Nearly 20 minutes into my daughter’s second day of school, her first-grade class is still focused on how to mute and unmute during the videoconference. The teacher is making valiant attempts to keep 6-year-olds engaged while guiding them — remotely, of course — through the very kid-unfriendly user interface of Microsoft Teams. To break up the muting-unmuting experiments, she calls on the students, one at a time, to say what their favorite animal is.

What turns into a nearly 10-minute exercise occurs against a jarring sonic background of crying babies, television shows and side conversations, as the muting woes persist. Throughout, my daughter is fidgeting, then flopping on her bed, then rolling around on the floor. Sitting in her bedroom with her, I offer continuous, gentle reminders that she can move anywhere in her bedroom that she wants, as long as she stays in front of her laptop’s webcam — which she keeps evading.

A low point comes a few minutes later when the teacher, heroically trying to teach physical writing over the Internet, asks the students to put a sentence on paper. My daughter is distracted and off-camera and doesn’t hear the request, so I coax her back to the screen to respond. She raises her hand to ask the teacher what to do. The class activity continues without anyone acknowledging her; we only see nine of 16 video tiles, so perhaps my daughter’s raised hand is invisible to the teacher. Frustrated, she unleashes a high-pitched moan through gritted teeth. “Daddy, I’m doing awful,” she says.

I reassure her that she is great and that everything is new and hard. But we are doing awful. The systematic failure by the United States to manage the pandemic has finally brought us to this terrible moment of remote “school.” Our elementary school has been dealt an unplayable hand, as instructors face the challenge not only of teaching young children to read, do math and write via a video link — but also of navigating many kids through their first encounter with a computer. Like my wife, I am extremely fortunate both to be employed and to be able to work from home. But we wonder how we will manage our jobs while also serving as technical assistants, schedulers and executive-function coaches. I’m impatient with my daughter’s flailing attention, but I realize that the real targets of my ire are the compounding societal failures. It is aggravating to see a first-grader living with the consequences of political mismanagement, and who assumes that she’s doing something wrong. This shouldn’t be her first lesson of first grade.

If you haven’t seen virtual elementary school in action, you can’t grasp the maddening technical hurdles. After the animal-naming exercise, the teacher splits the kids into two groups — which means detailed instructions on how to leave our current videoconference and join the new ones. The teacher offers these instructions twice. My daughter unplugs the laptop and carries it to her bed where she can lie down on her back, chin on her chest. A parent pipes up to say the new videoconferences are locked. The teacher can’t unlock them; meanwhile, parents trickle back into the original videoconference, each announcing the same problem.

It’s clear that my wife and I will be helping our daughter for many more days, and many more hours, than we expected. Still, an hour into the day, my daughter starts to impress me with her attention to the screen. Well done, kiddo! Then a system alert chimes. I go over to look at the screen, which reveals that she has discovered Microsoft Paint and is experimenting with electronic doodling while the teacher talks. “I can still listen while I do this!” Already, my 6-year-old has discovered multitasking.

Other parents share their growing frustration. “My kid is looking at me and I don’t know what to do,” one says. It’s at that point that our teacher explains that she hasn’t yet mastered the three different content platforms herself; we’re all in this together. My daughter’s attention begins to flag: She drifts away from the camera, and at one point I have to coax her out from under her bed. Back at the computer, navigating one of the new school platforms, she stumbles on an educational video featuring cartoon characters. She clicks on it, because of course you click on cartoons. Now she is totally out of sync with the class. The teacher calls on her, but she can’t stop the video in time to respond. The teacher moves on. Soon, the morning session ends. My daughter flips back to Microsoft Paint.

After lunch, I relax the rule of staying on-camera to accommodate my daughter’s restlessness. At one point, during a math exercise, she gets so bored that she tries to leave her room. Only a short break in the session prevents me from barricading it from the inside. Afterward, there’s a group reading of a book: Kids take turns enunciating, to the screen, passages about a fish that wants to be an astronaut, and it goes relatively smoothly — until suddenly the screen goes dark. My daughter has found the power button. We restart and log back in.  

At the end of the day, our daughter tells us, “I’m the worst kid in the class.” My wife and I cheerily remind her of all the things she is doing well, empathize with her tough feelings and encourage her to be kind to herself. Yet I can’t help worrying: Will she internalize the combination of frustration, boredom and parental anxiety as a story about herself? 

Other parents assure me that things will get better, and a couple more days in, I do see improvement. Still, this is going to be hard for some time. As my daughter struggles, I will be doing my best to keep her from thinking that our collective failure is her failure.

Twitter: @jburwen