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PPS will be online-only at least until Nov. 5, but the remote learning difficulties in the spring left parents worried about what the new year will look like.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tamia Birgman, 13, pushes her younger sister, Amira, 4, as their parents, Daryl and Tamisha watch their kids play in the backyard of their home.This school year will be one like no other, and as the first day of school looms, feelings of uncertainty and stress prevail among parents.

Portland Public Schools will be online-only through at least Nov. 5 — and Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday, Aug. 21, that schools could be closed until April if Oregonians don't change behaviors to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Online classes in the spring were a mixed bag for families, plagued by poor communication and what many described as little motivation.

Take, for instance, Tamisha Birgman, a mother of four between the ages of 3 and 13, all living in a 900-square-foot house. "But I do have a backyard, so that is really a lifesaver for me," she said.

Her older daughters, ages 11 and 13, are middle schoolers at da Vinci Middle School. Her 4-year-old daughter Amira goes to Albina Head Start, where 3-year-old Tyson was supposed to start this year.

Birgman's husband can work full-time from home, but she had planned to start working once Tyson started school this year. Now that's on hold, so they're struggling financially.

Birgman pulled her children out of school a few days before everything shut down, calling it "mother's intuition — just the feeling in the gut that we couldn't risk it."

But Birgman and her children had a difficult time trying to navigate remote learning. She said the school did a great job of getting laptops out to students, but after that, she was frustrated by the lack of communication and said some of the homework didn't seem like real assignments.

Her daughters told her they had turned in all of their assignments, but Birgman discovered later that there was a website tracking their progress, showing they were both missing several tasks.

"It was all over the place," she said. "It was really aggravating and frustrating for me."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Birgman family — like so many others — are struggling to figure out how to blend their jobs and the closure of public schools due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Missing the structure

For Katie Stevens' high schoolers, lack of structure was a problem. Stevens is an occupational therapist, and her sons Elliot, 16, and Sam, 18, attended Lincoln High School.

Sam didn't have to attend class at all after the school shut down, Stevens said, because he was a senior and already was passing his classes. "That was unfortunate because then they didn't really have any structure to their day," she said.

But she said her younger son, Elliot, struggled with motivation. Stevens said he struggled with in-person school, too. "I was surprised things could be worse than actual in school learning," she said. "I thought, 'Maybe this will be better for him,' and it was definitely not better."

Both she and her husband work outside the home, so she had to trust that he was doing his work.

"It was a bit of a struggle having to ask him," she said. "You know, that banter back and forth between a parent and kid, about making sure they're doing their work when they felt like it really was insignificant and not important. So that puts a little bit of a strain on the relationship."

One of the biggest worries for Stevens, she said, was the loss of connection with peers and teachers. But one positive was that her sons got to spend more time together.

Teachers' perspective

Alisha Chavez is a K-2 intensive skills teacher at Atkinson Elementary School in Southeast Portland. She primarily instructs children with disabilities. Trying to teach young kids who often need extra learning support has compounded the challenges brought on by remote learning.

"From my experience in the spring, I found distance learning did not meet the needs of my students no matter the platform," Chavez said. "I felt like I was talking at them for half an hour and there was no way for me to get expressive language from them."

Some parents of special needs students opted to disengage from remote learning altogether during the last school year, citing little to no return or educational outcome for their children.

Chavez fears that could happen again.

"What I would hope is that I could see them in person," she said of her students, "however it's not safe to do so."

Angela Bonilla, a dual language immersion teacher and instructional coach at Scott Elementary, said she worries most about gaps in communication between the school district and migrant parents. Bonilla said those parents don't always get forms, surveys or district emails in their native language. Those families often are some of the most vulnerable to being left behind in academic settings.

In many cases, Bonilla said, the students are the translators between teachers and parents.

"We end up having a big mix of multi-lingual kids who may or may not be learning in a language they use at home," Bonilla said.

While teachers worry students and parents will be disconnected or disengaged from online learning, they may be engaging in other healthy ways.

Some families make it work

Things smoothed out for Michelle Cacka's children after a tough start, largely due to technical issues.

Cacka is a paraeducator — or educational assistant — at Buckman Elementary School, where her 8-year-old son Bennett Chachka goes to school (Note: The family has Anglicized the spelling of the parents' last name differently than their children's last name. Both names are pronounced the same). She worked from her basement while her husband Philip, who was unemployed at the time, managed the kids schedules.

Live classes were hard, she said, because of technical issues. "If the internet went out or the Google Meet closed," she said, "it went from fun to really big feelings — feelings of missing out and tears and frustration — until we could log back in."COURTESY PHOTO: MICHELLE CHACHKA - Bennett Chachka, 8, decorated his video chat background with Dungeons & Dragons books to show other students during spring classes.

But in some ways, her children excelled, she said.

For instance, the elective classes at the elementary school sent out short videos for activities to do at home with the resources they have. The PE teacher sent out a video telling the students to make an obstacle course, showing kids doing hers. "Then it was like, "Turn off the screen, and go do it," Cacka said. "You don't have to record it. You can just do it."

Bennett really engaged with that kind of assignment, she said. He was in special education for reading and writing, and his teacher took a similar approach to assignments.

"He actually wrote more," Cacka said. "He would actually have time to write for an hour."

Her daughter Lucy Chachka, 13, attends da Vinci Middle School. Lucy is a high academic achiever, Cacka said, but one of the things Cacka liked about her classes was group work, which they couldn't really continue while remote.

Going into the new school year might be tougher. Cacka's husband is working again, so he won't be home to keep the kids on track.

Cacka will still be working from home, but she hasn't gotten her work schedule yet. She said she's expecting to take a few hours of family leave off per week to work with her kids and help her neighbors, many of whom cannot work from home.

Cacka said her biggest concern is that classes will be more rigorous. She said many of her neighbors are back at work, so their children will be home alone. "I'm worried that you can't do it online without support," she said. "So I'm worried that kids will be left behind."

She said that she's been offered some tutoring positions by "middle to wealthy families," but she isn't looking for extra work, and she's worried for families who can't afford a tutor.

"What's going to happen to them as we get more rigorous?" Cacka said. "The kids that PPS have historically served well are going to be served well at their homes, and the kids that PPS has historically underserved are going to be even more underserved now."

Stevens hasn't really talked about the upcoming school year with her son yet, but she will once he gets his school schedule this week. "He still wanted to try to just enjoy the summer," she said.

Stevens said she and her family are planning to change their schedules for the fall so they won't be out all day — but they haven't figured out how that will work yet.

For now, she said, they're adjusting. "I do hope, for my kids at least, that they can see that life throws you different things, but there are ways to work through it and get through it," she said, "and that it doesn't have to be a negative. It's just a part of living."

Birgman also hasn't been thinking too much about starting school again, she said. "The thought of it brings me a ton of anxiety," she said. "Trying to start it all over again and just adding that extra stress to all of our plates and expecting them to, you know, perform naturally in an unnatural situation."

She's been reading about other families' schooling plans on social media and saw parents hiring teachers for learning pods. "I mean, I think it's really cool but I think it's only cool if you have the access and the means to be able to do it," she said.

Birgman doesn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. She's taking it one day at a time, she said. Especially as the days get shorter and the weather gets worse, she said she's worried about her whole family's mental health.

"Being able to be outside and warmer temperatures has probably gotten me and my kids through a majority of all of this," she said.

"The thought of trying to manage six people in a household, and school and work and bills and food, cleaning and darkness and cold weather," she continued. "It's very scary to think about."

Gina Scalpone
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