And I’m Crying Now

Got an e-mail from the Dublin WorldCon of last year, a totally routine sort of thing, updates and reminders to vote on future WorldCons, etc., and I’m crying now.

It is NOT IMPORTANT given everything else, but I was supposed to be heading to New Zealand with Jed Hartman next week for this year’s WorldCon, and I really really really love travel, and this is hard.

Roshani asked me what I was doing for my birthday on Sunday, and I didn’t know what to answer. What I want to do is get on a plane and go somewhere strange and new.

I might take the family camping. But I like camping and they’re not so sure, so it might end up a lot of mama-work with a bunch of complaining on the other end, which doesn’t sound very birthday-ish.

If you know of a very socially distanced B&B or Air B&B or some such, with water where we can kayak, recommendations would be welcome. Within 4-hr drive of Oak Park. Ideally available one of the next three weekends, or during the week of August 9th, when I’m going to try to give myself a break from work for a few days.

Major Negotiations

Cut-and-pasted from a local mom group: “This week the US House and Senate will be in major negotiations about the next phase of COVID relief, and stuff on the table includes funding for school COVID safety expenses, continuing the unemployment insurance expansion (currently due to expire 7/31), increasing food assistance, and expanding some tax credits that particularly help lower income families with kids.

So if this is stuff you’re worried about, call Congress now (they have another break coming up and of course it’s an election year so there’s pressure to get this done fast). Tell your friends and families.”

Rough Day

Rough day yesterday. The altercation with the park district guy was pretty upsetting — I generally prefer to follow the rules unless I have a very good reason to break them (in D&D terms, while I’m chaotic good at heart, I’m happy to play lawful good most of the time). So being in conflict with an officer was stressful. And even after I got home and told Kevin about it all (which did help), I was still sort of thrown.

ALSO, I had an oar issue (complicated to explain) which meant that I ended up having just a half-oar to use instead of a full one, which is do-able (honestly, you can even just paddle a kayak with your hands in the water on a lake that placid, and you’ll get where you’re going eventually), but tiring and made my back ache a bit.

So I dunno — all of that together + pandemic exhaustion and frustration just got to me yesterday. I hit a wall of “don’t wanna,” and to be fair, I did actually work most of Saturday and Sunday, so it’s maybe not surprising that I couldn’t make myself work anymore yesterday.

I can tell I wasn’t in a good headspace, though, because I ate so much junk food! Half a large bag of M&Ms (what would normally be three servings for me), then later in the day a big bowl of chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and brandied cherries, and I think I had a few random slices of buttered toast I just threw in between meals. I was mad at the universe, and stuffed myself with food in consolation. Okay, I also did a bunch of kayaking that morning, so maybe I needed some extra calories too. But I was definitely wanting chocolate and butter, rather than oh, a nice protein-filled snack. Ah well.

Pandemic mind is tough. The first two months, I was very easy on myself, very stressed and panicky and just trying to get through the days. So much ice cream back then, and so little productive work.

I mean, I was drowning in work, between helping with the mutual aid project and getting my classes online and cancelling book tour and learning how to sew masks and making teaching videos and sewing hundreds of masks to donate and to sell — but it was a lot of spinning my wheels too, somehow.

Somewhere around month three (mid-May or so), I managed to take myself in hand. The semester ended, thank god, and I settled down to a more productive summer work schedule. Started exercising regularly, started eating better, started taking care of the garden and the house, and with Kevin’s help, getting the kids to do the same.

And that feels good, all of it — my body feels better, I can see that books are going out the door, that people want to book me for virtual events, that the house is cleaner and more organized and the plants aren’t dying from neglect. The kids are moving more, playing badminton in the backyard, going for exercise walks with me. All good.

But it’s harder than in normal time. Just reading the news, just tracking the progress of coronavirus alone, is deeply distressing. There are days when trying to keep up good work habits and life habits feels like wading through mud.

And I am in such a privileged spot, relatively speaking — we have a big house and garden and plenty of food and job security and all our relatives are healthy so far. If it’s hard for me, it must be damn near impossible for so many. And that’s just heartbreaking. I can’t think about it too much, or I’ll grind to a halt again, and likely end up eating my own body weight in ice cream.

But I have to think about it sometimes too, because how can we not? All around me, people are struggling, trying to figure out how to manage the fall without schools, or with school they’re not sure they should send their kids to. Trying to find jobs, trying to find food. It’s just hard, so hard.

