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The lessons we’ve learned: patience, grace, subtraction …

Reflections on a year of pandemic learning

By Morgan Jarema, Erin Albanese, Beth Heinen Bell, Alexis Stark

Editor’s note: It’s been one year since Michigan schools closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The stories of parents, teachers, students and administrators are both universal and personal. This week, School News Network interviews them about how the year has impacted their lives. This is the second of a three-part story.

The Nkugba Family
Forest Hills Public Schools

Ebiri Nkugba, a charter jet pilot, and his wife, Alicia, have three children: eighth-grader Zion and second-grader Shiloh, who are virtual learners this school year, and Maya, who is 3. Zion spoke with SNN in the fall, and he was struggling with technology-based learning and the workload. 

‘There has been no space (or) grace in our education or jobs for the mental health assault (of) living with this fear; that this virus could hurt you, your family, friends.’

— Alicia Nkugba, mother of three Forest Hills Public Schools students

The family’s biggest challenge: that “overwhelmed” has become default mode. A year into the pandemic, the whole family is feeling the unrelenting stress of doing school at home. Alicia said she understands that schools and teachers also are under tremendous stress to maintain education standards.

Zion: “So many classes, so much homework. When you finish something and finally get a chance to breathe, along comes something else and your parents remind you constantly that things are overdue and need to get done. I miss being able to walk up to my teachers to ask for help instead of waiting for an email back.”

Shiloh: “The teachers are asking too much of us. They give us the littlest amount of time.”

Alicia wears many hats — mom, cook, cleaner, organizer of assignments, technology trouble-shooter, hugger-in-chief — when Ebiri must be away working at a job that puts him at risk for contracting COVID again (he already had it once).

“There has been no space (or) grace in our education or jobs for the mental health assault (of) living with this fear; that this virus could hurt you, your family, friends and even grasping the wider global death toll,” she said. “If the authorities in our lives won’t give us space, give our children space, then how do we? How do they?”

The biggest lesson they’ve learned this past year:

Shiloh: “Probably subtracting. And that my dad can sometimes get angry when we watch cartoons when it’s a school day. And I feel like when COVID was first going to start I thought it wouldn’t be that bad, and now I feel like the wrongest person on Earth right now.”

Alicia: “To give each other that space and let us just be when we need to be alone. And I never realized how much patience I still needed to learn. I feel like I overcame multiple challenges and obstacles, then COVID happened. And the constantly adapting. … it got really difficult to find that grace for myself. It’s like, where do I find that?”

What they are looking forward to:

Shiloh: “I’m so glad we’re getting closer to summer. I miss my friends, and being able to learn without just typing in these numbers and clicking on these links, and I’m just plain tired of looking at a screen.”

Zion: Returning to in-person learning and regularly seeing friends. “I never realized how much I miss school until I haven’t been able to go.”

Alicia: “The kids being outside more.” And that being able to have more options for things to do safely as a family may be on the horizon.

‘I feel like when COVID was first going to start I thought it wouldn’t be that bad, and now I feel like the wrongest person on Earth right now.’

— Shiloh Nkugba, Forest Hills Public Schools second-grader
Godfrey-Lee second grade virtual teacher Lindsay Blume has found inspiration in seeing her students help each other, even online

Lindsay Blume
Second-grade virtual teacher
Godfrey Lee Public Schools

What have you learned about being a teacher, especially a remote teacher, in the past year?

I have learned that kids are resilient and that adults can learn a lot from how kids handle stressful situations. I have learned to digitize and teach curriculum in creative ways. I have had to set aside a lot of the tools that I would usually use in teaching and pick up new ones. I have also learned that kids can do amazing things if we give them the chance.

What have been the biggest challenges related to school in the past 12 months?

The biggest challenge has been forming relationships with my students. It takes so much more work to get to know them through a screen. I am missing out on the little conversations that happen through an in-person school day and trading it for squares on a screen. I have had to purposefully build relationship-forming activities into my school day in order to create community within my class. 

It has also been a challenge to have kids focusing on schoolwork when they are in their own homes. They are not used to learning while their baby brother is crying or their mom is vacuuming … but they are doing their best.

What have you found inspiring or interesting through all these changes?

I have found it so inspiring how my students still find ways to help each other. For example, if a student is having trouble logging in to a website, another student will jump in without being asked and walk them through it. They will even encourage one another to share their screen so we can all see and help. They don’t let anyone who wants help go without it. It is amazing how they can be so helpful and caring, even through the screen. 

I have also found it inspiring how much work the parents are putting in to keep their children safe. So many parents chose virtual school for safety and health reasons, which has meant that many parents have had to put careers on hold, time spent with younger siblings on hold, and other major sacrifices.

‘We are going to get through this and you have to push through. This is just a hard time and everybody’s going through this, so you have to try your best no matter what’.

–Abby Kramer, Wyoming Public Schools ninth-grader
Wyoming Junior High School student Abby Kramer said she learned she learns best in person

Abby Kramer
Ninth-grader, attending in person
Wyoming Junior High School

What have you learned about being a student in the past year due to the pandemic?

I’ve learned that most of my motivation comes from people at school, rather than coming from myself. I found my motivation was going down a lot during the pandemic when it came to getting my work done, turning it in and all that.

What have been the biggest challenges?

(When she was remote): If I had a problem in math or something it would be a lot harder to get help from teachers than it would be to just raise my hand and ask. Just how to do certain things online made it harder and the directions were not clear and I did something completely wrong and I couldn’t redo it.

What have you found inspiring?

Thinking about the future. We are going to get through this and you have to push through. This is just a hard time and everybody’s going through this, so you have to try your best no matter what.

Patience is a virtue Tyler Smith, a Kenowa Hills mother of two, has used during the pandemic

Tyler Smith
Mother of two
Kenowa Hills Public Schools

What have you learned about being a parent in the past year due to the pandemic?

The pandemic has taught me the importance of having patience. As a mother, I’m used to the house being a little chaotic at times. However, with the kids being in school or playing outside, this mama loved having time to get things done in the home while they were out. COVID not only changed the dynamics in the home, but everyday life. 

Without patience, I could have easily fallen into a depression. Instead, I utilized the time to get closer to my kids, as well as listen and be there for the concerns about what was going on. As a mother, I learned that we have to be strong and be the person the house needs to keep the peace.

What have been the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges I had to face was virtual learning. It wasn’t easy getting my children accustomed to being at home and having classes and lessons to finish. They would often see it as free time.

Another was keeping my children’s spirits up, particularly my daughter. Getting her to understand that there was a pandemic going on and that she wouldn’t see her friends for a while made her down and a little depressed.

What have you found inspiring?

What’s been inspiring throughout this whole ordeal is seeing our community come together to support each other. There were plenty of food drives to help those in need. Also, all of the essential and non-essential workers risking their lives for those who were in need.

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