My Daughter's First Day Of Not Going To School

School is a screen for children like mine. For others it's a wall

My daughter started school today, in the TV room. The dog was there, trying to eat her crayons. I was there, fending off the dog and working the mute button. When a pandemic goes endemic, this is what academics looks like. A five-year-old spends her first day of school not going to school at all.

It's bad... but it's not all bad. It's definitely not good.


The bad is that virtual school is not school. You can't just drop the kids off and trust that they'll take it from there. They can't just sit down, listen, and get herded to the next class. These operations are all buttons now, which a small child cannot operate.

Virtual school is not especially virtual either. Theoretically the whole thing could be a video game, you could have class in Fortnite, but instead we're using boring-ass office meeting software. It's all work and no play.

The result is the worst of both worlds, an experience which is neither a good simulation nor an escape. It's neither here nor there. The child is in the TV room without watching TV. They're in the classroom without being in class. It's hard.

It's also hard on the parents. One of Luna's classmates was calling in from a car. All the parents have three different logins. We have to be muting, unmuting, holding up work to a screen. The child suddenly needs their own computer (or smartphone) for at least half a day. And that's per child. This all costs money. This all takes time. Many families are just left behind.

It's also hard on the teachers, and the entire school. Beyond trying to keep the attention of children, they suddenly have to work with all of this new infrastructure they don't understand. They have to figure out (and pay for) Microsoft Teams and Zoom and are suddenly responsible for tech support. Many schools simply do no have this capacity. So entire schools are left behind as well.

It's bad. But it's not all bad.

Not All Bad

If you think of school as preparation for work (which it shouldn't be) this new experience is actually quite relevant. Luna is on Microsoft Teams now, learning the same technology as many corporations. Her account is right next to the one I use for board meetings. Computer skills is not a separate class anymore. It is the classroom.

What you learn in school is really those soft-skills, and these kids are learning software. Her homework was to sort shapes, but what she really learned was how to drag-and-drop on PowerPoint. She sucked at it but I went to make some food and she suddenly learned it fast. She's learning about menus and drop-downs, and how to type and she's learning it all passively now. The technology often makes it hard to learn basic lessons, but that difficulty means that you're learning the technology well.

You can see the school itself adapting and learning as well. Curriculums and methods that would otherwise change slowly are forced to change right now. Digitization which was happening on the periphery has now become the main event. Even when the pandemic ends (by becoming endemic), these changes will remain. For better and worse, this disaster has accelerated school technology many years into the future. So fast, in fact, that it has left many children behind.

People like me have it easy. Our kids are in a private school and we have both money and time. We have a dedicated computer for our kids. The electricity bill is paid, the internet is paid, we own our own house. Privilege always makes a difference in education, but this is different. Before you just had to get your kid cleaned up and into class. From that point they were theoretically equal, at least in terms of that basic level of access. Not anymore.

Not Good

Now that the classroom is in the home, it really makes you question the idea of education as social mobility. Mobility where? The kids are literally in their own houses. The classroom facilities are their own facilities. Where's the mobility in that?

It also makes you question the idea of kids exceeding their parents. Exceed how? The kids are literally on their parents computer (if they have one) and dependent on the parents digital skills to even get them logged on.

In many questions it's really not about digitization at all. It's about money. Does money get you access to better education? Yes. Digital tools are just how. It could be private tutors or DVDs. The technology is really a bright, shiny distraction on problems of fundamental inequality. If you have time ($$$$), a computer ($$$), internet ($$), electricity ($) can you get a pandemic-resistant education? Yes. Is this a good education system? No.

If the classroom becomes the home, then your home's facilities become the classroom facilities. Suddenly if you're homeless or poor or your parents are just busy, you're starting from a real disadvantage. Education has always been unequal, but kids could at least get a physical foot in the door. Now a literal screen has gone up. For our daughter it's big TV screen with a parent guiding her. For too many children, however, it's just a wall.