This is a quiet apocalypse, but sometimes, I just have to stop and acknowledge that that’s what this is. An apocalypse. For America, at least — I know some countries are doing so much better than we are. But here in America, it was a terrible spring, a rough summer, and we’re going into what will likely be a brutal autumn and winter.

Kavi and I were talking yesterday and she said, “If I live to have kids, I’ll be able to tell them that I survived a global pandemic.” Oh, my heart. Wear your mask, dearest, because if anything happens to you, it will break me.

We’ve started setting up cautious masked, socially-distanced playdates with a few of their friends (all families that have been similarly locked down to us), and it’s all sort of awful, but better than five months of isolation. Naimah and Olivia will come over today. Naimah and Kavi are 13, and should be able to manage their own masked and socially distanced socializing (Kavi went to the forest with Emma on Sunday for three hours), but Anand and Olivia may need a little help.

We’ll try to figure out how to do this socially distanced thing with 10-year-olds. I’ve set up a 6′ table with Legos on the front porch, with chairs on either end, and Anand and Olivia can take frisbees to the park, and they can play video games together on their separate tablets. Maybe Minecraft will save us.

We’re all getting so lonely, I think; some days I’m rather desperate for the presence of a friend. We’re also living with quiet fear thrumming constantly, a river running right below the surface. And we’re constantly having to make choices about what’s the right thing to do, with too little clear information or direction. It’s exhausting.

Pandemic fatigue is real. All I can do is make the best decisions for me and my family and my community that I can, in the moment. I’ll work hard while I can, for myself and everyone else. And I’ll try to be kind to myself on the days when it all overwhelms me.

An E-mail from Tulane

An e-mail that Tulane sent out to its entire student body. For context, Tulane is in New Orleans, and I’ll note that even all the way back in April, one of my Black students had already lost 4 relatives in New Orleans to Covid-19. Please keep the racial demographics in mind as you read this letter. Tulane’s students are 71% white. New Orleans is 60% Black.

*****

“Dear Student,

Over the weekend, in spite of our pleas to the contrary, many of our students living in New Orleans chose to have parties and large gatherings where social distancing wasn’t being practiced and face masks weren’t being worn. They then saw fit to post this all-over social media. This comes on the heels of national news attention about super spreader events. These events were disruptive to our neighbors and drew a lot of very negative attention to Tulane. The behaviors of the student hosts and those who chose to attend these parties was disrespectful, selfish and dangerous and not in line with Tulane values. This type of behavior is indefensible and truly shameful.

For those of you who are returning students, as you know, we are incredibly lucky that Tulane is in a city that is unlike any in the country, a city where culture and community matter and one that honors difference. After an initial surge of infections, the citizens of New Orleans came together to flatten the curve of this pandemic and reduce infections to a rate that allowed for our city to begin reopening. The actions of the individuals over the weekend were very publicly disrespectful to the Tulane University community and to the people of New Orleans, and have the potential to undermine our significant progress against this deadly disease.

The calculation is simple – If you want to have a residential experience at Tulane in the fall, you have to behave differently. This means, no large gatherings (+15 people), and at all times wearing masks in public spaces, practicing social distancing and washing your hands. We are finishing our complete enforcement plan for the fall, but it is clear that this message had to be delivered immediately. DO NOT HOST PARTIES OR GATHERINGS WITH MORE THAN 15 PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE HOST. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL FACE SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION FROM THE UNIVERSITY. All gatherings, of any size, must observe appropriate social distancing and attendees should wear masks. There is no room for error here. People’s lives depend on your adherence to these rules. They aren’t just nameless, faceless people – they are our people.

So please, make decisions with this in mind. We understand that it requires a different way of thinking about and approaching life – but we believe our students are conscientious enough and mature enough to adhere to the public health expectations of Tulane and the City of New Orleans. If we didn’t, we would not be reopening. We need everyone’s help to have a safe fall. Hold your friends and peers accountable and reach out when you need help with that. You can report problematic behavior by using our online report system. These reports are received in real time. You can also call the Tulane University Police at 504-865-5381.
Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?

Erica Woodley
Dean of Students”

Going Remote

I just wanted to note for Americans that even if your school / university is currently telling you that it plans to be somewhat in-person in the fall, I think it EXTREMELY LIKELY that they will go to full remote either before school starts, or partway through the semester, once a classroom outbreak occurs. I’ve been talking to various colleagues in education and healthcare all week about this, and they concur.

