Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles examining how parents and teachers are adapting to the upcoming virtual school year.
Kai Banks is usually fearless in everything she does. After all, what does she have to be afraid of?
She manages grants at Virginia Commonwealth University, and assists area nonprofits. She was one of the people tapped by Harry Hughes, the Chief Schools Officer of Richmond Public Schools, to help the school system figure how it could reopen for in-person instruction.
She does all that while raising her son, Aaren, to be as independent as she is as a single mom.
“I was all for reopening with caution,” she said about the possibility of sending Aaren to his RPS school for in-person instruction. “A lot of that was because I do a lot of advocacy. I wasn’t just thinking about my student. I was thinking about other children that may not have the flexibility that I have, or even the village that I have, so I was all for reopening.”
But, as time went on, and COVID-19 cases started ticking up in Virginia, she was no longer confident in allowing her soon-to-be sixth grader to go to his new middle school. She isn’t necessarily sure how she’s going to navigate the upcoming school year, either.
“It was like, am I gonna send my child back to school to get sick?” she said. She’s also in the middle of attempting to buy a new home in the hopes of being able to transition from living with her mother. Her job is demanding, so there hasn’t been much time to plan for the upcoming school year.
On July 14, the Richmond City School Board voted to keep schools closed for in-person instruction because of COVID-19. Superintendent Jason Kamras made the recommendation, citing it to be the safest option for students.
“(The decision) creates hardship for working families that need to identify child care, which is why we’re working with the city and other partners to identify solutions and support those families," Kamras said this week. "I think one of the tragic pieces of this whole pandemic is there are no good solutions for a lot of the problems we face. There are just a whole lot of bad choices, and we have to pick our path and do everything we can to make it work for everyone in our community.”
While Banks is grateful that she won’t have to send Aaren to school for in-person instruction, that doesn’t mean that she’s ready for virtual learning either. In fact, she had already struggled with RPS@Home, the virtual platform that RPS was using when Ralph Northam shuttered schools in March.
“In all honesty, I tried,” she said. She tried to introduce Aaren to YouTube videos and keep him engaged in some sort of school work, even though the work wasn’t required. “Supervising him was tough. He would say he did it and you know, we may discuss something. But I have to admit we kind of started out trying our best. And the closer I think we got to the end of the year, I was just like, ‘forget it.’”
Like many school systems across the country, RPS had eliminated grading for students if they were already caught up before school closed. With that, Banks admitted it was hard to keep the rhythm she and Aaren had gotten into for virtual school. They just simply couldn’t stay motivated enough to do the work. But this time, grades will be counted, attendance is required, and there’s a schedule. That, Banks said, makes her nervous.
“I mean, he’s starting the sixth grade. So his workload is going to be very different from elementary school,” she said. “I can just imagine that homework time will be a lot. We're gonna have to set up a schedule. I'm not even sure how.”
It’s a question many RPS parents are wondering: How do you best structure a day of virtual learning?
Some schools are coordinating “pods,” where students can take their virtual classes in-person with a few classmates. Even if Aaren’s school was doing that, Banks isn’t sure if she would participate in such a program. She said she only trusts a few people in the school system to take Aaren’s health as seriously as she does.
While she’s nervous though, she said there’s a big opportunity for innovation in Aaren’s education. She hopes to be able to teach him things like gardening and life skills, providing a non-traditional education.
“Education is important," she said. "But I've always been a strong believer that education doesn't just have to happen in the classroom and just have to happen through the school system.”