Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Our girls are at the age when their friendships are everything.
The squad descends at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning in late September. One at a time, the girls arrive, jumping out of their parents’ cars almost before they’ve come to a complete stop outside our garage. It’s been months since they’ve been together, and though their smiles are hidden by masks, their excitement is evident. They chatter and bounce up the stairs carrying their backpacks, school-issued laptops, and lunch bags. I’m not sure who’s more relieved that they’re together again, I or they. It’s been a long six months of anxiety over the mental health effects isolation might be having on my daughter. Seventh grade girls need their friends.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
We’ve set up makeshift work stations around the room, two at the counter, three at the table. Their school has created clear expectations, and they’re due at their live check-in at 9 every morning. I encourage them to get themselves set up first and then relax until it’s time to sign on, but it’s futile. At 8:55, they scramble to set up their laptops and sign on to the wifi. Somehow they all make it in time, and the Zoom doorbell chimes five times.
The seventh grade class at High Tech Middle Chula Vista has 120 students, divided into two “teams,” each led by a humanities teacher, a math/science teacher, and an arts teacher. In a typical school year, those two teams are divided into two classes that alternate between the teachers daily. But this year, the teams have been divided into four pods: green, blue, red, and yellow, each with their own schedule of alternating live Zoom classes and independent work time. My daughter’s group of girlfriends are all on the same team but in four different pods.
Since early summer, when the return-to-normal date became more and more elusive, the other four moms and I said we’d have to figure out a way to get the girls together. Spring was brutal. Our girls are at the age when their friendships are everything. An article published in The Atlantic in January of this year touches on the idea that for 11- and 12-year-olds, having friends around in times of high stress can lower cortisol levels and buffer negative feelings.
I know we were right to return these girls to each other. Girls need their friends — even, and maybe especially, during times of crisis.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
High Tech Middle starts in 6th grade, and for the year and a half prior to the shelter-in-place mandates, our five daughters spent everyday together in class, at lunch, on breaks. But last March, out of nowhere, our girls, like children everywhere, suddenly couldn’t be together. It was jarring. My daughter started off strong, much stronger than I did. Without the structure of the school dropoff and pickup schedule, I lost my bearings immediately and shuffled around the house unshowered and in my pajamas, losing track of days. But she thrived. She made it to all her Zoom lessons on time, completed her assigned school work, and exceeded all expectations. She also worked out every day, set her alarm to remind herself to drink water every hour, fixed healthy lunches, and took to Duolingo like a madwoman, studying Spanish, French, German, and Japanese. At first it was cute, a marvel, something my husband and I were almost embarrassed to mention to our friends who were having so much trouble with distance learning in their homes. But then it started to feel a bit scary. She wouldn’t stop. She was online all the time — doing math! She was in full-fledged workaholic mode, and when I tried to redirect her, she panicked, eventually revealing that staying busy was her escape from thinking. I had to assign her TV time and make her put on a mask and go ride her bike with our neighbor.
“There are still tears,” says Tina, “but it’s a lot less. In the beginning, there were tears every day. Then it was maybe every other day. Now, it’s just once or twice a week.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
And then out of nowhere, it stopped. Suddenly, she was sleeping late, spending hours scrolling through memes on Pinterest, missing appointments with her teacher, watching other people play Minecraft on YouTube, and soothing herself with bagels and waffles several times a day. It was sad, and it worried me. I knew she needed her friends.
Early in the spring, I arranged a couple of Zoom sleepovers with the other four girls in her squad. Later, we ventured out for a couple of one-on-one, mostly socially distant mother-daughter walks at the Tijuana Estuary, which was blissfully unpopulated. During those outings, the girls walked ahead to be alone, and the moms discussed what we might do if distance learning carried on indefinitely. We all agreed that while we of course wanted to keep everyone healthy and safe, their mental health was an important component.
We had no idea that a few months from then, the infection rate would be over 200,000 new cases per day and that even this small pod gathering would come to feel irresponsible, sending us all back into isolation.
A whirlwind of Zoom doorbells
The pod schedules are as follows. At 9:15, immediately following check-in, the red pod has a live humanities class until 10, and the blue pod has a live math/science class. At the same time, the green pod has independent math work time, and the yellow pod has independent humanities work time. At 10, red and blue pods have their independent work time in their respective subjects, and yellow and green pods go live. After a 15-minute break from 10:45 to 11:00, the green pod heads into a live math/science class, and the yellow pod goes live with humanities. Red and blue pods have independent work time in math and humanities respectively. And then at 11:45, everything changes again. The whole morning is a whirlwind of Zoom doorbells and breakout sessions and video lessons that play during independent work time.
And of course, there’s laughter and raised voices at inopportune times. Lexi brings her laptop across the room and props herself up on the chaise lounge-end of the couch for her math science class. Felicity, Sophie, and Anna trade around the table and at the counter.
“Guys, guys! I’m going into a box discussion,” Lexi says. (A box discussion, they tell me later, is a discussion involving the whole pod of 16 students, no input from the teacher, no raised hands. If everyone talks, everyone gets credit. If anyone does not talk, no one gets credit.)
