We lined up outside the school, six feet apart – a distance that shrank to zero when the five-year-olds saw each other – and waited to have our temperatures taken. No parents were allowed inside the gates, so after the checks were done and health forms submitted, the kids entered the playground alone. There they stood, on appropriately spaced dots and in pod-classes of no more than 10 children, waiting to file into the building. Two weeks into the academic year New York, alone among the big US cities, was welcoming children back to school for the first time in six months.
It seemed to go very smoothly that day. I had wondered how my five-year-olds would cope with wearing a mask for five hours, but when they came home they didn’t mention it. It had seemed ambitious to expect kids that age to maintain social distance, or not to share crayons, or to identify with a teacher also wearing a mask. But none of that came up, either. Instead they spoke about their first day of school as if all of it – the temperature checks, the masks, the abandonment at the school gate – had been in place since their first day at nursery. While we fussed and fretted over what we were doing to them, they had already skipped into the future.
This is what children do, of course: they adapt, and to anything. This much was apparent long before the first day of school. Back in March, when schools shut and we all turned to Zoom, neither of my children showed the slightest inclination or ability to receive their tuition online. They wouldn’t stay in front of the screen for more than five minutes, or speak back when addressed by a teacher. When thumbnail images of their classmates appeared down one side of the screen, they stared at them as if they were aliens. This, I thought, would never work.
Six months later, it is a different story. The first two weeks of school unfolded exclusively online in New York, and the teachers – who had adapted too – spent the first few sessions teaching kids how to mute and unmute themselves, raise their hands at the camera, and stay fully inside the frame so everyone could see them. They sent them off to do treasure hunts and bring items back to share with the class. They had them hold their drawing up to the screen, and talk through them. It was imaginative and energetic – and if there were limits to how much a PowerPoint presentation about the weather could engage a five-year-old, it was at least better than before. After a week, my children could sit comfortably for 30 minutes in a Zoom class, glazed over but compliant. I looked on, half impressed, half appalled. It was like watching a tiny example of the survival of the species.
There are bigger problems with remote learning, which clearly can’t be overcome. In the spring, teachers across the country reported huge drop-offs in attendance, with one survey suggesting fewer than half of students showed up for remote classes. In some parts of the country, those numbers seemed to have improved in September, but even after the distribution of iPads and efforts by school boards to expand wifi access, the numbers are still down. The night before the first week of in-person learning, many schools in New York, including our own, sent a frantic email announcing the cancellation of all live Zoom classes because of teacher shortages. We were back to the grind of “asynchronous learning”, otherwise known as the worksheet.
There was one good thing about this withdrawal. It is a strange side-effect of Zoom learning that parents have an opportunity to see their children where they otherwise wouldn’t. After handing my kids over to a babysitter, it struck me I could still log on to their classes and watch them learning online in real time. I almost did it, before pulling back with a sense of invading their privacy; and something else, akin to the naturalist’s instinct that observation without interference is the only decent approach. I don’t want to see my kids at school. The urge to jump in is too strong, and almost certainly unhelpful.
At pick-up that first day, the parents stood behind a red line while teachers squinted to recognise them behind their masks. One by one, the students were released while we waited anxiously to hear how it went. My children rushed at me, tore off their masks, and, with the thrill of those returned to what they now consider normality, shouted: “Best day ever!”.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist