adopted by schools and families with a birthday to celebrate. Wave, cheer and connect — all from a safe distance, just in case. Along the street, Bloom Elementary students and parents stand with a semitruck-sized space between each cluster.

    When I told Maria, who is a student at Bloom, about the parade the night before, I assumed she’d be disappointed. A drive-by hello? Friend sightings treated as intimately as a mirage? But her excitement exploded. It’s estimated that nine out of 10 children are out of school this spring throughout the world, splintered from their classroom, their teachers, the routine that shapes most childhoods.

    We hear staccato car horns first. Bloom’s principal, Jack Jacobs, rounds the corner in his red Jeep, a stuffed version of Bloom’s bulldog mascot in the front seat. (Later, he’ll tell me that it’s a debate about who benefited from the event more — teachers or students.) Maria’s arm flaps hellos as she dutifully performs roll call for her younger brother: That’s the art teacher. She’s in the lunchroom... Some kids race through alleyways to catch a second glimpse of Bloom staff one street over.

    Maria’s teacher, Ms. Todd (aka Jennifer Todd to the non-child sect), slowly rolls up, a sign dangling from her car: We Love You and Miss You! Maria leaps in place at least a half-dozen times, her smile shifting to nervous, happy laughter, revealing two adult front teeth that have rearranged the landscape of her young face. At seven years old, she’ll remember all of this, I think.

    I begin to cry. Jacobs will see other parents wipe tears along the parade route. It must be the uncertainty. Maybe anxiety. Or plain loss and sadness. All of it scrambles, and it’s near impossible to simply enjoy the joy of Maria bobbing beside me.

    On this day, the school closure is still temporary. It’s possible kids and teachers will reunite before the end of the year. “What if people don’t get better?” Maria will ask in the hours after the parade. “What if the virus doesn’t go away? I’ll have to stay home for four weeks, then five weeks, then six.”

     

    On Friday, March 13, the day school officially halted due to COVID-19, Jennifer Todd arrived at school feeling anxious. “Sort of like when you know a storm is coming,” she recalls. In her 13 years of teaching, she has never had kids carefully peel drawings from desks and cubbies, grab water bottles and workbooks and head home for who-knows-how-long. “One of the kids asked me, ‘Is this our last day of school?’ She was very astute in asking,” Todd says, remembering the conversation at the end of the lunch line. “I told her, ‘I don’t know. But we’ll see.’”

    A friend of mine took a picture of her daughter the morning of March 13, figuring it may be her daughter’s final day in first grade. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. Todd also hoped for an eventual return. A school year’s final few weeks bring the stuff teachers live for. “In first grade, kids make huge strides in reading,” Todd explains. “Looking at where they came in at in kindergarten and then at the end of the first-grade year, it’s so rewarding.”

    She witnesses kids settle into nine and a half months’ worth of information, like how to greet each other and build conversations by listening and responding. They share feelings rather than letting them simmer. Twenty-six budding citizens come spring.

    My daughter often suggests we start and end our school day at home just like Ms. Todd, offering a hug, handshake or high-five. Maria always took Todd’s hugs. Most kids did. “I’m used to getting 50 hugs a day,” Todd says on the phone in late March, adding with a laugh, “My dogs get a lot of hugs now.”

    In the school building, there’s comfort in routine, in marshaling bodies into their rightful, safe places and seeing the same kids every day, gauging their moods. For Todd and other educators, it’s unnatural to suddenly dam that flow and movement. “I wonder what certain kids are doing, if they’re getting what they need,” Todd says. “School is a place where kids get a lot of basic needs met — food, clothing, a sense of belonging.”

     

    On the evening I talk to Todd, she, along with the entire district, is cramming for the weeks ahead. JCPS is going “virtual.” Many teachers forgo the scheduled end-of-March spring break to get ready. With more than 150 schools and 99,000 students scattered in neighborhoods of deep poverty or comfortable wealth and resources, shifting school online is an Herculean task.

