An unvarnished look at one family’s day of virtual learning
Written, photographed and produced by Brian Huynh
An orange Tyrannosaurus rex lies on its side at the exact spot on the wooden floor where Skyler and Sofia lost interest in it. Nearby, action figures with missing limbs lie face-down on the ground, only feet away from the small plastic folding table littered with pencils, an assortment of crumpled paper filled with past assignments and a school-issued Chromebook right in the middle.
For the next few hours, Skyler will stare at the dim screen from the leather ottoman bench tucked under the lip of the white makeshift desk. To his right, his cousin Linda Huynh acts as his tutor behind a cloth face mask she sewed after months of boredom. It’s a role she reluctantly accepted along with Skyler’s uncle, Vanchhoeng, who is making the best of his freshman year of high school in an adjacent bedroom. He’ll have to battle through the constant noise of running water, traffic speeding past the living room windows and of course, his restless kindergarten student and niece, Sofia. She will run and scream through the house to pass the hours until it’s her time to learn.
This is what a classroom looks like in 2020.
In homes all across Wisconsin, some version of this scene plays out every school day to varying degrees of success and frustration. Many school districts opted to start the fall semester online or with a hybrid model, giving parents the option of in-person or virtual classes. This choice, however accommodating it might appear on paper, is often not as simple as it might sound for many families, such as Aylin Sok’s. We’re cousins — plus Skyler’s tutor is my older sister — so I see and hear this struggle from multiple perspectives.
As a single mother of two, Aylin has to be up at 7:30 a.m. every school day to get her kids ready for their Zoom meetings at 8:45 a.m. Her son Skyler, 8, and her daughter Sofia, 5, sleep for an extra 30 minutes before she makes sure they brush their teeth and change their clothes. She tries to simulate a normal school day — so no pajamas in the virtual classroom.
Aylin starts the school day managing the chaos of two separate Zoom calls — on two separate school-issued Chromebooks — at the exact same time. She wishes there was more time to run from one to the other.
Once the kids are done, they have a cup of milk while their mom heads to the nail salon to start her eight-hour work day.
Shortly after Aylin leaves, Linda arrives to assume the role of Skyler’s tutor and Sofia’s babysitter. Normally, Linda would only babysit on occasion. But during a pandemic, family roles are redefined and those who are capable, though not necessarily qualified, take on new responsibilities. Linda is a 23-year-old taking a gap year after graduating from UW–Madison with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
In the morning, she guides Skyler through virtual third grade using Google Classroom. Sofia is in kindergarten but has to wait to learn until her uncle is done working through his own virtual schooling for the day.
The kids have come to expect this assistance. While it may seem normal to them, this isn’t a guarantee for every child. That’s why Aylin says she feels lucky to have her younger brother and Linda: “Because without them, I can’t go to work, and then I wouldn’t have any income. And I have to choose between my kids’ school and financially supporting them. So it’s hard. Sometimes I don’t know what to choose.”
For the first part of the day, Skyler focuses on English Language Arts. He watches an instructional video from his teacher before reading independently for 20 minutes. His current book of choice is the brightly illustrated “Doctor Strange: Mystery of the Dark Magic.” Linda helps sound out words and guides him through reading assignments that range from annotating key passages in the story with sticky notes to writing plot summaries to recording videos where he describes the book.
Skyler enjoys talking to the camera and thinks of it as making a movie. For those assignments, Linda becomes a production manager and editor, ensuring Sofia stays quiet and out of frame and making basic cuts before submitting the “films” to his teacher.
A Bored Kindergartener
Kindergarten is a time for kids to play, interact and learn the basic rules of the game. Teachers are authority figures who are caring but strict, and Sofia needs this kind of structure to learn. Aylin says Sofia is more challenging than Skyler because “she wants to play more, and she will listen to her teacher more than me. Because I’m her mom, she says, ‘You not my teacher. You my mom.’”
Linda doesn’t exactly fit the bill either. At the end of the day, they’re family, and that comes with a different set of expectations. Because Sofia has nothing to do in the morning, she wants to steal some of the attention Linda gives to Skyler. Sofia will often sit next to her brother or on Linda’s lap and listen to Skyler’s videos or doodle. Linda has to make sure Sofia doesn’t bother Skyler too much, which is hard given the endless amount of noise a bored 5-year-old is capable of generating.
Despite the pandemic upending virtually all aspects of the school day, the kids’ appetite and excitement for lunchtime has not changed. As noon approaches, they become increasingly less focused and silly. Throughout the day, the kids repeatedly ask when they get to eat, as if their constant questioning will make the clock skip ahead to lunchtime. For Skyler and Sofia, being at home has its benefits: they raid the refrigerator and cabinets for snacks whenever they want. It is not an uncommon sight to see Sofia stuffing her face with puffy marshmallows or Skyler playing with a crinkled candy wrapper as he works.
