Toby Gittleman
Toby Gittleman practices choreography for college auditions at a private dance studio in Birmingham. (Stacy Gittleman)

Contributing writer Stacy Gittleman documents the journey of her family taking on online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the first day of his freshman year, my third and youngest child Toby confidently strode into the front entrance of the gleaming new Bloomfield Hills High School with a cup of Starbucks in his hand. He’d bought it for a girl. On it was inscribed the words: I like you a Latte. Will you go to HoCo with me?

His intended homecoming date had a scheduling conflict that night. But that morning of September 2017 was the auspicious beginning of a sometimes rocky, sometimes scary, but what we now look back on as a relatively normal high school career.

Stacy Gittleman
Stacy Gittleman

For him, and every student out there, all normalcy came to a screeching halt on March 12, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not even the horror of school shootings in recent years could have prepared any of us for such a complete and total disruption in our children’s academic careers.

In the normal life of a high school junior, by spring Toby and his peers would have taken one round of college entrance exams and visited some college campuses. But now they must get a feel for what life will be like as a collegiate through a website or a brochure. The College Board in the spring canceled entrance exams twice. By mid-summer, new test dates were announced. He scrambled to get a local test date but got shut out. So, bright and early a few Saturdays from now, we’ll be driving to Toledo so he can take the SAT in an unknown school. In a classroom with an unknown number of students, with desks dubiously spaced. Who knows what the ventilation system will be like?

That’s unless, of course, the exam gets canceled. Again. Even if these tests do go on, it is unclear how much college admissions will be taking them into account as they also pivot in the pandemic age.

Since March, we had all hoped against hope for normalcy to return in September. But neither parents, nor educators, nor school administrators call the shots.

The pandemic does.

On Aug. 6, the Bloomfield Hills Schools Board of Education, after a Zoom meeting that lasted seven hours, voted to forgo all in-person instruction for K-12 students, at least for the first few months of the 2020-2021 school year.

Just as it was in the spring, learning in isolation online will be tortuous for my very extroverted and theatrical son. Lifesaving, yes. Sanity-saving for all involved? Not so much.

Toby suffers from anxiety and depression. His mental illness has taken us down a continuing road of therapists and meds and coping and not coping with an academic system often structured, not on what a child knows, but on when and if they hand in assignments. School can be a roller coaster ride even when a global pandemic is not threatening to sabotage your senior year.

Toby misses participating in lively classroom dialogue at school with his peers. At least at school, when things go bad and the stress is high, you have your friends around you to commiserate at the lunch table.

Learning online again, Toby anticipates a struggle to stay on task. The silver lining is that his classes on the performing and media arts will be made available. To ease the isolation, he plans to find trusted study buddies to work with either in person or over FaceTime.

More than classes, it is your community of peers that makes high school some of the best years of your life. This summer, Toby and other BHHS students continued to be involved with their high school by forming a Student Equity Council. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and this summer’s civil rights protests, they are actively petitioning school administrators to create a more inclusive and equitable social studies curriculum to fight racism through education.

Whatever happens this school year, Toby knows he is blessed and privileged.  Our family is healthy and relatively untouched by the economic woes of COVID.

Plus, we have a pandemic puppy to give us love and lots of hairballs.

So, whatever this new year brings, we are strapped in and ready.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride to graduation.

This is the first in a series of diaries from Stacy Gittleman.