    Take Olmsted Academy South in south Louisville. At the all-girls middle school, 24 different languages are spoken by students and their families and about 80 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch. Over spring break, five ESL teachers contact roughly 100 households to ask if they have a computer or are in need of a JCPS-issued Chromebook laptop, knowing that some families may not have received or understood communication in district emails or in the media. Even after all that effort, teachers can’t reach about 30 families with the contact information they have on file. (Staff at Olmsted and throughout the district will shift to social media or other means to try and communicate with those hard-to-reach households.)

    JCPS ships and hand-delivers about 20,000 Chromebooks to students throughout the county. Spectrum and other internet providers promise free or reduced-cost Wi-Fi service. (Public school districts across the country are doing the same. According to the New York Times, the Miami-Dade County public schools in Florida distributed more than 80,000 mobile devices for distance learning and about 11,000 smartphones to serve as Wi-Fi hot spots.)

    Veteran paper-and-pencil teachers parallel park into technology. (“The kids are impressed with what we can do,” I recently heard a JCPS middle school principal say.) Constructing an entirely new school system in less than a month — who could’ve imagined? This is all an experiment. No guarantees. And no one wants to fail.

    Angela Allen, the principal of Olmsted Academy South, feels the enormity of it. Online learning “isn’t designed for a district this large,” she says. There’s so much to do: Overseeing online curriculum for nearly 700 students, all at different skill levels, with different levels of support at home; walking teachers through this journey; responding to worried parents: Where’s my Chromebook? Can I get mental-health support for my kid? She needs a moment in the day just to talk to someone.

    The message from JCPS administration: Be flexible. “No one is throwing a gradebook in our face, saying you must do a certain number of activities,” one Olmsted teacher tells me. Still, in late March and early April, Allen has adopted this schedule:

    5:30 a.m.: Wake up. Dress like she’s going to school. Joke from her husband as she heads downstairs: “Commute’s gonna be tough this morning.”

    7 a.m.: Planning, emails, planning, emails, meetings.

    5:30 or 6 p.m.: Pause for dinner. Another joke from her husband: “Aren’t you going to let your employees go home?”

    7 or 8 p.m.: Back to emails and planning and meetings.

    2:30 or 3 a.m.: Grab a few hours of sleep before it all starts again.

     

    One of the first students I think about (other than my own) when school shuts down is an eighth-grader at Olmsted Academy South named Nor Almansouri. I had interviewed her in February for a story about students who take months-long absences from school to visit the countries where either they or their parents were born.

    In November 2018, in her eighth-grade year, she, her parents and three siblings traveled to Iraq after an aunt died. She figured they’d return in the winter or spring. But civil unrest in the country made her parents too nervous to travel. The family stayed in Iraq indefinitely. “I heard gunshots all the time,” Almansouri recalled in February, her dark brown eyes watering. “My health got bad over it. My personality sort of changed.”

    But it wasn’t all scary. She loved time with distant relatives, and she brightens when remembering the first wedding she attended.

    Almansouri finally returned to Louisville in January, more than a year after departing.

    She thought she’d enter high school, but because she missed so much of eighth grade, JCPS placed her back at Olmsted. Double-dipping into middle school, this time without friends who have since moved on, felt like punishment. “I don’t like students saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re retrying eighth grade?’” she said in February. “That’s not it. I’m just finishing what I’ve started.”

    Three weeks after we spoke, her eighth-grade year paused again.

    Jason Rahmel, a resource teacher at Olmsted, fears online learning will limit his ability to tend to students’ emotional needs. “Our kids don’t get ignored at school,” he says. “We’re not following kids around, but you start to notice when kids are off and you can step in.” Rahmel can detect anger or sadness by the way a student fiddles with their locker or in the shuffle of their step. “You can email a kid and ask them how they’re doing. They can say: Fine. It’s so different than seeing them in the hallway,” Rahmel explains.

