Coronavirus pandemic deprives children of space

  • School days: teachers at Holy Rosary Catholic School hand out Easter bags and presents to their students and parents during a drive-through in front of the school in Duryea, Pennsylvania (Photograph by Mark Moran/The Citizens’ Voice/AP)
  • Amanda Uhle is executive director and publisher of McSweeney’s, and co-founder, with Dave Eggers, of the International Congress of Youth Voices

My ten-year-old, wearing only underwear and a T-shirt, is half-on, half-off the couch, and one bare leg cradles a laptop I bought the year she was born. She’s watching a YouTube video about the executive branch. This is the last week of fifth grade.

I’m across the room, on a newer laptop, answering e-mails for my publishing company, and my husband is a few feet away researching the book he’s writing on film history. An epic Lego village is so close underfoot that I could topple it if I’m not careful uncrossing my legs. My daughter’s cello stands in the corner, by the fireplace.

No one recycled Sunday’s newspaper, which is under the novel I’m reading for fun and stacked next to some films at hand for the book-in-progress and the ruler used for math assignments. Insurance papers and galleys to ship for the publishing company are on top of a cookbook I have open to a recipe for red lentil soup. This is also our living room.

My daughter is one of 1.5 billion children worldwide who were not in their classrooms this spring. And we’re one of countless families that have merged our professional, personal, academic, leisure, social and every other kind of life into one untamed melange inside the four walls of our home. The urge for elbow room is palpable.

“Why do they call it a Cabinet, anyway?” my daughter asks aloud, but I don’t answer because my mobile phone is ringing with a work call. When I finish talking to the book distributor, I explain checks and balances to my daughter, to the best of my memory. Adults like me — privileged to be employed at all — have lost the chance to keep focus in our work lives, but school-age students have lost so much more this academic year.

Despite enormous efforts on the part of schools and educators, academics this year were simply not the same. My daughter’s writing assignments are scored, imperfectly and humourlessly, by a computer program.

Playing cello into an app that grades her performance is nothing like having her instrumental music teacher nod along and offer suggestions. Her social calendar is pretty deficient these days, too. But these are minor indignities, necessary sacrifices in these unprecedented times. What she really needs and what no one can provide her just now is what Virginia Woolf so prudently called for: a room of her own.

Kids require spaces just for them, where they can not only focus on the business of learning, but also feel a sense of confidence and belonging. A place designed for them.

In schools and other educational centres, students receive a heavy dose of learning that goes beyond academics; research shows that the social and emotional gains in these settings, and trust-based relationships with their teachers and mentors, improve everything from grades and test scores to wellbeing and a sense of self. It’s no wonder that children benefit from time at places that are built and staffed with their needs at the forefront.

Just a few months ago, there was a place in the world where my daughter was more knowledgeable than me, more at ease, where she had dozens of warm and important relationships.

The whole realm of fifth grade — the locker decorations, the lunchroom etiquette, the sound of squeaky shoes on hallway floors — was entirely and authoritatively hers.

Her beautiful school has been closed since mid-March, with dandelions now reigning over the park adjacent. As an incoming middle-schooler, she won’t even have a chance to return.

It’s not only schools we keenly miss. When I see my half-dressed daughter slumped over the sofa, it’s clear how much she needs a place designed with school-age hearts and brains in mind. Even at our utmost as parents, our houses and apartments will never compete with the cabins and bunk beds of summer camps and the sweaty gyms of cities’ recreation programmes.

We’ll never quite achieve the sense of wonder a kid feels when walking into a place like San Francisco’s 826 Valencia, a pirate store and youth writing centre I work with that provides nurturing support for children and their ideas alongside the peg legs and eye patches sold in the shop.

Kids have an inherent optimism and courage that is honoured in spaces built for them: city park playgrounds, children’s museums and thoughtfully curated classrooms. These are places designed for creative learning and for fostering a sense of human connection, key parts of how children succeed in school and in life. As long as these places are not available to young people, their absence will be deeply felt by all of us.

We’re adapting. When I really need to think and write, I sit in the front seat of our Toyota, parked a block down the street with my phone off. I moderated an author event on Zoom from inside my closet the other night, and it actually was OK.

As we look to the no-school, no-camp summer ahead, I’ve considered how to expand what’s possible inside the 1,000 square feet that my family calls home. (We’re also calling it an office, a movie theatre, a classroom, a summer vacation destination and more.) As usual, my daughter is a step or two ahead of me. I noticed the other day that the old laptop she uses for school assignments was on top of the dryer, along with a cup of markers and a notebook.

She said it was less distracting than the couch, kitchen table or her bedroom, all of which have had their turn as makeshift classroom this spring. She has also got what she calls a “stick fort” under way in the backyard, near a three-foot-deep hole she has been digging as part of a project she prefers not to discuss. It might be an escape route, but more likely, she’s making a little place, just for herself.

Amanda Uhle is executive director and publisher of McSweeney’s, and co-founder, with Dave Eggers, of the International Congress of Youth Voices