Please make your plans and back-up plans accordingly.

Thoughts from an Instructional Designer

So grateful my instructional designer friend Amanda Chablani took the time to write this guidance up for those of us looking at fall semester — parents, teachers, students:

******

“I’m an Instructional Designer in my professional life and a parent to two kids in D97 (one rising K, one rising 4th). I was asked by Carollina Song to put together some notes for parents to consider while we’re all discussing the plan for hybrid instruction in the Fall. I’ll do what I can. Please note, I’ve focused my work on adult learning and mostly in higher education. I do think some things are generalizable but, more importantly, we have a lot of teachers in this group who can speak to the issues that are K-12 (and grade level) specific. Teachers, please weigh in! You know what’s possible and you know our kids.

The first thing I think parents should know is that I work with instructors for at least 3 months, more often 6, and sometimes up to a year in advance of a new course going online. I provide the instructor with a course template, I explain and support the technology, and I walk them through best-practices several times. I build the content into the platform (so Canvas or Google Classroom in D97) for them because they don’t have the tech background.
None of that support is being provided to teachers right now. Much of it should be, or at the very least, they should be fully trained so they can do what teachers do best – figure it out 

(With that said, I don’t know how much teachers can be asked to do over their summer according to their contract. I am absolutely sure teachers are trying to learn what they can, but the district may not be able to mandate 40 hours of training in July.)

Short recorded modules of 5-minutes or less can be used effectively to deliver specific lessons. Teachers will need some technology support (mic/headset, computers with cameras, and, most importantly, the lecture capture platform).

– This type of recording can be super time consuming. I’ve had instructors complain it takes 4 hours to record 5 minutes of content. That seems excessive, but let’s be honest, a lot of educators don’t want to produce less-than-perfect recordings. Keep in mind, too, that Khan academy does this type of thing very well as does Zern and other vendors that the district already uses. These external tools do not increase instructor presence in the same way that a teacher-recorded video does. They do provide students with very effective modular (and Common Core aligned) online learning.

An important element of an online or hybrid course is interactivity, and this is something parents had serious complaints about in Spring. All courses should offer opportunities for students to interact with each other and with their instructor. With that said, not all interaction should be synchronous. Live Zoom calls make for exceedingly poor instruction for so many reasons. Many students cannot comfortably or effectively participate in live discussion (this is true in classrooms, too, which is why teachers use so many other face-to-face techniques). Live synchronous online sessions can effectively be used for questions/answers, check-ins, office hours, small group discussions. Students tend to tune out during online lectures and presentations. The average attention span for online delivery was traditionally estimated to be 10-15 minutes. Research suggests it is more likely 3-4 minutes.

Engagement in synchronous classes can be increased with the use of breakout rooms and polls, but at that point, facilitation by a teacher becomes far more difficult and, again, teachers will need tech training to use these more advanced tools. A lot of the security problems occur in breakout rooms and shared documents, too.

Also – Offer students the opportunity to respond to their teacher or another student in a discussion forum, a chat room, or to collaborate with classmates on a paper or project. (Obviously this isn’t going to work for the K-2 set, but perhaps teachers can weigh in on shared drawing apps or other tools that build community online with the littles.)
I’ve seen teachers make recordings to give feedback. “You all did this thing great but here’s something a lot of you missed that I want to discuss”. Those more casual recordings can be both useful and will bring teachers into contact with students in a low bandwidth way. Reflecting on assessments is also a great practice for students, generally. Allowing students to retake a quiz after listening to feedback or discussing model answers with teachers – that’s a gold standard. Most online quizzing tools allow for retakes any specified number of times.

Teachers should focus on clarity. What is lost from classroom learning is the ability for teachers to physically see if the students understand instructions. Making sure that instructions are extremely concise (not a lengthy email; no one reads their emails anymore) in an accessible place, where students can view the instructions repeatedly while completing the work.

Each lesson should be outlined in a straightforward and familiar way. A daily bullet list works! Then, give each lesson’s objective (After you complete this lesson, you should be able to articulate why, compare how, explain who) the activity (read this account) and the assignment (answer these questions/write a response to). Students often benefit from knowing how the assignment meets the objective – reiterating why they’re doing this can be helpful.

