Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called for the closure of schools back in March to help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving kids giddy over an “extended spring break,” as he called it, and the switch to online learning.

Families found light in that they had more time together, parents could see firsthand how their children were learning and students felt they could speed through their coursework, leaving more time for play. These silver linings were not without their challenges, of course, but the focus remained on the brighter side as parents, students and teachers approached the ambiguity of this new digital normal.

As this health crisis bleeds into summer, families and schools alike are faced with challenges new and old as they head into the “summer slide.”

After Gov. DeWine extended the school closures through April, then again through the end of the school year, the crisis at hand feels more real, some parents say.

In the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District, the Times revisited Chantel Michalek of Chagrin Falls and Jessica Allen of South Russell, both moms of three, as they expressed the new challenges their families are combatting, both academically and emotionally.

Finding balance

Mrs. Michalek said there were new challenges as her kids moved past the review work and began tackling new material, but she remains impressed with the district, especially the teachers and their responsiveness.

“Before, I was curious to see how once we moved from the review of material into new material, how that would go,” Mrs. Michalek said. “The teachers have been so responsive. I’m amazed at how available they are to the kids even though it’s just online.”

She said the real challenge was staying focused, mentioning how back in March, her kids had their own workspaces on separate floors of the house.

“Ultimately, those things changed to just wherever they’re willing to work and stay focused,” she said, with distractions waiting around every corner.

She said learning to keep routine has helped with this. After straying from a set schedule, she and her children, Anna, 12, Matthias, 10, and Jacob, 8, have since returned from what she called the “willy nilly.”

Mrs. Michalek said her children have actually adjusted to online learning and are now even requesting online coursework for their summer learning. She explained that her kids have done workbooks in the past over summer breaks to help bridge the gap between the spring and fall semesters.

Mrs. Allen said online learning turned out to be harder than she anticipated but agreed that the district has overall done well given the circumstances.

“I think they’ve made an exceptional effort to make [online learning] as productive and positive and seamless as possible,” she said of the district and teachers. “There are good days and bad days.”

She added that her students’ education has become a bit of a balancing act. “It’s difficult to be home with your kids playing multiple roles; being the parent and the teacher and the entertainer and the chef and the laundress.”

But the situation still has its benefits.

“I really have a better sense than I ever have before of how my children learn, of the types of things they’re learning,” she said. “That’s been wonderful to experience.”

New challenges, she said, are based on the learning styles of her children. Will, 12, is a “traditional learner,” she explained.

“Having this sort of ambiguity of what his day is going to look like is really difficult for him,” she said. His teachers have been responsive to this, though, and he is learning from this experience, she said. “He’s been able to reach out to his teachers. They’ve scheduled special Zoom conversations with him and helped him feel more confident in the learning that he’s doing.”

New atmosphere

After Gov. DeWine closed schools for the remainder of the academic year, both families felt the weight of this change.

“The first 24 hours was pure joy,” Mrs. Allen said of the initial closures back in March, but after Gov. DeWine announced that schools would not reopen for the 2019-20 school year, “reality set in.”

With the rapid adjustments to a new form of learning and reduced opportunities for socialization, the closures are nothing like snow days, she said, adding that her kids are old enough to understand the seriousness of the health crisis surrounding them. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had to parent my way through,” she said.

While there are moments her kids love being able to wrap up in a blanket in the middle of class, as sisters Kate and Emily, both 10, had mentioned, she said, “overall, they’re really missing the socialization.”

She said the hardest part is the uncertainty around the crisis “and the fact that we have more questions than answers.”

Baseline learning expectations are being met for kids and the district is looking out for them socially and emotionally as much as possible, she said, but added she can tell that her kids would rather be in class to be with their friends and teachers.

“At our house, what we focus on is we’re flattening the curve, and that’s what’s going well,” she said. “And as hard as this is for us, there are much, much harder things happening to other families and other children.”

In the Michalek household, the school extended closure news hit Jacob the hardest.

Mrs. Michalek recounted that when she told him of the closure until the end of the year, he threw down his toy, swore and ran into the garage. Despite her shock at his choice of words, she said she gave him space to cool off.

“He came back 5 minutes later and he’s like, ‘I’m really sorry I said that, Mom. I just really miss my friends,’” she recalled his words. With a crack in her voice, she added, “It just made me so sad because as a parent there’s a lot of stuff that we try to make good for our kids and fix, and I can’t fix this one.”

With every opportunity to participate in online meet-ups, Mrs. Michalek said Jacob was there. “Not that it was an option or he was skipping them, but I wasn’t recognizing necessarily how key it was,” she said. Since then, she said she’s worked even harder to keep her kids in touch with their friends.

“I guess my only way as a parent to make this any better is to just recognize when they need their social time with their friends the same way that we do,” she said.

Summer’s nearly here

Mrs. Michalek is counting the days until summer break.

She’s not as worried about the summer slide for her students and is more excited with more freedom to take part in leisure activities.

“If we decide as a family that we want to have a ‘[The] Office’ marathon day and the weather supports that by being not nice outside, we can do that and I won’t feel guilty,” she said. “It’s our vacation time now.”

She is not concerned about loss of knowledge over the summer because her children have responded well to online learning.

Mrs. Allen said that in talks with other parents, the summer slide has come up as a concern. She is looking at ways she can keep her kids engaged, noting that they will be participating in programming with Fairmount Center of the Arts.”

Vacation slide

Superintendent Robert Hunt said the district is in talks to determine possible bridge programs over the summer for students who may be at risk as well as to simply keep kids engaged as the district navigates what he called this “emergency remote learning.”

“We’ve already made the decision we’re going to leave our Chromebooks with our students over the summer, and we’re going to provide a list of quality resources for every grade level that can help prepare students for the upcoming year,” he said. “We’re still tossing around this, ‘How do we reach those at-risk kids and what can we provide them?’ beyond just sitting in front of a computer to help intervene.”

Dr. Hunt said the district is also considering elements of reteaching in the fall. While this is always the case in the fall for schools, he said this might be different and longer due to the health crisis and uncertainty with how the fall semester will look.

“My personal concern is in preparation for the fall, what that’s going to look like and having enough direction from the state of Ohio to make decisions and design the best that we possibly can,” he said. “I’d like to do the best we can because I really appreciate and believe the connection between teacher and students is very important and that we need to provide some supports for our families,” he said. “And a better model is to interact with those kids. I just don’t know what we’re going to be allowed to do.”

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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