On her 18th day of first grade, a Thursday in late September, Khloe Johnson sits at a pink-and-blue, Trolls-themed desk and tries to learn to read.
Her designated spot is her family’s living room in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the Genesis Park neighborhood, wedged between Interstate 77 and Statesville Avenue just north of uptown. Eight people live here; six are children in school. The living room, dining room, and kitchen share a single open space. A few feet away, two of her siblings use the dining room table as a desk while the others work in their bedrooms.
Khloe, a shy girl in jean shorts and PAW Patrol slippers, “attends” Walter G. Byers School just a few blocks away. But the COVID lockdown in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has forced her and her siblings to learn from here. It is not going well. CMS has provided 6-year-old Khloe with an iPad and fold-over cover that doubles as a stand, but she has trouble keeping it upright, and it repeatedly topples to the floor. Because she’s still learning to read, she also can’t tell time, so she relies on nearby family members to follow the class schedule. No teacher is present to help her type letters she does not yet recognize or find needed apps like DreamBox, Zoom, or Epic by their written names. When the teacher instructs her to use them, Khloe relies on her memory of their icons and swipes through screens until she finds them.
Khloe’s 11-year-old sister, 9-year-old brother, and grandmother take turns assisting her. Khloe’s father, Chevese Johnson, left for work two hours ago. Her 37-year-old mother, Latonya, suffered two strokes in July and remains bedridden. Latonya’s mother, Amy Burks, 65, has temporarily moved in to help. As the start of the school day approaches, she shuffles between caring for Latonya, tending to laundry, making breakfasts, and picking up and resetting Khloe’s iPad. Still, today’s going a bit better than yesterday, when it rained and the family’s unreliable internet service kept kicking the students off zoom.
At 8 a.m., without the benefit of a bell, Burks realizes school has begun. Khloe quickly slides into her desk near a brown corduroy couch as her grandmother hurriedly consults a worn piece of paper for her login information. “Sweet Jesus,” Burks says, exasperated already. As her classmates sign-on, Khloe toggles between pixelated images of her teacher and nearly a dozen classmates, a mixture of brown and Black faces. One student sits in darkness. At 8:06, Khloe’s iPad topples again.
Morning announcements commence. Khloe’s teacher shares her screen, and Principal Anthony Calloway, a bespectacled and bearded Black man, appears in a YouTube message. He reads a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and implores students to seek out honest leaders with integrity who care about the whole community. He implores them to run for the Senate. “Prepare yourselves to be ready to be the leaders of our country,” Calloway says, “so we can make it great for everyone.”
Then, like a family member, he adds, “I love you.”
Across town, in the Cotswold neighbor-hood, another family adapts to the CMS lockdown with a few more tools. Bree Devine’s children—8-year-old daughter Riley, a third-grader, and 5-year-old Landon, a kindergartner—are students at Billingsville-Cotswold Elementary, a CMS pilot program that two years ago “paired” one elementary school with a student body of mostly low-income racial minorities and another with a mostly white and affluent population.
During the spring 2020 semester, Devine transformed the living rooms in her 2,600-square-foot, ranch-style home into makeshift classrooms for Riley and Landon. Over the summer, Devine and six other families from Landon’s preschool and the neighborhood formed a learning pod and pooled enough money to hire a former CMS teacher to supervise and teach kindergarten and third grade. The kids started the fall semester in the living rooms but soon moved into a recently built garage and guest house in the backyard. Today, before the students arrive, Devine wipes down counters and checks to see if the refrigerator needs any more Diet Cokes or Greek yogurts while the family’s 8-year-old chocolate lab, Molly, patrols the classroom alongside her. “We’re just trying to make it as normal as possible in this COVID world, I guess,” she says.
At 7:45 a.m., parents and the seven students walk up the stairs to the second-story classroom. The students drop their backpacks and lunchboxes in a corner bookcase, and Mrs. M, the former CMS teacher—she declined to give her full name—takes their temperatures and squirts dollops of sanitizer into their hands. The students sit in genuine classroom desks. Next to each is a neatly organized basket with the student’s name on the exterior and, inside, notebooks, Unifix cubes, ten-frame boards, scissors, and glue sticks. An iPad sits on each desk, firmly encased in a stand provided by the school. The kids have access to two electric pencil sharpeners and a four-shelf bookcase topped with a scented reed diffuser and filled with titles like What Is a Space Shuttle? and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Mrs. M. floats among the quartet of kindergartners and helps them log in. At precisely 7:45 a.m., the lights dim, and the students rise to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which a ceiling projector displays on a bare wall. Then a projected school employee leads the pod in a song that all seven students know. In unison, they sing: “We gain the knowledge to go to college.”
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