RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Since the school year began last fall, we've been checking in with a handful of parents who've been home trying to help their kids navigate virtual learning. It's a series called Learning Curve.
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MARTIN: We should point out, the parents we've talked with on MORNING EDITION in this series have all been women. And that was intentional. We know there are plenty of fathers who have taken the lead with online learning for their kids. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the burden falls overwhelmingly on women in this country. In January, 10 million mothers with school-aged kids weren't working, which is 1.4 million more than the year before. Today, we're going to hear from two of our mothers who also happen to both be public school teachers. Rosie Reid from Walnut Creek, Calif.
Rosie, can you hear me?
ROSIE REID: Yes. I am doing so much better than the last time I talked to you. I have to say...
MARTIN: The other mother is Cassie Piggott from Murfreesboro, Tenn. Cassie actually quit her teaching job last year when it became clear she was going to need to stay home to help her 9-year-old son, Jack (ph). Also, her school district required all teachers to stay in the classroom. So she didn't have a virtual teaching option. The past 12 months have been tough.
CASSIE PIGGOTT: We're just trucking along here.
MARTIN: I know, right?
Cassie's son, Jack, had a bone marrow transplant six years ago. He's doing well now. But his immune system is especially fragile. And even though his school now offers in-person learning, he's had to stay home because it was just too big of a health risk to send him back.
PIGGOTT: You got to take your little test this morning, which one is it? Is it, like, another reading? Or...
JACK: It's science.
PIGGOTT: Oh, OK. What else do we have to get done today?
JACK: I might have a Nearpod today.
PIGGOTT: OK. And SplashLearn, too? OK.
MARTIN: Let me ask specifically about Jack. How's he doing?
PIGGOTT: School is getting hard at this point. I mean, this is going to sound really vain. He's really intelligent. He can do a lot more math than I think he should be able to. Like, it kind of scares me a little bit. So he needs that extra push. But he can't get it. So he gets frustrated. Then there's a big push around here. They are demanding that the kids have their videos on or they're being counted absent. And he is also wanting to control that and have his off. You know, I try to talk to him and make him understand why they're doing it. But he's also 9 years old. And, you know...
MARTIN: Cassie isn't sure when she's going to be comfortable letting Jack return to in-person school. She says vaccination rates would need to go up and community infection rates would need to come down. In the meantime, online school is their only viable option. And she wants school district officials to invest more in that direction because Jack might need to stay remote for a while.
PIGGOTT: The way the schools are doing it is, this is a one-time thing. We don't need to make this better. Let's just get through it rather than thinking that there are some kids that would actually really thrive if we did this well.
OK. You're getting yourself some breakfast? You have some cereal? OK. Well, maybe when you get done with this, you can go ahead and walk Dolly (ph)?
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MARTIN: Rosie Reid, our teacher in California, also thinks that if there's anything good to come from the pandemic, it's that schools might learn how to better accommodate kids who just haven't fit into the traditional school structure.
REID: You know, in my family, I have two trans kids. I have four African American kids. I have three kids with IEPs for special needs. And these are populations of students who have not traditionally been well-served in education. And they have had tremendous stress. And they want to do things in life. But they were feeling held back often in their school setting.
MARTIN: We asked if Rosie would be up for bringing one of her teenagers into our conversation over Zoom.
Do you mind just introducing yourself to me however you want?
ALEX HAGERSTRAND: Yeah. Sure. My name is Alex Hagerstrand (ph). My pronouns are he/they. I am a senior now in high school.
MARTIN: So what was school like in the before times? When you were actually in-person, was it working for you?
HAGERSTRAND: No. I don't really think that public school's kind to trans kids. From about seventh grade, when I came out as an LGBTQ member, all my friends ditched me. And since then, I haven't really had good friends from school.
MARTIN: So when the pandemic happened and everybody was forced to go virtual, what was that like for you?
HAGERSTRAND: I got pretty lucky. I have a really big family and a lot of little siblings that I hang out with every day and go on adventures with and do art projects with, make stories. So I'm not lonely in day to day life. And I also have a friend from church that I call at least once a week.
REID: I would also say that, as a mom here, Alex was showing some warning signs in terms of mental health. I don't know. Like, is that an OK thing to say, like, with school?
REID: And then when school was canceled, it was like this huge sigh of relief. And it almost took a couple of weeks for them to get back to their happy self. And there was this huge transformation. I'm like, oh, it's the old Alex back who's not sad and worried and anxious all the time.
