Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Last week, Arlington Public Schools revealed its continuous learning plan for the remainder of the academic year. As with all APS decisions, the plan is controversial and parents have been quick to react with criticism.

I initially approached this week’s column intending to discuss the most contentious aspect of the plan. But no matter what APS does or doesn’t do, parents will continue to criticize and debate. So, upon considering the conversations I’ve had, my own reactions, and comments I’ve heard and read, I decided instead to look for some silver linings.

I am in something akin to a “Twilight Zone” episode wherein I find myself in a (literal) stay-at-home mom role with no idea what day of the week it is, a teen and pre-teen inexplicably unenthused and uncooperative with the thoughtful schedule I’ve outlined, a husband able to escape to an office one full day a week, juggling my own paid and volunteer work while trying to consolidate academic expectations from 14 teachers using Canvas (or not) in 14 ways. Maybe it will all come together in time to return the kids to the classroom into the much more capable hands of their teachers?

Meanwhile, as I ignore sibling exchanges and commentaries in response to my nagging about screen time, daring to suggest the kids fill their time by helping out more around the house, I welcome the diversion of some possible positive outcomes from APS’ distance learning plan:

  • Struggling students have a unique opportunity to significantly improve their year-end grades, possibly boosting their self-confidence and maybe becoming a turning point for some.
  • Most students will enjoy the reprieve from the daily stresses of school and the academic pressures and expectations causing significant anxiety and depression.
  • Many will have time and opportunity to pursue self-selected topics and to learn in ways more suited to them than the structured school day and prescribed assignments.
  • Parents have been inspired to become more involved and actively help other school communities in need.
  • APS and PTAs are coordinating with County efforts to supply and manage food distribution programs.
  • New connections between PTAs are being made. A more substantive PTA partnership program may begin to emerge – partnerships that continue beyond the current crisis at hand and that benefit students academically and socially.
  • Partnerships and collaborations taking place now can create a foundation for a countywide network for providing ongoing services and to respond to future crises more efficiently and effectively – reducing time required to coordinate while people wait for the help they need.
  • The move to “distance learning” and APS’ decision not to introduce new curriculum content highlight the disparities and obstacles that exist in our County and schools. With increased awareness of the severity of disparities and all students being directly impacted by APS decisions based on equity issues, perhaps APS and the County will feel more pressure to solve existing problems and devise more creative and collaborative solutions.
  • APS could consider enrichment options and better use of its tiered system of support instruction to compensate for material missed this year and students being expected to learn more information more quickly next year.
  • APS has renewed reason to evaluate whether its 1:1 digital device initiative is the best model or if there is a more equitable model for designing instruction that better facilitates the allocation of devices and resources, ensures every student has access to a working device at home, and allows students to be taught new material via distance learning when necessary for any reason.
  • Maybe my kids will learn to cook — or at least feed the dog.

It certainly is not all rosy. Many students and families have been forced into situations of heightened stress and dire difficulties. The pandemic, stay-at-home orders, and school closures affect each of us differently and to varying degrees. In no way do I intend to trivialize the impacts on our community or on any individual or household. We all need to endure our own challenges and help those in greater need. Everyone needs a ray of hope, a bit of positive news, a silver lining.

Those who choose to keep their focus on their discontent with APS’ decisions and criticism of the plan they have implemented won’t see any opportunities there might be or that could be created within its framework. There will be plenty of opportunity to critique later. For now, perhaps we can give our trusted and beloved teachers a few weeks to show us what they can do for our children and just maybe exceed the expectations we have been quick to form.  Let’s at least look for a silver lining in this distance learning cloud before rushing to paint our own. But first, give me a minute to feed the dog.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues.  She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and currently serves as president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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