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How four middle schoolers are navigating the pandemic

PHILADELPHIA — Anuar awoke one day last spring in the front seat of his mother’s car outside the construction site where she worked. It was around 11 a.m. He was supposed to be attending his virtual, sixth grade English class, but the computer on his lap signaled that he’d been kicked out after falling asleep.

It felt, to Anuar, like another sign that remote learning wasn’t going to go well for him. After Philadelphia schools closed in March for the coronavirus, he’d dutifully logged in each morning to online classes on the laggy computer his mother got for him years earlier. But the distance between him and his teachers felt too great.

Friends sent him texts during online class, distracting him. He missed the boxes teachers had used to collect students’ cellphones back at school, to discourage their use. He knew that his seventh grade performance was critical in determining if he’d win entry to one of the city’s selective high schools, and he worried that if remote learning continued into the fall his entire future would be jeopardized.

“What bothers me most is if I fail seventh grade I’m going to go to a bad high school,” said Anuar, a student at Southwark School, the pre-K-8 school he’d attended since kindergarten. “I don’t want to be online, I want to be in normal class. I could be killing [it in in-person school], but if it’s online, I might fail.”

When city schools didn’t reopen in August, Anuar committed himself to trying his best in remote learning. In the spring, Southwark had devoted just four hours a day to class and adhered to flexible grading and attendance policies. But when the new academic year began, the school held live instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3:09 p.m. in an attempt to approximate in-person school and avoid any learning loss. Anuar was home alone, logging in from his bedroom. The majority of his classmates kept their cameras off. He missed the friends he couldn’t see, and days in front of the computer felt excruciating.

“Before this year, I didn’t like school,” Anuar said one day this fall. “But now that I realize that this year is going to be like this, I love school.”

Even before the pandemic, obstacles were arrayed against Southwark and its students. The school is located in a chronically underfunded school district, and serves predominantly low-income students and a large population of English language learners. But in the last six years, Southwark had made strides in boosting academic performance and had even become something of a destination for its dual language program and the after-school activities and other services it offered as a community school. This fall, enrollment was on pace to top 950, a two-thirds increase since 2014.

Laura Schad teaches social studies to seventh and eighth graders at Southwark School. She worries about the students who’ve barely logged in all fall. Photo courtesy Laura Schad

Then the coronavirus hit, tumbling Southwark’s fortunes, if not its ambitions. Once the Philadelphia school district decided to move forward with remote learning, Southwark staff distributed 747 Chromebooks to families and worked this fall to replicate much of the community spirit and support services that had once unfolded in its cavernous 109-year-old building. But, especially for many of the school’s oldest students, no amount of effort could eliminate the educational challenges created by the pandemic: how to engage kids, build trust, and make sure they’re learning when they’re separated from their teachers and each other.

The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for kids of every age, but for middle schoolers the isolation forced by school closures, stay-at-home-orders and quarantines has brought particular obstacles. The Hechinger Report followed four of Southwark’s families for more than six months to understand how the crises of 2020 affected kids of this age during one of the most vulnerable and critical times in their lives.

In early adolescence, a period marked by rapid brain development, children are forming identities apart from their parents, relying more on peers and learning to pick up on social cues and navigate complicated social situations. Just at the time in life when the students needed their peers the most, they were secluded in their bedrooms and isolated in their homes.

READ MORE: Remote learners feel shortchanged in districts pressured to reopen in person

“Middle school is difficult,” said Jessica Downs, the upper school coordinator at Southwark and a former English language arts teacher. “Aside from being 13 and insecure and impressionable and hormonal, a lot of our students face many other challenges,” she said. “Many of our students come from backgrounds where even their most basic needs are having a hard time being met.”

When the pandemic arrived — forcing parents into unemployment or to leave their children at home alone while they worked essential jobs — that was even more true.

When the school year began this fall, Anuar’s mother, who’d emigrated from Mexico about eight years earlier, had him in bed by 9 or 10 p.m. so she could get him up by 6 or 7 a.m. before she left for work. But, each morning, the thought of online school left him discouraged. It was so much more difficult to absorb information via the computer screen than in person.