    Many schools have library assistants and other non-teachers reaching out to students and families. I get a call at least once a week from Bloom. A chipper voice asks me if we’ve had problems with online learning, and then asks to speak with my daughter — who, most of the time, stares at the phone with a shy grin, unsure of what to say. We also receive cheerful postcards from Bloom with a phone number to call if needed.

    Allen, the Olmsted principal, records daily morning greetings for her students that are delivered to their cellphones: Gooooood morning, OAS students, staff and parents! Less garbled than the tinny boom of school speakers, it’s still comforting, familiar. “I imagine me sitting in class,” Almansouri says on the phone in April. “It’s got a good OAS vibe.”

    Her father is still working. “He’s an essential worker in food distribution,” Almansouri says. She has stepped up around the house, waking with her baby brother, feeding him crackers and juice and reading him books. She hasn’t gotten her JCPS Chromebook as of mid-April, but she’s still able to Google chat with teachers on the family computer.

    Despite missing most of her second eighth-grade year, Almansouri says she will be a high school freshman this fall. On that Friday in March that school got out, she remembers her fellow students celebrating. “You don’t get it,” she recalls saying. “I want to be in school.”  

     

    Online instruction in Kentucky is technically called non-traditional instruction, or NTI, a 2011 invention to continue education during an extended school closure — typically due to weather. It sounds precise and bureaucratic, a well-devised plug to fill the gap.

    As a parent experiencing it in this long, drawn-out moment, I’ve watched Google Meets suffer what sounds like glitchy indigestion. At least in my house, even the most engaging assignments can’t always fend off the distraction of a rowdy younger brother, shelves of toys and a kitchen stocked with snacks that my daughter is on a daily quest to consume. There’s a lot of time to fill and NTI wasn’t built to replace all that’s packed into a typical school day.

    My husband and I are lucky — we still have jobs that allow us to work from home, but balancing our work with first grade requires a carousel of laptops and juggled hours. At least we have a couple of devices to share. Nini Mohamed, an author and substitute teacher, who is friends with many in the Somali and immigrant community, says he knows some families who have five or more kids trying to share one JCPS-issued Chromebook. “They all have assignments due at the same time and they don’t know who to give it to,” he says. (He created a lighthearted YouTube video about the predicament titled “When JCPS sends one computer to a house hold of 10 students.”)

    In late April, JCPS touts NTI’s success, pointing to a 94-percent participation rate among students. An April New York Times piece indicated some school districts were getting barely half of students to participate in distance learning. In listening to JCPS teachers, it’s clear some kids are going above and beyond. And, yes, a majority of students are logging onto NTI or, at the very least, having weekly contact with teachers, the minimal requirement to be considered actively participating in NTI. The level of actual work, though, varies greatly.

    In a Facebook Live event hosted by the Louisville Urban League in late April, Marcella Franklin-Williams, principal of Carrithers Middle School in Jeffersontown says some students are struggling with “using their time wisely to turn work in.” Joseph Wood, the principal of Indian Trail Elementary in Newburg, says, “A lot of kids are going into Google Classroom, but not doing the work.”

    Some teachers I talk to aren’t terribly worried about it. Kids are resilient. So the summer slide balloons a bit. Teachers can make up for lost learning. And there’s so much else to worry about now, like parents who have been laid off and can’t afford food or rent. Or parents at risk of contracting the virus because they still report to a jobsite. Or sick relatives. School can wait.

     

    In an historically inequitable country, the pandemic will strike poor and minority communities the hardest. By early April, a disparate number of African-Americans are contracting the virus in Kentucky, and across the country more Black people are dying.

    Minority and economically disadvantaged children already behind in school will likely slip further, widening a lingering achievement gap in JCPS. A WFPL story from late April shows schools with higher rates of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch show less engagement with NTI.

