I Have 8 Kids & This Is What Distance Learning Looks Like in My House

Swartvagher Kids BTS

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Our New Normal (with 8 Kids) Is Not as Chaotic as I Thought It Would Be

Name & Occupation: Jennifer Swartvagher, Social Media Editor, Facebook & Twitter at Red Tricycle/Tinybeans

My partner’s occupation: Technical Solutions Architect

City: Wappingers Falls, NY

Grades my kids are in: daughter in 10th, daughter in 9th, daughter in 6th and son in 4th. They go to three different schools and are attending virtually. I also have four older children living here and away from home (working/attending college). My 24-year-old lives and works in NYC, my 19-year-old trains as an aerial skier at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, UT and my 18-year-old is a freshman at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My 22-year-old works at her alma mater and lives at home.

Swartvagher Kids BTS

What is your current schooling situation: This summer our school district, which is the largest in our area, decided it would not be feasible for students to go back in person 100 percent and I totally agreed. Parents had the opportunity to decide if we wanted our kids to stay entirely remote for the first semester or go back hybrid on a staggered schedule by grade. Those who chose hybrid would go back 2 days a week (either M/T or Th/F) depending on last name. We still aren’t clear if students will attend live lessons on the off days or if it will be strictly asynchronous. 

Hybrid K-2 supposedly starts next week and more grades will be introduced weekly until high school goes back at the very end of October. We chose to keep our kids 100 percent remote for the first quarter, but we have no idea what that looks like once hybrid learning starts. Will the kids stay with their current teachers or will they have their courses switched? If we choose hybrid later on down the road, will they change teachers again? New revised bus schedules were released yesterday and start/finish times have been adjusted for hybrid with some schools starting at 9:25 am. I don’t know what any of this means for us but I try not to dwell on the unknown. 

When we were thrown into distance learning last spring we were drowning. The makeshift desk we set up in between the dining room and living room was not going to cut it going into the new school year. Last spring, Google meets were missed, Zoom calls for work were interrupted and everyone fell behind on their assignments. We literally handed in one of my son’s major assignments on the last day of school (It was assigned a full month before.) The ball was literally dropped over and over again. Thank goodness my daughter’s aide was able to step in (virtually) when I became too busy with my job. Without live instruction, kids with special needs like my daughter would fall through the cracks without extra support at home. 

In order to have a successful school year, things had to change and they needed to change drastically. My kids needed a quiet place dedicated to school and they needed more attention than I could offer while working full-time. A new family room/school room was our priority and I needed to have some hard conversations about my role at work. We bought a desk, transformed the family room into a classroom and I transitioned to a part-time position. 

Remote Learning Desk

My sixth grader has had severe pulmonary issues since she was a few months old when her O2 plummeted into the 40s and she needed to be airlifted to the nearest children’s hospital. My fourth grader was born at 24 weeks, spending the first few months of his life on a ventilator. They both suffer from bronchitis and pneumonia at least twice a year. This paired with my sixth grader’s unique special needs makes returning to the classroom a very scary prospect.

Early Morning: everyone’s more relaxed without a commute
My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. and then again at 6:10 a.m. I (try to) drag my butt out of bed to have some quiet time with Hoda Kotb and Al Roker before the school day begins. The teenagers get up around the same time, put on a full face of makeup and start making their breakfast of lattes and avocado toast while I ponder which pair of black leggings to wear. The little ones are enticed out of their beds by the promise of “Little Bites” or frozen waffles. Miraculously everyone is ready to go by start time and I am so happy we have such a short commute downstairs. This is the first year that we aren’t plagued with “Monday Morning Malaria.” No one suffers from before school tummy aches and everyone is happy to sign on for classes. All of our school anxiety from the past is gone. I am afraid it will return when we go back to school two days a week. 

Morning: My kids need constant supervision, which reinforces my decision to remain at my job part-time
Everyone heads downstairs around 8 a.m. and we settle in at our workstations. I make sure everyone has their Google Classrooms keyed up while I check my emails. My husband works from home but has multiple meetings each day, so he stays upstairs where it is quiet. Sometimes one of the kids will grab their laptop and set up shop next to him at the dining room table, especially if they are getting distracted or have a test to take. 

The high school girls sign in to their first classes at 8:10 a.m. They meet with each of their teachers for eight 25 minute periods of live instruction. Classwork and homework is posted to be completed after the school day ends at 12:05 p.m. 

My fourth grader has his morning meeting at 8:25 a.m. The class says the pledge of allegiance every morning along to a video of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I often tell him to hurry up because “The Rock” is waiting for him. The fourth graders put in a full day moving from class to class (or Google Classroom to Google Classroom). This is the first year that they are switching classes, so they have one teacher for math, science and social studies and another for reading and writing. The teachers present the lessons and then the kids break off and complete their classwork on Google Classroom. I usually bring down single serve snack bags and water bottles to give to my son when he starts to get antsy. Some days he works straight through but there are days he needs some encouragement or a fidget to keep him focused. I purchased an exercise ball for him to sit and bounce on when he really needs to get his wiggles out. I’m seriously considering some alternative seating options for him. 

