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The year of schooling at home: hard work, loneliness and little blessings

School year is over, but learning still continues for this family

After 12 weeks of overseeing her four children’s schooling at home, Keshia Alhasan took a moment to reflect on it all now that the school year was over. Must be quite a relief, right? 

Well, not really.

“It’s been more work on top of more work for me, personally,” she said on the Monday following the last day for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “I’m trying to get my youngest two children to understand that school is never really over. I’m trying to get them in the process of wanting to learn, and not shut their brain down like, ‘Oh school’s out, and just fun, fun, fun.’”

While she felt good about the work her two older children have done since schools closed March 16, Alhasan worried that Sukania, who just completed kindergarten, and Laylia, second grade, may lose focus over the summer. Whatever school looks like in the fall, she wants to make sure they’re ready. 

“I’m trying to find different ways to get them interested, and to keep learning without them actually thinking that, ‘Oh, I’m actually doing work.’ Making it fun so they’re not so focused on, ‘I’ve got to do more school work? I want to play!’”

So it goes for parents like Alhasan, who in this time of distance learning have truly lived the adage that parents are their children’s first teachers. Having become, in effect, a teacher’s aide working with her children’s actual teachers at Aberdeen School, she is grappling with how much to take her foot off the gas given the uncertainty of what lies ahead for their learning.

“That’s my biggest fear, is my youngest two kids falling behind and getting too comfortable with all this excessive free time,” she said.

Providing Structure at Home  

Alhasan and her husband, Yahia, have enrolled Sukania and Laylia in summer school – also working from home – along with daughter Suhila, an eighth grader at Aberdeen this year who’s moving to Union High School in the fall. Son Karrem will be going into 10th grade at Union. 

Even before the school closure, Keshia was “super-involved in her kids’ learning,” said Principal Jamie Masco. Once the school doors closed, mom’s involvement multiplied using Aberdeen’s online platforms of SeeSaw and Google Classroom, which supported the district’s math and reading programs.

‘Am I willing to sacrifice their life because they want to go to school, be in a school setting? No I’m not.’

– Keshia Alhasan on her four children

Alhasan monitored her children’s daily schedules, making sure they got down to work by 10 a.m., and worked closely with the two youngest on their teacher-supplied lessons completed on district-supplied devices. She also kept in close touch with Masco and the children’s teachers, whose outreach she praised: “It’s like a big family.” 

But she made sure to give them regular breaks, knowing the emotional toll they already were feeling being removed from their teachers and friends. 

“I don’t want to be overbearing or come off as pushy, because they’re already experiencing disruption and I don’t want to add to that,” she said on a Zoom call with the family in late April. 

Older children Suhila and Karrem pretty much worked on their own and kept up with assignments, although not happily.

“It’s hard. I don’t like it,” Suhila said. “You can’t just get up and expect to see your friends and do work together. … I’m lonely. Lonely.”

Missing Out on a Lot 

The isolation of social distancing took its toll on the family. Karrem missed playing baseball and weightlifting at school so took jogs to work it off: “I’m not used to being at home,” he said with a laugh. “I need to move around.”  

Asked about working at home, second grader Laylia said, “Sometimes I like it, but I really don’t like it that much. My hands are starting to hurt,” from being on the computer. “I just miss holding my pencil.” She did enjoy playing with her two cats on breaks, she added.

‘I’m hoping we can go back to how it was, not being on the computer all the time.’

– Suhila Alhasan, incoming ninth grader

Kindergartner Sukania said her school work was “easy” but added, “I miss my friends.”

Their mother worried how much they might be struggling emotionally being away from their school routine.

“It’s a lot they’re missing out on,” she said. “Having to do everything at home is a drastic change for them. I really don’t think they have adjusted to it. I still wake up like, ‘Is this life, really?’ So I know if I’m still feeling like that I’m quite sure they are.”

Hopes, Fears for the Fall   

Now that the school year is over and stay-at-home rules have eased up, the family is getting out of the house more. They take walks, ride bikes, have water balloon fights. Karrem plays basketball with a couple of friends but wears gloves and masks and showers when he comes home. Mom handles all the shopping and doesn’t let the kids go to stores, playing it cautious with the coronavirus.

She continues to work with them on learning new things, from books and beyond. The other night they studied the constellations, looking up at the stars, researching online and reporting what they learned about astronomy and astrology. She has made a science project of their backyard garden, raising vegetables and flowers the girls picked out.

Suhila’s not sure yet what to do over the summer, but she knows where she wants to be, come fall.

“I’m hoping we can go back to how it was, not being on the computer all the time. Being able to socialize,” she said, adding she misses “being able to learn as a whole, and not just (on) a computer. The teacher teaching a whole class.”

Her mother is not so sure, at least not yet.

“Right now I really don’t feel comfortable with that,” she said of sending her children back to school. “This is my children’s life we’re talking about here. Am I willing to sacrifice their life because they want to go to school, be in a school setting? No I’m not.

“I have to really see some results on the virus,” she added, “not just be told a bunch of numbers.” 

Still, she’s seen blessings in her family’s enforced confinement, like baking pies, making doll clothes and crafts, and the kids playing “the dark game” at night and spooking each other.  

“Our life is like forever changed, but to me in a good way because it makes me more cautious. To me what matters most is the togetherness, the family-ness,” she said.

“It’s like God is saying, ‘Sit down, get close to your family, be grateful for the things that you have – even the little things. See how much you took for granted?’”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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