How the coronavirus has disrupted education for 1 California family — my own

ALBANY, Calif. — As a reporter and editor at Yahoo News who has written often about the impact the growing coronavirus outbreak is having on American life, my assignment to investigate how education was being affected took me to a not-so-exotic location — my own kitchen table.

My immediate family consists of a university professor, a college senior and a high school junior, all of whom have had their normal routines upended by a virus that, as of Friday afternoon, has infected at least 24,000 people in the United States, killed more than 231 and closed schools in California and in most other states.

To be sure, given that none of us four have fallen ill or yet lost our jobs because of the coronavirus, we’re among the fortunate. Even so, the disruption to our lives is significant, a microcosm of what many other families, in particular those that include students, are going through.

“Right now, we’re all just in patch-and-mend mode,” my wife, Jennifer Fisher, an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, said as she sipped tea.

Like many colleges around the country, USF canceled in-person instruction a week ago, as the scale of the outbreak was coming into view, and cleared out dormitories to prevent the further spread of the virus. But the university had prepared for such a disruption more than two years ago, after the disastrous Camp Fire covered the Bay Area in dangerous smoke, putting in place infrastructure for online learning. Last week, USF kicked those plans into gear, holding more training sessions on how to use Zoom to conduct on-line instruction, and on Tuesday Fisher gave it a test run.

“It was a little strange. In some ways it was easier than I thought it would be,” Fisher, 52, said. “The way that my university has set it up, the Zoom interface is really easy to use, and I’m happy to see that I can still have discussions, but it’s going to take some getting used to.”

Among the things she has to adjust to are the absence of feedback from facial cues and sound that she ordinarily relies on to know if her students are following her lecture or getting her jokes. And she has to adapt to the limited mobility that lecturing to a webcam entails.

A message board outside of Brookside Elementary school is covered over with signs announcing the school is closed on March 17, 2020, in San Anselmo, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“I pace when I lecture, and sitting still in front of a camera is really hard,” Fisher said.

While most of the students in her ethics classes are continuing to follow her on Zoom, some have not reappeared, including foreign students who returned to China, where the social media platform is banned. For them, the two months of the semester studying at USF before classes were canceled may have been lost, as it and other colleges grapple with questions of whether to refund tuition and help students complete courses already started.

For my daughter, Mira, 16, whose high school suspended classes last Monday, the new normal means lots of self-motivated learning.

“The only class I really have online is graphic design, but I have school work I’m assigned to do and outside learning for biology, math, band, English and history,” Mira said.

Albany High School, which is located in the East Bay next to the town of Berkeley and has 1,100 students, has offered Google Chromebooks to those at the school who don’t own computers and provided a link that can be used to obtain free Wi-Fi for the rest of the semester.

The high school’s plan is to be able to pack enough learning into the rest of the year so that class promotions go off on schedule.

“The school and the state did an agreement that we’re getting credit for our classes and we don’t have to make them up with extra weeks in the summer,” Mira said.

With college application deadlines just months away, questions remain about how students like my daughter will be affected by the College Board’s cancellation of dates for the SAT exams.

“A lot of people in my grade haven’t taken it, and it looks like the future ones are being canceled too, so I’m wondering what they’re going to do,” Mira said. “Will they let us retake it or will colleges stop requiring them?”

So far, the College Board has canceled two scheduled test dates, and with the number of people in the U.S. infected with COVID-19 still growing exponentially, they have not announced when they will be put back on the calendar.

“It’s definitely going to get in the way, but it’s going to get in the way the same for everyone,” Mira said. “Everyone in my grade is going to be in the same boat, either not having taken the SAT or not having a great score because we had fewer chances to retake them.”

Custodial staff use an electrostatic Clorox sprayer to disinfect a classroom on March 11, 2020, at Brownsville Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

No generation has a lock on the uncertainty facing the country. A music major at Reed College in Portland, Ore., my son, Eli, 21, was in his final semester and preparing to graduate.

“I’m working on a senior thesis, a large component of which is a performance of an original composition,” Eli, a jazz composer, said. “So obviously things are going to be different because that’s not going to be possible. Things are going to have to be changed, but everybody is in the same situation in terms of things suddenly being up in the air.”

With the campus shuttered and his remaining classes moving online, Eli flew home last weekend, just before California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Bay Area residents to stay home. Thinking he was coming home for a week or two, Eli now sees that his May graduation ceremony, as well as his final performance, will almost certainly be scrapped.  

Audrey Bilger, Reed’s president, sent an email to parents Saturday asking them to weigh in on proposed options for the commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 that included holding it virtually in May and postponing it until the following year. Bilger said a decision would be made by March 27 so that families could “make travel arrangements.”

But part of Newsom’s updated stay-at-home order for the state’s 40 million residents prohibits us from going outside of California and the restrictions have, as yet, no end date.  With 1,247 cases of COVID-19 reported in the Golden State as of Saturday morning and Newsom’s startling prediction that upwards of 25 million Californians will be infected with COVID-19 over the next eight weeks, travel arrangements to Portland have been feeling less pressing with each passing second.

“It seems like the cancellation of an arbitrary ceremony is far less important than everybody distancing themselves and dealing with what’s happening,” Eli said.

Like so many schools and colleges blindsided by the coronavirus pandemic, Reed seems intent on making sure that the suspension of in-person classes won’t set its students back.

“Nobody wants the graduating class of 2020 to have to stay another semester, so everybody is working to make sure that that’s not a reality,” Eli said.

But Eli also fears the prospect of entering the job market this summer.

“There’s a pretty high likelihood that the economy is going to be really pretty terrible in a couple of months and it’s going to make it pretty hard,” Eli said.

With a solo record scheduled for release next month, a moment in his life that seemed to hold limitless potential has suddenly become clouded.

“People who were getting out of college a year ago were going into a relatively good economy,” Eli said.  “We’re afforded the certainty that it’s going to be bad, worse than it’s been, at least for the past few years.”

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc on American life, the educational system is just one facet of the story. According to Education Week, 45 states have closed schools, affecting nearly 54 million students. For the parents of small children, self-quarantine presents a much more daunting challenge than my wife and I now face. When I look at my family sitting around the table, I’m thankful for all we still have. But there’s no evading the uncertainty that COVID-19 has foisted upon all of us, and that’s maybe the hardest lesson of all to learn. 

_____

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