I want to pop up and say "Hi" to keep the lights on here. This has been the first week with full school days for us, and it's definitely a process of getting used to new responsibilities and rhythms. 8:30 AM to almost 3 PM, thus far there has been a lot of attention required to support three elementary age kids in meeting middle-school-type responsibilities. Thank goodness that neither my wife nor I are working full-time currently; I really feel for all the working parents right now.

There are quite a few things that our local school is doing well, actually, and I am aware of some of these from hearing of places that didn't do the following:

  • They have lunch at the same time, and it's 60 minutes long
  • They even have a morning recess that lines up
  • Standardized district devices have reduced that part of the tech hassle
  • Teachers are flexible and compassionate re camera shyness, exiting and re-entering calls, attention standards etc - embracing the humanity of the kids, rather than looking for conformity or control
  • Putting the daily schedule into Seesaw with the flowchart and clickable links to "go" there is... well it could be a lot worse than that. It means the kids basically don't have to touch the email app, at least.

On the tech side, I can point out a bunch of issues that are ungood, starting with Teams:

  • Despite gigabit fiber to our home (My speed tests indicate that 3 simultaneous Teams meetings don't take more than 20% of our wifi-accessible capacity), we have recurring issues getting video from the MS Teams server. When it fails, audio keeps going just fine, but it never again attempts to show any visuals (within each video box, or even screen sharing) until we exit and re-connect
  • Teams "large gallery" mode doesn't allow pinning - you have to go to the small/regular gallery to pin the teacher's video.
  • "Together" mode was obviously designed for adults and is net-negative with kids of every size and orientation overlapping each other.
  • Teachers need to be able to let a kid present without losing control of their own ability to unmute themselves (yes, really!)
  • Holy cow teachers need the ability to lock down the chat. There appears to be no controls right now, nor any time limits (an iPad started dinging after bedtime last night when some random kid decided it'd be funny to shout into the void). Telling little kids to stay away from an emoji keyboard as a social norm is A) hard and B) a waste of teacher time and effort.
  • Background noise can swamp teachers' voices without them knowing. Teacher audio needs to always be prioritized above all kid audio combined.
  • There are frequent complaints of others not being able to see screen sharing, and the teachers then stop sharing and re-try which usually (but not always) fixes it.
  • Many Teams gallery configurations chop off the left/right edges of video streams, turning landscape videos into vertical-phone-like aspect ratios. If a teacher holds up a visual/sign that's not dead center, your only hope is to hit "pin" in time to see it.

There are other issues beyond Teams:

  • Even if you turn off all sound from a Teams meeting, iOS audio channel usage is locked/blocked so other apps can't use it (like Seesaw audio assignment instructions).
  • Seesaw "assignments" stream items can't be dismissed without "respond"ing to them, you can't "respond" to them without them disappearing, there are no times/expirations marked, no evidence when an item has been updated, and schedules have no support other than being assignments themselves.
  • The laptops (for older kids) don't have the "cool" coding apps or Apple apps (hello, Garage Band) that the iPads do.

Then there are the (unavoidable?) management issues:

  • "Independent" time is a misnomer below, I dunno, about 4th grade
  • The power to easily disconnect from school just by hitting a button offers an easy outlet for a bored or anxious kid.
  • Just being in the same house means that there are so many alternatives mentally available. They love their teachers, but still most of these video calls would have adults tearing their hair out so... we've compromised to where if our kids are still listening enough to stay responsive to the class, they can be doing legos, toys, whatever with their hands.
  • All the above means that we're stuck doing 98% time with our kindergartener. We hope to get this down to 20% (of the class video call time) with a month, maybe, hopefully.
  • If a kid misses verbal instructions, there's no way for the teacher to walk over to their desk and help them. They either interrupt the whole class, or they come ask us (and we have no clue). A math class didn't really happen today, as the teacher tried to tech-support 20 kids through the steps of logging into the math website.

I don't even know why I'm listing all of this here; I didn't really sit down to write up a laundry list of resentments. I'm actually not resenting much (other than the software UX problems that offend my professional pride) in each moment, and we're staying positive and easing into getting this system working! We just support and coach our kids as best we can, and problem solve with them about their frustrations and confusions. Above all else, the kids have to be bought in and self-directed, so there's no sense triggering any power struggles.

But it's barely "working" for us, overall. I'm also sure that this system is not functionally working for a lot of people who don't have the extremely high amount of time, resources, knowledge, and patience that we are privileged to have. I haven't ranted about Covid response lately, but gosh shouldn't we explicitly trade off bars, restaurants, entertainment venues, and most everything else in keeping virus transmission low, when balanced against getting to safely open our schools? I wish our institutions and societal systems were competent and agile enough to find and turn those knobs.