The other girls hush for a few minutes but forget again. Lexi reminds them, and they hush again. The day goes pretty much like that, the silence ebbing and flowing, the girls shushing each other when they need to.
Later, my daughter confesses, “When you’re the one in live class and people are talking, it drives you crazy. But when someone else is in their live class and you’re talking and they shush you, it’s like, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
This is Day 1, and I stay out of the way. I don’t see my role as a teacher or monitor, but rather as a resource available if they need something. But I enter the room and pipe in every now and again just so the girls don’t report that they didn’t see me the whole day. I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it right, but I’m not sure any of us really know what “right” means.
If anyone does, it’s probably Michelle, Sophie’s mom. Last week, I sent out a message that said, “Hey Mom friends. You can drop your girls at my house between 8:30 and 9 on Wednesday. I can take them home at 3. If you can have them bring a lunch, we’ll eat in the park.”
Michelle responded, “Should they bring their Chromebooks so they can log into the check-in and Zooms? And maybe headsets? I guess they’ll need to be set up on your WiFi.”
And then later, in response to my text about it being Day 1 and how we’ll make adjustments as we go along, she wrote, “As long as they make their different pods times and check in. :)”
All of which made me think I should probably get dressed in real clothes for the drop-off, and maybe brush my teeth.
The Pinterest of moms
Most days, I work from around 9 pm until 2 am. I go to bed around 4 am and then wake up around 11. I keep telling myself I should do what normal people do so I can be there for my daughter when she wakes up in the morning and see her through the school day. But she says she likes having mornings to herself. Still, I wonder if I should be doing it differently.
One afternoon, I join Michelle on her patio to see what a normal day of distance learning looks like at her house. The group of girls won’t be getting together again until Friday, so today, it’s just Michelle and her two kids. Her husband would normally be here, too, but today he’s working out of the house. With both parents working from home and kids of two different ages (one in elementary school, one in middle school), plus two dogs, I expected to feel some tension in the house, or maybe to see some sign of struggle. But it’s perfectly tidy and peaceful. A quick peek upstairs reveals her two children working quietly in their bedrooms at clean, organized work spaces.
Back downstairs on the patio, Michelle explains their daily household routine to me. “I try to get them up in the morning, not super early so they’re well rested, but so they have enough time to have a comfortable breakfast and kind of chill, not rush,” she says.
Sophie is pretty independent, but about 15 minutes before check-in, Michelle reviews her son’s schedule for the day. He has a whiteboard above his desk, so she’ll write out the daily schedule and review everything he needs to do for the day.
“He has an Alexa in his room, so we utilize that to set timers for all his Zoom meetings. It can be one a day or up to four a day because he also has speech therapy he does over Zoom,” she says. “It alerts him, but I also get a popup on my phone.”
For the most part, Sophie sets her own reminders on her phone and is responsible for making it to her Zoom meetings on time. Middle school, Michelle says, is a time for learning the importance of responsibility and self-reliance. But she does monitor by way of technology. For instance when Sophie missed a class check-in and a tutoring session earlier in the week, Michelle was able to see the email exchange that took place between her daughter and the teachers.
“At the end of the day, after three o’clock, I’ll review their work with them, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything,” she says.
This review involves a whiteboard checklist for Reef, and an email inbox sweep for Sophie, where they check for assignments and anything that requires follow-through and then deleting emails that have already been tended to. The key to making this work, she says, “is routine, and giving them the tools they need to do well.”
Meanwhile, Michelle has a full-time job developing web seminars, a job she’s been doing from home for 12 years. The more Michelle talks, the more convinced I become that when it comes to distance learning, she is the Pinterest of moms. I can’t stop scrolling, simultaneously fascinated and shamed by the perfection of her example. And so while we sit on her patio among succulents and birds of paradise, I pet her dogs, listen for everything I’m not doing well in comparison, and silently promise to seek the companionship of someone a little more like me.
“There are still tears.”
Up in Del Mar, Tina is counting down the minutes until wine-thirty. It’s 9:45 am on a Friday. This week, she had her first taste of freedom in six months. Her two children, in first and third grades, went back to real school on Monday and Tuesday, which they’ll do every week — for now. On Monday, Tina and I spoke briefly on the phone and she said that although she had planned to get some work done while the kids were at school, instead she was giving herself the day to relax. After six months of having the kids at home all day every day, she needed it. She would put in some work hours on Tuesday, she said.
On Tuesday, she texted me, “I can’t stop watching HGTV.”
This whole distance learning thing has not been easy for Tina. There are mothers who, like Michelle, are equipped with an innate sense of organization and take-charge. Tina is a little more... loose. Her kids are fed, healthy, and happy, but I always get the feeling that she’s just kind of holding it together. I relate. But where I have only one school-aged child who is more independent than most kids her own age, Tina has two who are younger and need her involvement for most of the day.
Spring 2020 was hell for Tina and her kids. Her third grader cried every day.
“There really weren’t any Zoom rooms,” she says. “They were just like, ‘Here’s your lesson,’ and we had to do it all on our own.”
We’re sitting in her office, which occupies one of the three upstairs bedrooms in her family’s 2600-square-foot home. Cassidy, the third grader, is doing multiplication on her laptop in the bedroom next door, and Everest is on a Zoom call with his first grade teacher in the bedroom across the hall. Tina sits at her own laptop, with several tabs open.
It’s better now than it was in the spring, she explains.
“Now, he’s on Zoom at least half the day,” she says, pointing across the hall. “So it’s a lot less self-directed.”
Cassidy comes to the door to ask for help with her math. Tina leaves the room. I can hear her guiding her daughter through the steps of making four groups of three and adding them together to get 12. Tina comes back a few minutes later.
“There are still tears,” she says, “but it’s a lot less. In the beginning, there were tears every day. Then it was maybe every other day. Now, it’s just once or twice a week.”
It’s the school work partly, not understanding the concepts or knowing how to do the work. But it’s also the pandemic. Cassidy is afraid of coronavirus. She misses her friends. She hates math. And Tina isn’t cut out for homeschooling.
“Is your mom a good teacher?” I ask Cassidy later.
“No,” she answers bluntly.
Tina agrees with her. “I wasn’t built for this shit,” she says.
Usually, her husband is home working, so once she gets the kids set up on their morning check-in, she can squeeze in a quick jog around the neighborhood. But otherwise, she’s on duty all day.
“I’m setting the timer all day with Alexa for the next Zoom,” she says.
Between managing her kids’ schedules and helping them with their work, it’s almost impossible to tend to her handbag business.
“It’s hard to get anything going consistently because there are constant interruptions no matter what,” she says.
It’s a relief to have her kids back onsite on Mondays and Tuesdays, although it has presented a slight disruption to the distance learning routine that she was just starting to get the hang of. The classes have been divided into two cohorts. Half of the class goes to school on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half goes on Thursday and Friday, which means the teachers are busy with the students in real-time and may not be able to provide as much attention to the students on Zoom.
“The Zooms are starting later so they can get those guys checked in, temperatures, hands sanitized, and all that,” she explains. “Cassidy says they have a big screen that they pull down. I think what’s happening is that the Zoom kids can see the teacher with her puppet, and the kids in the classroom can see the teacher with her puppet.”
But the benefits of having the kids back in the classroom with their peers and teachers outweigh the inconveniences of adjusting to yet another new way of doing things, Tina believes. I ask how she’s coping.
“Um...alcohol,” she says with a laugh.
While I wouldn’t want to switch places with Tina, I do envy her two days a week when she gets the relief of knowing her kids are getting social time with their friends. For the remainder of the distance learning debacle, Tina will remain the luckiest of my friends. In January, both her kids will be back in school four days a week. And in the three months between then and the printing of this story, she’ll go back to putting in a full work week as she prepares to launch her e-design business, which had to be put on hold.
We’re definitely doing something right
As imperfect as I am with this whole distance learning business, there is one moment during Day 1 when I know I’ve gotten it right. At 12:30, the girls grab their lunch bags and we pile into my car for the four-minute drive to a nearby park. They spread out a large blanket on the grass while I set myself up with a sling chair and a travel mug of coffee. All the moms remark regularly about how fast the girls are growing up. But the contents of their lunch bags say otherwise: sandwiches, fruit, goldfish, cheesesticks. These are the lunches of children. Their games are childlike, too. After they eat, they play Truth or Dare. Everyone picks dare every time. They challenge each other to run out to the middle of the grassy field and shout, “I’m obsessed with Alexander Hamilton!” or Naruto run around the gazebo three times. When they get tired of that, they all run out to the middle of the field and spin until they’re stumbling around and falling to the ground.
I sit in my chair and watch them play, satisfied. I know we were right to return these girls to each other. Girls need their friends — even, and maybe especially, during times of crisis.
No one wants to leave the park and go back to their Zoom calls and their box discussions and their online video lessons, but we do. And the rest of the afternoon goes just fine.
The road back to normal?
On January 8, 2021, the number of new covid cases peaked at 300,669 in a single day. Back to isolation. No pod, no holiday parties, no girls’ nights out. Fortunately, Anna’s dance school has been able to continue in-person classes in their outdoor studio, so she does get some social time with her dance friends. And while she continues to complete her school assignments and attend all her Zoom meetings, she goes to class in bed, with her camera off and her sweatshirt hood pulled up over her head.
In late February, things start looking up. The number of new daily cases has gone down significantly, and we receive some hope by way of an email from the school stating that if current trends continue, our kids will go back to school by April 12. On March 4, Lexi’s mom and I decide to let the girls have a sleepover. Lexi brings makeup, and the girls stay up all night. It’s impossible not to notice that in the days that follow the sleepover, Anna actually gets out of bed every day. She dresses for school and puts on her new pink eyeshadow. During the week of March 15, the dance school moves the classes back into the studio, which feels like another important step on the road back to normal.
When I ask Michelle how she feels about the possibility of the kids going back to school on campus, she says, “I’m glad [they] will have in-person connections and lessons. But, the way they have to distance seems so bleak and demoralizing. Plus, having them do three days a week of asynchronous learning seems too much to ask for such young people.”