In class, he’d never had to work very hard. Sitting behind a desk in a quiet classroom, surrounded by other students, he’d taken mental notes or written in a notebook. In online instruction, there was no room on his desk for a notebook and no one to ask for a refresher if he needed one. “I really don’t feel like I’m learning anything, to be honest,” he said.

Marc, a seventh grader at Southwark, hopes to attend a selective high school for the arts. He finds online learning boring, but says he is “learning a lot.” Photo by Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Math and English, his best classes, still felt compelling, but he had a hard time caring about his other classes. Deadlines for assignments in social studies in particular were tight, and he stopped handing them in.

Marc, another seventh grader, had faced a series of personal difficulties even before the virus arrived. His mother had been out of the picture for a time, but Marc was close to his grandmother and great-grandmother. Then, in sixth grade, his grandmother died. That winter, his father had to quit the struggling limo business he’d run with a friend and draw unemployment.

Like Anuar, Marc was determined to get into a selective high school: In his case that meant CAPA, the city’s high school for the creative and performing arts. He wanted to be an artist, though his father encouraged him to consider science too. Maybe he could draw animals for biology textbooks, his father mused.

When school started online this fall, the days felt endless. “It’s like full school hours, 8 to 3, and it’s forever,” he said.

But even though Marc found online learning boring, he said, “I’m learning a lot.” In some ways, it was easier than in person. He could type his assignments, so he didn’t have to worry about his handwriting. With math, he could turn to an online calculator for help.

His father had a theory about why Marc was so adept at pouring himself into online school. “It’s escapism,” he said.

The list of things to escape from kept growing. In October, Marc fell ill with the coronavirus. His great-grandmother became infected too, and died. His family held a small service for her at a church one weekday morning, forcing Marc to do what he’d been trying so hard to avoid: miss school. He sent a message through Google classroom to his math teacher, Jaeun Lee, saying he might be absent. But about halfway through the class, Marc surprised her by appearing on the screen, back home in his bedroom.

Teachers at Southwark sometimes felt powerless to help. In the spring, when social studies teacher Laura Schad had learned that a student’s brother and father were ill with COVID-19, she’d baked trays of brownies and taken them to the student’s home because it was the most direct action she could think to take. She worried about her students’ and families’ health, their emotional well-being, whether she was doing all she could to help them develop critical thinking skills through the online platform. But what left her truly agonized were the students she’d barely seen at all.

One was Jackie. An eighth grader, Jackie had transferred to Southwark in sixth grade. She quickly felt valued at the school, and her confidence bloomed. She also loved its diversity; like Jackie, whose mother was from Honduras, lots of kids had parents who were immigrants, or were immigrants themselves. Jackie recalled how pre-pandemic, a friend had introduced her to pho, the Vietnamese soup.

Jacqueline Cortez (14) a student at Southwark School poses for a photo in front of her home on Dec. 18, 2020, in Philadelphia. Photo by Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Like Marc and Anuar, Jackie wanted to attend a selective high school. Although she preferred social studies to math, she thought she might like to be a doctor, the kind “that delivers babies.” She explained: “You get to witness a new life.”

But ever since the schools closed, life had become much more complicated. Jackie was the third oldest of six children. Her mom worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. at an Italian restaurant, and her older siblings were busy with high school and held jobs too. Much of the caregiving for her younger siblings — ages 10, 5 and 2 — fell on Jackie, she said. In the spring, during the last quarter of her seventh grade year, she got some failing grades. (The school awarded grades that semester, but didn’t hold the marks against students if they fell below their average before remote learning.)

READ MORE: Middle school is often difficult. Try experiencing it under quarantine

Going into the fall, she wanted to make online learning work. But, if anything, it got harder. The first day she couldn’t find the right links to log on to her classes. The mic of her school-provided laptop didn’t work. The camera stopped working. She tried to log in on her phone, but that wasn’t working either. To earn money, she’d taken on some babysitting, so her house was filled not just with her siblings but two other kids as well. With so many school-age kids competing for Wi-Fi, it was difficult to get online at all.

A week went by without her logging in much at all. Then another, and another. The Nov. 6 deadline to apply to selective high schools loomed. Jackie felt sure she’d finish the applications, but Schad was worried. “If we had been in person I could have literally held Jackie in lunch or during her special period or after school and done it with her,” said the teacher.