MARTIN: Earlier you heard Alex say they're a senior now. When the pandemic began, they were a sophomore. Over Christmas, their dad, who's also a teacher, realized Alex only needed a few more classes and they could finish high school early.
HAGERSTRAND: And I was like, OK. How do I do that?
HAGERSTRAND: So I am taking independent study, which is wonderful, and then a college course. And with that track, I'm going to have an accelerated path to graduating early.
MARTIN: What are you keen on, Alex? What's your subject of choice?
HAGERSTRAND: Well, I'm really good at English. But I love education.
MARTIN: Both your parents are teachers, right?
HAGERSTRAND: Yeah. I don't know exactly at the moment what I want to do in education. I do love teaching. I think that definitely came from my parents.
MARTIN: I know we try not to project too much on our kids, Rosie, but that has to make you feel good.
REID: Oh, my gosh. It makes me feel so good.
MARTIN: So Rosie, from your perspective, has it been hard to observe as Alex kind of stepped off this traditional education path?
REID: It has been wonderful for me to watch Alex really find their mental health again and to watch them navigate and to have those ahas - it doesn't have to be like this. I can find a different way. It's really been incredibly exciting for me as a mom.
MARTIN: And meanwhile, you are still out there doing the work as a public school teacher.
REID: I am out here. And I will be in public schools. And I love teaching. And I know that this setting is not for every kid. And we need to keep working to make this setting better for every kid. And that's what I'm doing every day.
MARTIN: Rosie says it's still not clear when she and the other teachers in her district will go back to in-person learning. But she'll be ready when it happens. Although, she has no idea how many of her students will actually show up.
REID: I have so many kids I have never seen them or heard their voice. I just see a black square in a Zoom screen.
REID: They don't engage at all. They log in every day. And they never talk. And they never use the chat. Some of those students do turn in some work. Some of those students don't. They're getting their attendance. They logged in. And some don't.
MARTIN: Are those kids coming back to in-person?
REID: So my concern is the kids who have truly not engaged at all.
REID: The kids who have engaged a little bit, I think we'll get them back, right? This has just been a hard setup for them. But the kids who have not engaged at all, those are the ones I worry about being like my kids and just saying, hey, this school stuff is not for me. I'm out of here.
MARTIN: And that's working for your children. But you're concerned that it might not work for those other kids?
REID: I think it could be a viable option for other kids. In my family, we had two teachers showing them all these different ways that they could...
REID: ...Do those things that they wanted to do and be happy.
MARTIN: When you and I last spoke, you told me that there was a possibility that you could leave teaching, go into a different kind of administrative role, leadership role, working in education still. But you were considering leaving the classroom.
REID: I'm not anymore. I have friends who are. But I am not. And it's been so interesting how this has been so hard. So many of my students have had such a hard experience. And yet the connections I've made with many of them, even through Zoom, have really sustained me and just reminded me why I love this work.
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MARTIN: The pandemic has had the same effect on Cassie Piggott.
What about you? You stopped teaching this year...
MARTIN: ...So you could be home with Jack.
MARTIN: Are you optimistic that you will go back? Do you want to go back into the classroom?
PIGGOTT: I do. I miss it so, so much. Like, I have dreams about it, like, being in my classroom and sitting behind my desk, very specifically. There's a certain smell in schools. Like, even in high schools, it smells like disinfectant...
PIGGOTT: ...And kind of dusty. It's weird (laughter).
MARTIN: Yeah. And you can conjure that in your dream?
PIGGOTT: Yes. It's weird. Like, I wake up - because I love teaching. And I know, like, it sounds corny to say it's like my calling, but it is. Like, I enjoy being around these kids. I feel like I was a person who could help them change their own lives. Seriously, like, you - like, these kids, they don't need people to be pointing fingers and stuff at them, they need somebody to hold their hand and be like, look; this is the direction you want to go. Let me help you get there.
MARTIN: Both Cassie Piggott and Rosie Reid have had to deal with self-doubt from time to time. Did they steer their kids in the right direction? Have they pushed them too hard or, maybe, not enough? Rosie has had those questions about her students, too.
REID: Did I get this right? And I'm not talking technically. Did I get this right in terms of my approach to my students? - because this has required so much grace and flexibility with kids. And I also worry sometimes that I've actually gone past that and enabled students to not do work. And so as we think, how do we come through this and create that space where we're finding that balance of grace and flexibility and accountability? And then learn, what does that look like? And then take that with us into the future because I don't know if I've got it right at this point. But I want to keep learning about that.
MARTIN: A year into this pandemic, the biggest lesson for teachers, students and parents is how to keep releasing expectations and then adapt.
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