To maximize time, Linda knocks out science class while they eat since they’re generally just quick videos. Skyler says it’s his favorite subject, but “it’s too easy. All we have to do is look. They don’t really teach us anything.”
Time to Type
Once the children’s stomachs are full, Linda summons her remaining patience and directs what’s left of Skyler’s attention to online math games and his sworn enemy: typing lessons.
Linda says doing so much on the computer frustrates him. He struggles using the trackpad to navigate. Skyler wishes there were fewer glitches.
If Skyler had it his way, Linda would do his typing for him, and he’s not afraid to ask. She tries to get him to progress from typing exclusively with his index fingers, which never fails to frustrate him. Skyler drags on through the assignment, oscillating between periods of intense focus and moments of unbridled energy. Linda rolls her eyes in frustration while battling to stay awake.
Sofia finally gets her turn in the virtual classroom when Vanchhoeng finishes his classes for the day at around 2:30 p.m. At 15, he looks like the prototypical high school freshman — lanky and bright-eyed with a touch of acne he is well aware of. Sofia’s desk sits adjacent to Skyler’s. It’s the same wooden table where they eat lunch. He removes the remnants of their food with a Clorox wipe before setting down his new touch-screen laptop to start her lessons.
Vanchhoeng is being forced to grow up much faster than most kids his age, and it shows. He has the quiet and calm demeanor of an adult taking one for the team. He doesn’t want to do this, but he understands that this is a sacrifice he has to make for his family. “I mean, Sofi — no one’s gonna teach her so, I have to do it,” he says.
The classroom reaches its peak volume as Skyler finishes his work while Sofia starts her first lesson. Skyler says he can’t focus, and neither of the siblings can resist the urge to talk across the classroom with their outdoor voices. Randomly, Skyler or Sofia will check on what the other is doing. An uncertain peace washes over the room every now and then as the kids try to focus.
Three Long Hours
Vanchhoeng sets aside three hours for tutoring Sofia. In that time, she learns about syllables using chopsticks to clap to the beat. Then the living room transforms into a gym where she breaks a sweat running around. Her heartbeat returns to normal with a coloring activity. Vanchhoeng directs the last of Sofia’s energy to the alphabet and reading comprehension. His irritation gets the best of him here, and he raises his voice whenever Sofia clicks random answers — it’s self-imposed stress from his decision to actually teach rather than just give her the correct responses.
Waiting for Mom
When they’re done for the day, the kids head to the playroom littered with years of birthday and Christmas presents. The multicolored scribbles on the walls offer a glimpse into Skyler’s mind. They were his sketchbook before he started making his own comics. The kids pass the time playing until their mom comes home.
An Educator’s Perspective
Less than five minutes away from Skyler and Sofia’s virtual classroom sits the empty shell of the Edgewood Elementary School building, where they made their first friends while learning the basic building blocks for a more certain future. Skyler’s third-grade and Sofia’s kindergarten experience began online this year as part of the Greenfield School District’s reopening plan. Where there once was hope and laughter, there is only an uneasy silence broken by the occasional car zipping past the silver chain-link fence no longer tasked with keeping kids safe. Even on a warm autumn evening, the orange and gray playground equipment goes unused. The swings hang motionless as though time has stopped.
Down the street is the Greenfield High School building, where Vanchhoeng wishes he could be. He’s a freshman navigating his own confusing virtual classroom while also tutoring his niece, Sofia. In his eyes, teachers are doing their best, but it’s just not the same. Replicating the in-person classroom isn’t the point according to associate professor Amy Claessens from UW–Madison, an expert on child academic and socio-emotional development. “We don’t have great evidence on effective virtual instruction for the younger grades,” she says. “But I think one way to think about this is that the kids are continuing to get rich instructional content. And that’s the best we can offer right now.”
The best isn’t always ideal. In 2020, school is a shared sacrifice for educators and families. Jessica Overland, an English teacher at Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School in Milwaukee, wakes up between 3-5 a.m. to prepare for the school day. She’s had to rethink her lesson plans for her students “and scale as far back on the content as we can and the expectations of the workload … so that we can also have time to check in with them emotionally.”
2020 has shown us that the importance of school and educators reaches far beyond learning. For many families, school offers two meals a day, health check-ups from adult figures outside of the home and, most importantly, “free” child care, Claessens says. For families like Aylin’s, this is crucial. The economy, in many ways, depends on the school system to function.
Claessens and Overland aren’t sure what education will look like after the pandemic. They hope that some of the technological advancements stick around. Claessens says kids are emotionally resilient, so some may walk away from this year without permanent emotional changes.
Far more certain, however, is the data that shows decreasing enrollment in public schools in multiple states. Families who can afford to move their children to private learning situations unknowingly exacerbate the inequities we already see in the classroom, Claessens says. With enrollment numbers down, funding for the public education system follows a similar path. Less money means fewer resources, and the cycle of inequality continues between those who must pause and those with the means to keep moving forward.