It should be mentioned that hybrid is often considered the hardest mode to teach. Figuring out what content to do in-person and what to do online is really tough. Scaffolding learning across multiple modalities is challenging and can take years to perfect. Most often, instructors use the flipped classroom model which works pretty well (again, we use Zearn this way in the district). A flipped model allows teachers to use the online instruction for the codified materials and the face-to-face instruction for active learning.

However, what we’re doing in the Fall is not that. We’re doing something called hyflex. Teachers will have to teach one group of students who are at home but will be in the room later in the week, another group who are in the classroom but will be at home later in the week, AND some students who are choosing entirely online. This is new, pretty much untested, and certainly not great. There is no real literature we can go to what works best with this setup and so we’re borrowing from what we know about hybrid and online and sort of mushing it together and crossing our fingers. But, because of the whole global pandemic thing, this is the plan for a lot of universities and districts.

And finally, I realize that none of this addresses the child care needs of working parents. I think it is vitally important for us to decouple education from child care and then work as a nation to find workable and safe solutions to both.

Same info in a doc file, with some useful links embedded:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sS3O8BLVXvuvn5ELV5bGPOpFbfeeM4Np9sdkQYI0s0M/edit?usp=sharing

On Reopening Schools

Parents are in ongoing discussions here about whether our schools should re-open in the fall.

(Current estimated cost for reopening D97 is $11.5 million.
If schools don’t try to re-open, and we redirect even some of that money towards supplemental childcare through the Park District, addressing tech inequities for kids in need, and hiring additional teacher’s aides (lots of college students at home right now) to be Zoom support for students, might that be a better option for targeting the actual needs of the community, and keeping us all safer and healthier at the same time?)

*****

I pulled some stats for a local discussion thread, because people were asking why River Forest was planning to re-open elementary and we weren’t.

My understanding is that River Forest D90 (which only has 1/2 day kindergarten and goes only to 4th grade, not 5th, like ours) has been sitting on a very large fund balance for some time.

They also have a very different density than Oak Park — about 50% of Oak Park is in multi-unit housing. So our schools contend with very different issues; it’s really not useful to try to compare the two districts, I think.

River Forest:
• 2.5 square miles, about 11,200 people.

Oak Park:
• 4.7 square miles, about 52,000 people (we are packed MUCH more densely here)

*****

We also have a lot more kids in the schools who need services for needs which arise out of poverty. Kids who are hungry and need breakfast and lunch, kids without tech access at home who need loaner devices and WiFi hotspots, etc.

River Forest:
• As of the 2010 census, the median income for a household in the village was $122,854, and the median income for a family was $171,100.
• About 3.4% of families and 5.9% of the population were below the poverty line.

Oak Park:
• The estimated median annual income for a household in the village was $78,384, and the median income for a family was $105,217. (Our families are significantly less wealthy / household than in River Forest.)
• About 5.9% of families and 8.7% of the population were below the poverty line. (Close to twice as much of our population is living in poverty.)

*****

I gather that River Forest also has a higher percentage of stay-at-home and part-time work-from-home moms, which is probably why they haven’t been able to manage full-day kindergarten yet — not enough demand to make them spend the money.

River Forest:
Males working full-time had a median income of $124,695 versus $64,250 for females.

Oak Park:
Male full-time workers had a median income of $77,760 versus $58,653 for females.

*****
One last stat — in Oak Park, 9.0% of those under age 18 are living in poverty. That’s close to 1 in 10 of our kids in the schools.

C/P from a Chicago Parent

C/P from a Chicago parent. (But I’ll note that all the way back in April, I had one Black student who had already lost four relatives to Covid-19.)

**********

“Reasonable people can disagree on the risk/benefit of re-opening schools. But just do me one favor please: don’t claim you’re advocating re-opening for the benefit of low-income children of color, unless you’re willing to face head-on the crowded conditions and lack of resources (including soap!) already in these inner city public schools, the healthcare infrastructure already overloaded with COVID cases, and the appalling COVID death rates already in Communities of Color.

This isn’t about some abstract, ideal scenario under which we’ve suddenly reduced class sizes and adequately resourced the schools. This isn’t about fantasy scenarios where we create satellite pods in vacant buildings. None of that is happening. Nowhere that I know of has there been the influx of resources needed to actually do this safely. This isn’t about hypotheticals. This is about how COVID will spread in the schools as they actually exist right now. And the prospects are terrifying.”