This is my sixth grader’s first year in a self contained classroom. She is extremely lucky to have looped up with her teacher from last year. Last spring when remote learning started, my daughter floundered, needing constant support throughout the day. She signed on with her aide daily to help power her through her lessons. 

This year she is surprisingly self sufficient, to the point that she does not want my help. I am not sure if it is the new structure of her class, the live lessons throughout the day or if it is her love of computers that keeps her focused and working hard. She has actually expressed to me that she prefers learning online to being in the classroom. Her sheer drive to learn this year paired with her special health needs makes me think I will keep her remote all year if I have the choice.  I have to take into consideration the related services she receives each day, but I think I can provide most of the additional support she requires.  

As I said, she knows her way around a computer better than most. I have caught her logging into YouTube or Roblox on her breaks and losing track of time, but that has only happened when I was distracted or out of the room. I am researching ways to block those sites during instructional hours. The need for my constant supervision reinforces my decision to remain part-time. 

Afternoon: We stick to their schedules
Everyone breaks for lunch at a different time. The week before school started I created an area in the kitchen with cubbies to store quick and easy snacks and lunches. 

BTS lunches

Can you say unlimited ramen and mac and cheese bowls

Since they all know how to use a microwave, I can (mostly) work through the lunch hour(s) without too much worry. 

After lunch, the older girls settle in to finish their homework while I make sure the little ones get back on their live lessons on time. I almost have each schedule committed to memory but I have all four schedules written out and color-coded on a large dry erase board over the desk. I also have a separate calendar to keep track of which cycle day it is. Our district runs on a six day cycle. Now since distance learning began, Monday is Day 1, Tuesday is Day 2, Thursday is Day 4, Friday is Day 5 and Wednesdays alternate weekly with Days 3 and 6 just to keep us on our toes. 

BTS Calendar

Right now, the little ones are finished with school between 3:05 p.m. and 3:25p.m. When hybrid learning starts their schedules will be altered to accommodate the students going into the classroom. My sixth grader’s school will start and end an hour after my fourth grader. 

Evening: It’s off to the dance studio and then dinner
After putting in so many hours in front of a screen, I encourage the kids to put down their laptops and play a game or go outside. The kids participate in socially distant, masked dance classes in the evenings. We are at the dance studio four days a week. The kids enter the studio and have have their temperature taken before class. They are dismissed 10 minutes early so the studio can be disinfected between classes. I either drop off or wait in the car depending on how long their classes are. Between the four of them, they take 11 classes. The dance studio is our home away from home and I really miss the adult conversations and friendships I’ve made there. We still do connect but it’s not the way it used to be. You may think it sounds crazy but the studio has become a part of our family. That’s probably the only reason I trust them with my kids during this time. 

I am trying to use my crockpot more and plan out meals, but I haven’t been as successful as I had hoped. I even hung up a meal planner in the kitchen, except before last week it had the same menu on it that I planned back in July. My goal is to spend a little more time on meal prep on the weekends, and to get the kids involved. They tried to come up with a meal plan that kicked off with Marshmallow Mondays, but I quickly squelched that idea. It’s truly a work in progress. 

Meal Planner

We do indulge in the family dinner special from our favorite Italian restaurant in town once a week (it’s on the way home from the dance studio.) We’ve ordered Chinese food more times than I’d care to admit and sometimes I throw pizza bites in the oven and call that a meal. My kids are just as happy with a can of soup as they are with a home cooked meal, it just depends on the presentation.

End of the Day: Accepting to expect the unexpected
Every day I serve as a teacher, an aide, a speech therapist, an occupation therapist, a physical therapist, a counselor, a writer and a mom. This year I don’t feel that my daughter is falling through the cracks because of her special needs, in fact, I feel that the past few weeks have been among the best of her academic career. She is reading more, talking more and advocating for herself more. The child who hated reading is finishing books quicker than I can supply them. She wants to learn how to code, she wants to create new things and she is even planning on starting her own business. We are teaching her how to create a business plan and budget her money. We even held our own version of Shark Tank where she convinced the investors (me and my husband) to give her a business loan. Her lessons are going beyond the classroom and if she was physically in the school building all day she wouldn’t have the time or energy to devote to these other projects. 

My high schoolers have shown how responsible they are with getting managing their schedules and getting their assignments in on time. They have also been instrumental in helping the little ones navigate Google Classroom when I am busy with work or on a meeting. Spending all of this time together in close quarters has strengthened their relationships. They still argue (a lot) over silly things like who is chewing too loud, but I know they have each other’s backs no matter what. My husband and I are still working at managing our schedules while remaining available during the school day. Although it is hard, and we’ve needed to make sacrifices, we know having them home is worth it in the long run.

Our plan is to reevaluate hybrid versus remote learning quarterly and accommodate each of our children’s needs on a case by case basis. The older ones may go back, the little ones might stay home, we may not go back until spring or we may stay remote for the entire academic year. If this past year has taught me anything, I have learned to expect the unexpected and make the most of the time the kids are home with me. 

—Jennifer Swartvagher


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