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story.lead_photo.caption (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Celia Storey)

It's a dystopian twist that Ray Bradbury himself couldn't have conjured.

Parents who've spent their children's entire lifetimes monitoring and fretting over screen time now find themselves enforcing a totally tethered-to-a-device existence.

Then: Put down your iPad/Nintendo Switch/Xbox/phone and go play!

Now: Stop playing and get on your Chromebook/iPad/phone/laptop for math and reading and social studies and science and art and gym and music so we can squeeze in a Zoom call to the Minnesota relatives before tonight's online math skills refresher followed by online Uno with Grandma!

Depending on the district, kids are a few weeks into this grand experiment, which has no precedent and no determined end. So far, I'm hearing a lot of phrases like, "cruel joke," "constant tears," "panic attacks" and "how early can I start drinking" from parents.

Educators, I should note, are doing the Lord's work. Their livelihoods have been turned upside down and inside out, and on they press — determined to teach and inspire our kids by whatever means possible.

But the internet is spotty and the apps are fritzy and the logistics are not ideal: a few dozen kids, with different learning styles, at different learning levels, trying to focus on a single teacher and a single topic on a single screen with kids talking over each other and assignments not loading properly and a pandemic swirling around them in the background.

It's a lot. No wonder everyone's crying.

If you're not crying, that's OK, too, of course. Some families are doing just fine with this setup.

For the families who are not doing just fine, I called Phyllis Fagell. She is a Washington, D.C., mom of three e-learning kids (ages 11, 16 and 18), an elementary and middle school counselor and the author of Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond — and How Parents Can Help.

I'm a fan of Fagell's calm, empathetic approach to parenting, particularly parenting our kids through school stuff. I asked her if she had some words to live by as we navigate these choppy, uncharted e-learning waters.

She did. Here you go:

Teachers know your kids won't retain much. "What I am hearing from educators, and what I firmly believe myself, is that no matter how much kids study or spend time listening to online lectures, they're very unlikely to retain, in the long-run, very much of what they acquire, contentwise, right now," Fagell said. "Everybody is trying to process tremendous changes overnight and that triggers stress, uncertainty and panic."

Coronavirus affects each family differently, depending on what parents do for a living, how many adults live in the home, whether technology is readily available, whether members of the family are sick and so on.

"But across the board, everybody is feeling tremendously anxious and everybody is feeling insecure about their ability to manage these changes," Fagell said. "Educators are prepared to reteach, review and meet kids where they are when we return. Remember, a lot of educators are parents too."

That doesn't mean kids should give up. "Kids should be delving into the material and attempting to engage with their teachers," she said. "I think there's a lot of value in the distraction. I think there's value in transcending themselves and thinking about some other issues besides coronavirus."

Fagell said she's had fantastic conversations with kids in the last few weeks about spiders eating their own webs and the power of books to take an utterly uneventful day and infuse some adventure into it -- things kids may not have had time or interest for when their lives were chock-full of extracurriculars.

And, she finds, feeling like the rest of the class is meeting and moving along without them can contribute to kids' (and parents') anxiety levels. So don't check out; just check in with the knowledge that everyone realizes this isn't ideal.

Know that they're learning when they're offline too. "Parents forget that learning is happening all the time," Fagell said.

Baking is arithmetic. Card games are critical thinking. Board games require reading.

"They're also learning how to manage stress, learning how to create new routines, learning flexibility, learning how to socialize in different ways," Fagell said.

"There's research showing kids and young adults who have to endure forced periods of uncertainty tend to have more gratitude, flexibility and satisfaction later in life," she said. "The key is that the kids who manage that adversity better than others are the ones who have consistent unwavering support at home. So if you have a choice between making pancakes with your kid and bagging an assignment, or having a screaming fight with them because they won't sit down and pay attention to what's going on in the Zoom lesson, I would say choose the pancakes every time."

Some kids don't want a full social life right now. "A lot of parents are panicked about their kids' inability to connect virtually with their friends," Fagell said. "Not every child has the same social needs."

Some aren't really craving conversations with friends right now, Fagell has found. Others are craving it, but are fine waiting until they can connect in person.

"Putting a 10-year-old boy in front of a screen and expecting them to have a deep conversation with a classmate he now hasn't seen in a month and expecting it to be organic and natural is just not going to work for a lot of kids," she said. "Parents are imposing a lot of their own anxiety on their children when they say things like, 'Why aren't you calling anyone? You need to get on the Zoom call!' Not only is it OK for them to not acquire all of the school content in this period, it's also OK if they're not quite as connected to their peers. If it's not bothering them, let it go."

Remember: You're not homeschooling. "The burden parents put on themselves should not be to homeschool their children while working from home," Fagell said. "It should be to navigate a crisis and do what they can to help their children adjust and adapt to unfathomable changes and stress while retaining as much of a sense of safety as possible."

Temper your expectations for yourself and your kids, she said.

"I don't know about you, but it's taking me about 47 times longer than usual to write one sentence," she said. "If you think about the brain fog we're experiencing and the amount of time it takes us to do very simple tasks and how we squander time and how we have very little idea what day of the week it is and how all of the hours can blend together and how at the end of the day it's not clear what we've even accomplished — our kids are in the exact same position. So let's just keep it real."

Print Headline: Roll with it, middle school parents, just roll with it

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