An Oregon Parent Describes the Misery of Zoom School—and Calls for It to End

Samantha Vembu says teachers can't see how children are suffering on the other side of a screen.

OPEN UP: Portland parents rallied last week for in-person classes to resume. (Chris Nesseth)

Samantha Vembu is tired of the debate over reopening schools being framed by people who can't see her 5-year-old son's frustration.

For weeks, Gov. Kate Brown has been trying to nudge Oregon teachers back into classrooms, in part by moving them to the front of the COVID-19 vaccination line. As WW reported last week, that's not moving the needle at Portland Public Schools and other large districts, because the Oregon Education Association and other teachers' unions are resisting a return to in-person instruction.

Some teachers argue that resuming classes would spread the virus to their families and their students' grandparents. They say a hasty reopening this spring would only cause greater harm for the most vulnerable kids of color.

Related: A union head says Portland teachers didn't ask to cut in line for vaccines—and they won't automatically return to classrooms in gratitude.

Vembu says those teachers have no idea what harm is already being done.

Samantha Vembu.

Her kids, who are 4 and 5 and attend the Beaverton School District, are miserable in distance learning, she says. And they're among the lucky ones: the children who aren't left in front of a screen while parents work frontline jobs, who aren't being abused, who haven't dropped off the school district's radar entirely.

Frustrated that parents don't have a powerful political lobby—like the ones that kept restaurants open and schools closed—Vembu is forming one. She joined ED300, a parent campaign declaring that 300 days away from school is enough.

In a recent interview, WW presented her with the allegation teachers have levied: that the clamor to reopen schools is coming from white, wealthy parents. Here's how she responded.

"First off: I'm not a white, wealthy person of power. I am biracial. My son has my exact same skin color, and I've adopted outside of my race. As a person of color, I'm really offended by what they're saying. How dare they take my voice? That is for me to decide. Where do they get off filling in the voice of people of color? I do not appreciate them putting words in my mouth and trying to say that it's for the betterment of my child. Don't I get to make a choice about my children?

"My daughter is 4. She will need [English as a second language]. ESL is now being taught on a screen. Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language on a screen? It does not go well. Kindergarten is not going well. But when it's not going well, the screen gets turned off and the teacher does not get to see that. When my son is frustrated and then he wants to hit his head on the wall, we turn the screen off. You know, yesterday the school had a psychologist or the school counselor on—he hung up on him because he didn't want to play zoo or whatever it was. There are a lot of things that teachers do not see.

"And it's up to the school district to give me the education that my children need and to give them the safe place they can be. And I think the bigger question that we have to ask here is not necessarily about the union but who the school districts are trying to serve. Are they being an employer or are they taking care of students? Because if they're being an employer, let's be honest: Be an employer, come out with a different product. But right now, children's education is the product that they're in the business of manufacturing. And that is the product that I am not receiving.

"Every time I'm on Zoom with my son, his kindergarten teacher is amazing, but he doesn't learn it through the screen. It's not physical. They need hands-on instruction. They need tactical input in order to learn. And that's one of those things that happens as children's brains develop between being a baby and being a teenager. Adults don't have to touch things. Children do. You can't touch a Zoom screen.

"When he's learning to spell words, he has to move the little letters with his finger. That's not the same as touching a magnetic letter. He gets an assignment, I have to sit there next to him and figure out how to make it something that he can physically touch so he can understand it. And then I have to take a picture of it. And it sometimes takes me 10 minutes to turn in one assignment that in class would have taken him five minutes to do. That is from my time.

"And I probably spend two hours a day having arguments with him about getting his work done. That does not make him feel good. That makes me feel horrible as a parent. And I'm sitting here wondering why it is that I have to do this. My husband is a family doctor. We have read the studies from Europe. And I think Switzerland or Sweden, they didn't shut down at all. There are studies and studies that show this can be done safely. And so I'm wondering why it is that the teachers' union is in charge of judging what is safe for my child. Why am I not talking about that with my school?"

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