What It’s Like To Apply To College In The Pandemic

Plus, rethinking seat time and social promotion in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis

Good riddance to 2020, right?

As many of us plan to sing Auld Lang Syne with more passion than ever before, I’m reminding myself to be grateful for the many blessings my family did enjoy in 2020—from more time together to less time on the airplane and from the privilege to have a job that I could do from home to the technology that allowed us to learn, connect and stay close with so many family and friends around the world.

It’s important to keep our blessings in mind while experiencing the troubles and travails that abound. I’m looking forward to learning more about those troubles from my college classmate Anya Kamenetz’s forthcoming book, The Lost Year, which will chronicle the challenges of children during these difficult times.

And I was pleased to contribute to this report by NPR on what it’s like to apply to college in the pandemic—which you can listen to here, as well as this piece in the Economist’s Intelligence Unit about bridging the digital divide to engage students in higher education, which you can read here.

I also enjoyed participating in this panel that the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli led on rethinking seat time and social promotion in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, which was a part of EdPalooza, a virtual event that Governor Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd staged at the beginning of the month. You can watch the conversation here.

I’m glad Mike asked the tough questions he did on policy and how it will impact different students and families. On the theme of feeling gratitude and hope, I left the conversation encouraged thanks to the wise answers and bold ideas to rethink the education system that Ohio’s state superintendent of public instruction, Paolo DeMaria, offered.

On our home front

Finally, I chronicled one more step in our family’s own homeschooling/pandemic podding journey in Forbes this month, titled “Behind The Tradeoffs We Made As We Crafted Our Pod’s Learning Environment.”

With a teacher in tow and our pod of families set, which I wrote about in my previous piece around the operations of our homeschool setup, the next set of questions we tackled in August and September revolved around what the learning environment would look like and the curricular materials.

No longer theoretical questions in the world of my research and writing, we were forced to make tradeoffs and move away from our ideal—and we made several mistakes along the way.

The Learning Environment

Being outdoors—even if we felt comfortable with the children being unmasked with each other—was important to us, both from a pedagogical and added-layer-of-security perspective. How to do that in New England with cold was far less clear.

We made an early decision to have the mornings start away from our house at a nearby playground or farm.

John Ratey’s research on the importance of physical exercise in increasing brain plasticity and boosting student learning—and the findings that the brain is primed to learn directly after physical activity learning—drove our thinking. The opportunities for social development and learning at the farm with its array of animals and produce was also appealing.

In addition, the children would wear masks while away from our home, even though Massachusetts wasn’t requiring it at that time, so that they could remember we were living in a pandemic and practice safety for society. Creating some separation from our home—where the pod would be hosted—for our children also felt important for them and the other children. Sharing, after all, can be challenging.

Finally, we iterated a lot on how to set up the space outdoors so the children could help themselves to the various works, learn in rainy or colder weather, and protect the learning materials. Three assumptions drove our thinking.

First, we assumed that—just as Maria Montessori had made do in the great outdoors in India without extensive learning materials during World War II—so, too, could our natural outdoors be used creatively to construct a prepared environment for the children.

Second, with the teacher and other families, we recognized that running the program in the extreme temperatures of winter—January, specifically—was unlikely, at least on a regular, daily basis. On warm days we could gather outside, but not on frigid ones. We consequently decided to think about the calendar as a year-round one that would run through August with intermittent breaks—like that in January—where we could take vacation. We were in charge of our children’s schooling now after all, so why not create a calendar that worked for us? Conventional calendars didn’t need to apply.

Third, we decided we needed some sort of covered structure—preferably with some heating options. We began considering and experimenting lightly with everything from our garage to wedding tents with flooring and from yurts to sheds and high tunnel hoop houses. We also realized we would have to create systems—and allocate our own time—to manage the facilities and operations, from trash, recycling, and composting to dishes, laundry, and outdoor hand washing.

Curriculum

As we got underway, we realized our teacher was no Maria Montessori. She wasn’t enamored with using the existing outdoor space as a significant part of the curriculum and prepared environment.

Each time we suggested an alternative to purchasing expensive Montessori materials, the ideas were resisted because they wouldn’t live up to the “self-correcting” nature of the pre-made materials. Never mind that we were living in a pandemic, or that it wasn’t advisable to try and replicate a Montessori classroom in the outdoors for seven children, or that many of the preferred items weren’t intended to be self-correcting materials. And never mind that a DIY approach to building out the learning environment with the children helping held an enormous set of opportunities for learning and development of ownership.

The philosophical differences with the teacher left us at a crossroads. But with some of us parents choosing to prioritize the opportunity for our children to experience something resembling normalcy, we decided to invest significantly more in the classroom materials than any of us had planned in the interest of speed and promoting harmony between parents and teacher.

It hurt—on multiple levels—but the teacher seemed pleased, so we hoped this would translate into a better experience for our children. A spoiler alert for a future piece: Spending more money doesn't automatically create harmony or a better experience.

As the materials began arriving at our doorstep, my wife realized that our teacher had left out large swaths of curriculum in her purchasing. Our trust in the teacher was eroding, so my wife stepped in to do the work herself: cutting, laminating, constructing and making a variety of curricular choices. It required hours upon hours of work and proved costly in sleep and time away from her work.

Getting Underway

Although the set-up was hard, the ultimate reward seemed worth it in the smiles and laughter of the children.

At the outset they wore masks around each other and stayed distant. But at the end of the second week and 14 days of strict behavior from all the families, telling them they could remove their masks and hug each other produced a tidal wave of emotions for which I was unprepared.

Shrieks of joy rang out as each child embraced each of the others, a practice that continues to this day when they greet each other or say goodbye. That human contact is something that apparently none of us—from the youngest to the eldest—will take for granted again.

And as we ring in the new year, that’s something I’ll try to remember as I hope society is able to regain safely some sense of normalcy.

My best wishes to you all in this season of giving for a happy and healthy new year.