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’Virtual’ school is ‘almost’ school, and that’s not good enough | COMMENTARY

Last school year, before the pandemic, a 12th grader whom I’ll call Bryant lost his mother after a long illness. Although he sought to hide it, I saw that the weeks he spent with his mother in the hospital and her eventual death changed him. He came to school less and less, and when he was there, he was subdued.

I encouraged him to hold it together — reminding him that he only needed a couple classes to graduate. I also shared how I’d lost my mom some years before and how much it affected me.

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After that, he was gone again, school seeming to be the last of his concerns. He was on his own, working at a hotel downtown, staying with his girlfriend, paying rent, paying bills.

Over a month passed before I saw Bryant again. Then, early one morning, he showed up. The building was still quiet, and he sat. He explained that he was back on track, and he intended to focus on school so he could graduate and move on with his life.

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Before starting to catch him up on some of his missing assignments, I asked, “How you been doing?”

“It’s been rough,” he said.

I said, “You know, it’s funny, I’m 54, and it’s been six years since I lost my Mom, but just this past weekend, I was Googling “adult children mourning the loss of a parent.”

He looked at me. “You were going through something?”

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“I guess I was,” I said.

“Happens to me all the time,” he said.

For a couple minutes, the familiar barriers around race, class and privilege fell away, and we were simply two men talking about their mothers.

I’ve been thinking of this brief, pre-pandemic exchange with Bryant, as well other connections I’ve had with students over the years in the context of today’s distance-digital-virtual-remote-E-learning.

Without the shared space and face-to-face immediacy of a real school, more than half the students in my classes have stopped attending or never began.

True to its name, virtual school is almost school. And in a city as long-troubled as Baltimore, almost school isn’t enough. It is, instead, another deprivation.

For decades, the city has answered crime, addiction and unemployment with disinvestment, municipal neglect, mass incarceration and housing evictions.

These generational inequities endanger children’s lives, sabotage their prospects and wear them out emotionally. These disadvantages have also hindered students from making the shift to online learning.

How do you focus on virtual learning when your mom or dad is out of work, and the rent-man’s at the door? Or when your mother is at work, and it’s on you to help younger siblings with their virtual learning? When you’re worried about finding food for the day? When you’re exhausted from working the overnight at Amazon? When you’re isolated at home, mourning friends or loved ones lost to gun violence or COVID? When iffy Wi-Fi connections freeze screens or flutter audio? When it’s been 10 months since you sat in an actual classroom, and few people in your circle trust the vaccine that’s supposed to get us out of this pandemic?

For kids coping with trauma and loss, real school can be a lifeline.

Real school is where kids can connect with teachers, laugh, gossip and confide with friends. It’s where kids attend robotics club, unpack emotions during group mentoring sessions, and support peers going through hard times. It’s where kids can test their values and beliefs against those found in the novel “Siddhartha” versus “Things Fall Apart” or other major works of literature. It’s where students’ academic strengths and perseverance are celebrated during monthly awards ceremonies. It’s where kids can get a hot lunch or pick up a game of touch-football on the empty lot across the street and then talk about it the rest of the day. When it’s working right, real school is a place where kids feel included, encouraged, nurtured and valued as they learn and grow.

Almost school can’t duplicate this.

Last school year, Bryant did end up getting himself together, coming back to school and graduating.

But it’s different now.

And as schools grapple with vaccinating teachers and figuring out how to safely reopen, another challenge looms: helping students left behind by virtual learning find their way out of this digital oblivion and back to real school.

Adam Schwartz (adamschwartzwriter.org) has taught high school in Baltimore for 23 years. His debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction and was published in October.

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