In the minutes leading up to another day of classes, twin brothers Rowan and Wyatt Lovato were both on the floor.
It was week three of virtual learning, and Friday at last. The boys, 7-year-old second-graders at Riverview Elementary School, were each getting one last stretch in before the final hurdles of the week. Jill Lovato, the boys’ mother, was working. Their tutor, Cheryl Davey, was helping Wyatt gear up for the day.
Digital learning has been tough on this family of three.
Lovato can’t take time off from work to help her sons. Wyatt has cerebral palsy and has had limited access to the physical and occupational therapy he needs. Rowan is easily frustrated, prone to tantrums and tears when class is tough. Lovato hired Davey to help the boys while she’s working.
Their struggles illustrate the difficult situations families face in navigating virtual learning. Most Clark County students won’t step into a classroom until at least late October, assuming coronavirus transmission rates begin to dip.
“There’s no real solution,” Lovato said.
‘Hard for everybody’
At 9:30 a.m., both Wyatt and Lovato were sitting at their Google Chromebooks. Lovato has prepared a room in their east Vancouver home as a sort of de facto classroom. One wall is painted with chalkboard paint. Davey has written the date, tips for the boys’ lessons and Wyatt’s favorite feature, the joke of the day.
“What do you call a pig that does karate?” Wyatt read. “A pork chop!”
Lovato works in marketing and communication for a tech company. When it became clear she’d need to keep the boys home in the fall, she put out an ask on Facebook for a tutor who could work with them and make sure they were able to access the material.
That’s come with its own guilt, however. She was criticized for taking advantage of her privilege, of using a service not all families can afford to help her boys get ahead. Education researchers and advocates have pointed to these arrangements as exacerbating the gaps between the children of poor and affluent families.
But Lovato, a single mother, said she didn’t have a choice.
“I could not do this,” Lovato said. “If mom doesn’t work, we don’t eat.”
Davey has been teaching for 25 years, much of it as a substitute teacher at Riverview Elementary School. She taught both Wyatt and Rowan there, so she knew the boys and their unique needs.
When schools announced a return to remote learning for the fall, her journey mirrored Lovato’s. She put out an announcement on Facebook that she was looking to help a family, providing tutoring services for children in need.
“This is so hard for everybody,” Davey said.
The boys are in two different classes, but their schedules are the same. The morning is dedicated to reading and writing, the afternoon to math. Teachers have built breaks into their classes, helping to lead the students through guided breathing activities or discuss their feelings.
“I think if the smoke stops, we might go get my glasses adjusted,” Wyatt announced when asked about his weekend plans.
“I’m thinking of cats,” Rowan told his classmates about a recent “Pete the Cat” book he read. “It’s interesting to me.”
All the while, Davey observed, guiding the boys when they needed help and encouraging them to share with their classmates.
“I get to hold them accountable,” she said.
When the first Zoom lesson of the day is done, the boys are ready to split. Rowan hurtles downstairs for a play break, while Wyatt makes his way more slowly, stretching his braced legs down each step.
“That’s not all I can do,” said Wyatt, a note of pride in his voice.
Sandwiched between two Zoom lessons is an extended period of time for independent work and lunch. Davey gives the boys a short break, then it’s back to the Chromebook and its myriad learning applications. Open one application, Google Classroom, then watch an instructional video, complete the assignment on paper, open another app called Seesaw, take a photo, record audio reading the material out loud, then it’s back to Google Classroom.
“They wouldn’t sit down and get their computers out without me,” Davey said.
Then there are those other needs that are more difficult to replicate virtually. Wyatt needs physical and occupational therapy, which Lovato says is nearly impossible in distance learning.
Davey isn’t a special education expert, but she’s been able to help him with his stretches and get him walking on a treadmill for part of the day. Wyatt started some services on campus this week.
He’s also visually impaired, and needs Davey on hand to find the correct icons and applications on his small screen.
Rowan is easily frustrated and needs encouragement. He struggled to write sentences about a book his teacher had read in class, and needed to walk away for a while.
“I’m in their safe space,” Davey said. “I have to allow for a lot of flexibility. I have to give a lot of grace.”
One more class
At lunch time, Davey brings a set of Story Cubes. The game features a series of dice with small pictures on them, prompting the boys to tell short stories inspired by the images.
“Then what happened, Wyatt?” Rowan asked his brother, pushing him to continue the story he was telling about a fairy.
“Then a kid named Nick,” Wyatt started.
“There are no kids here,” Rowan interrupted, gesturing at the dice.
The boys are glad to have each other — usually. If they can’t be with their friends and classmates, at least they can be together.
“After all, he is my best friend,” Wyatt said.
It’s not always so rosy. Rowan’s teacher spent the last few minutes of her class taking her students on a virtual field trip: videos of roller coasters at Disney World. Wyatt, curious, poked his head into the video. Rowan, however, didn’t want to share and snapped at his brother.
The last hour of the day is hard enough. Wyatt and Davey have an understanding with his teacher. His cerebral palsy can make it difficult to sit and focus for an extended period, so Davey will log him out if he needs to cut class short.
Wyatt didn’t make it, but he got close.
“Are you done?” Davey asked with eight minutes left to go in the day after watching Wyatt squirm for an hour.
“Yeah,” he answered.
He and Davey logged out of Zoom and headed downstairs. Rowan, meanwhile, sat quietly, focused on his imaginary escape.