Not every kid was struggling in remote learning. Seventh grader Lee, who is being referred to by his middle name to protect his privacy, was among a small handful of students who were doing better now than they had in person.

Lee’s parents had long worried about how he was faring in school. Since pre-K, Lee had received extra help for his speech, having barely talked until he was 5. Starting in fourth grade, he’d also had trouble focusing. A psychologist diagnosed him with ADHD, and his parents brought the diagnosis to Southwark in the hope Lee would receive extra support. But they were told he fell into a gray area and other kids needed help more, his parents said.

READ MORE: Remote learning has been a disaster for many students. But some kids have thrived

Then, when schools shut, something unexpected happened. Sitting next to him by the computer, Lee’s mother noticed he was quick to answer teachers’ questions in the chat. He stayed alert through class, typing his responses without hesitation.

“I don’t even have to remind him to do the work,” said his mother. “He’ll just do all the work by himself, and he’ll finish it early.” Jennifer O’Shaughnessy, Lee’s sixth grade English language arts teacher, noticed the change too. “He just came alive during online learning,” she said.

When school went online this spring, Jennifer O’Shaughnessy, a sixth grade English language arts teacher, noticed that some kids struggled with the new format but a few performed surprisingly well. “He just came alive during online learning,” she said of one student. Photo courtesy Jennifer O’Shaughnessy

Lee’s dad worried about his son going too long without the socialization that came from school. But he liked to imagine that once the pandemic ended and Southwark reopened, Lee would be a different student than he’d been in sixth grade. “When the time comes for him to go back to school, probably, maybe, he can adapt, since he’s older now,” said Lee’s dad.

Meanwhile, the pandemic raged. Virus cases crept higher, and the Philadelphia school district’s plan to reopen schools for kindergartners through second graders on Nov. 30 was put on hold.

By November, Anuar was feeling close to defeat. His grades were lousy. “I’ve never gotten an F or a D,” he said, “but this semester I’ve gotten both of those.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said one afternoon in November. “I need to see people. I need to see the teacher. I can’t learn without seeing them.”

Still, he was making an effort to keep his camera on. One day that month, he was late to social studies class. But when Schad called on him to define a vocab word, he unmuted himself and spoke assuredly. Twenty minutes into the class, he turned on his camera and kept it on for the entire class. “I want my teachers to know I’m here,” he explained.

Jackie made it to class that day too. As an eighth grader, she was studying the Constitution with her class, and today they were covering the First Amendment.

Jackie had managed to fill out her applications to high schools, she said. To help stay focused, she’d used her babysitting money to buy a desk she’d assembled in the bedroom she shared with her older sister. She felt her applications would have been better if she’d received more help from her mom and from her teachers, as her older siblings had. But at least she’d submitted something.

Marc had spent the last month recovering from the virus and the loss of his great-grandmother. His father’s problems mounted: His unemployment benefits had run out and his savings were dwindling. On good days, he felt sure he’d find work soon. On bad days, he worried he’d lose his house and his son.

“It’s all been hard on him,” said Marc’s father, who experienced his son’s pain as his own.

“This kid is my best friend,” he said. “I do whatever I can for him.”

But somehow, except on the day of his great-grandmother’s funeral, Marc’s attendance had been perfect. His grades were straight A’s. His teachers marveled at his determination to log into class even when he was sick.

Teachers try to find ways to engage students through Google classroom and Zoom but it has proven difficult. In many classes, barely a third of kids have their cameras on. Photo courtesy Laura Schad

Part of him wanted schools to open. But a bigger part of him didn’t. At this point, he could barely imagine what it would be like to return to the Southwark building on South 9th and Mifflin streets. Would he even recognize his friends? On screen, he could see some of them had suddenly sprouted facial hair.

He’d read an article about parents who wanted to send their kids back to school because they could no longer afford child care and internet bills. “I just found that stupid,” Marc said.

“Money is important, but it sucked when my grandmom died,” he said. “So I wouldn’t want anyone going back to school yet. Maybe for a long time.”

This story about middle school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Sarah Garland and Marguerite McQuire contributed reporting.