Distance learning a challenge at times as family weighs children’s health in making school decisions

Distance learning a challenge at times as family weighs children's health in making school decisions

It made the decision for them, one that she and her husband, Matthew, had been considering already. The increased spread of the coronavirus in the community had increased their concern about the safety of their family.

Aside from adopting the dog they were fostering, decisions during the coronavirus pandemic haven’t been easy for the Van Horne family.

Middle child, Judah, 10, was born with a heart condition. While he is now doing well, the family must consider his health when making school decisions. Another factor was their two children with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing abilities.

Judah, a fifth-grader, participated in the discussion that led to him staying home in distance learning while second-grader Selah, 7, and seventh-grader Nehemiah, 12, left the house for school this fall.

The younger two children attend Kennedy Elementary School, and Nehemiah attends Willmar Middle School.

The family consulted their pediatrician and waited to see how the schools would handle it. They prayed about it, too.

“We talked about acceptable risk and irresponsible risk,” Matthew said in a recent videoconference interview, and the talks went back and forth.

While his parents talked about the situation, Judah weighed in during a break from his classes. He’d done some of his own research. “I watched one video about it and thought, that’s not too bad,” he said. “Then I watched another video that said it was exactly that bad.”

Eventually, he told his parents he trusted them to keep him safe, and he wanted his brother and sister to go to school, “because he knew it would be better for them,” Matthew said.

“I wish that corona never existed,” Judah said.

The district’s plans helped them keep their kids in school this fall, they said. Elementary and middle school students have stayed in a classroom group during the day, limiting exposure to others.

However, with growing community spread, the district has shifted to distance learning.

With everyone now at home, Nehemiah and Selah are a little sad, their parents said.

Even though he went to school just two days a week, Nehemiah said he will miss it.

“Second-graders love school. … It’s such a sweet age,” Kirsten said of Selah, who will miss seeing her friends.

When their children are disappointed at something they’re missing, like sports or dance lessons, “we help them acknowledge the loss and keep it in perspective,” Kirsten said.

They explain that other people deal with harder things, Matthew added.

The Van Hornes said they have many advantages others don’t, and they still struggle with distance learning at times.

Kirsten is a former teacher, and Matthew works online for a company in Denmark. Both are home to help oversee schoolwork.

“I can’t imagine a parent having to go to work, coming back from a full day of work, having to remember the logistics and look through to make sure they’re doing everything,” he said, “let alone doing that possibly in a second language in a subject you may not understand.”

Even with his degree in math and computer science, he sometimes looks at his kids’ math homework and says, “Explain to me how they taught this.”

Online learning has offered benefits for the kids, too, Kirsten said. She sees their self-confidence building when they realize “they figured out something hard.”

Kids need to figure out how to get their work done and how to turn it in properly and on time.

“You basically have to have college time management skills in middle school,” Matthew said.

They’ve discovered benefits for the kids’ learning disabilities, too.

Using dictation, spellcheck and other tools on their iPads has lessened the need to worry so much about the mechanics of handwriting.

They appreciate the deliberative efforts of the district that helped keep schools open as long as possible. And they praised the efforts of teachers.

Kirsten was a substitute teacher in Selah’s classroom recently. While it looks different than it did pre-pandemic, the teachers are working hard to make sure they connect with kids.

They try to balance digital and traditional work, she said. That might mean using a pencil for spelling words, but dictating a book summary into an iPad.

When the state shut school buildings in the spring, distance learning began with just days for schools to prepare. Everyone did the best they could at that time, Kirsten said.

After having the summer to prepare, schools have developed more effective strategies, and they keep making adjustments.

Navigating the struggles that come with digital learning may help build grit and determination, life skills that will take them into future, they said.

Another benefit, pulling together during the pandemic has “created conversations and connections in our family that may not have happened” if they were busy driving kids to sports and other activities, Matthew said.

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