    Latasha Harrison is president of the Louisville Parent Teacher Organization, an education advocacy group. Her 16-year-old attends Kentucky Country Day, and three of her children attend JCPS schools. She applauds the efforts of JCPS but says the difference between KCD’s online curriculum and that of JCPS is striking. “My daughter (at KCD) never stopped school,” she says. “She’s had school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day.” Her daughter attends classes through Google Meet, and it’s about as close to normal as possible — live lessons and participation, regular assignments. “It’s not that JCPS wouldn’t want to do that,” Harrison says. “It’s simply a lack of resources. KCD is a private school and you pay to go there.”

    Harrison has heard from a few parents resisting NTI. “I got a few parents who were like, ‘I’m just not going to do it.’ I’m like, ‘You have no choice. This is your kids’ education,’” Harrison says. “Parents are freaking out more than kids. It’s going to get better.”

    Silver linings have emerged. Greg Vann, who works in the JCPS Diversity, Equity and Poverty department, says the pandemic may make clear that “tech equity is racial equity.” One teacher tells me that, without the pressure of end-of-year testing, there’s an emergence of creative, fun assignments.

    Kym Rice is the principal of the Academy @ Shawnee, a magnet middle and high school. She says some of her students who skipped out on regular school participate in NTI. “I think a lot of it is it’s more relaxed. They can do it on their own time,” she says during the Urban League Facebook event. “It’s not just 7:30 to 2:30 every day.”

    Jennifer Miescke, an ESL teacher at Olmsted Academy South, says she has watched one student who was “almost defiantly unengaged” at Olmsted thrive online. “She doesn’t want any attention drawn to the fact that she needs extra help,” Miescke says. “But since she’s been at home doing it by herself, she’s doing so much more work.”

     

    I’ve been avoiding telling my daughter she’s not heading back to Bloom this year. But by April 23 I can’t delay anymore. It will likely come up in her online class meeting.

    As Maria sits down to her oatmeal, I ease into the news, expecting disappointment, maybe tears. “So this virus…” I begin.

    Her face withers, modestly. “What about first-grade graduation?” she asks. “We usually have a party on the last day of school.” (By “usually,” she means the end-of-year party that occurred only once in her life, last year in kindergarten.)

    “We’ll have a party here,” I say.

    “Can we have doughnuts and sushi?”

    “Yup.”

    Maria mentally notes her party for the last day of school — May 27 — and eats her oatmeal, unfazed. She rotates through math pages, a social studies assignment on communities and attends a glitch-free Google Meet. Ms. Todd appears onscreen, a whiteboard behind her in her home, and sings with her students their good morning song: I said hello! (Clap, clap.) And how are you? (Clap, clap.) I said hello and get down and get down and get down...

    Even without a classroom, there’s a pact most teachers form with students that they simply cannot go back on, no matter the circumstance. I watch a news story about a Southern Indiana teacher who has created corny but sweet math lessons in her bathroom, shower cap on, a little jingle and all. Bloom’s music teacher, Michelle Lewis, started a daily Facebook Live drum circle in the days after school let out, setting an iPhone against a glass on a piano bench in her living room. Music is a “beautiful language,” Lewis says one day in late March. “If you are stressed out, this can help you.”

    On a recent afternoon, Maria’s NTI day dissolves. A Google Meet to listen to her librarian read a book turns into a pixelated puddle and chopped words. “This wouldn’t happen at school,” she says, her face sagging. Later, there are tears — about what, I can’t recall.

    I text Ms. Todd that Maria might like to FaceTime with her. The following day, Todd calls.

    “Do you know where I am?” Ms. Todd asks.

    Maria squints at my iPhone.

    “Ummm. Your car?”

    “Come outside.”

    Todd is across the street hanging out her car window, smiling. Maria giggles and jumps on our sidewalk, her sparkly heart barrette slipping from the corner of her forehead to the top of her ear. She and Todd chat about dogs and sharks and California. This isn’t the first-grade year either of them expected, but there’s a loose resemblance. Todd points her to a gift bag on our porch. Maria leaps toward it, discovering a math workbook, notepad and pencil. In case I am wary of potential germs, she has even tucked a Clorox wipe in the handle.

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