“It hit me back in June as the school year was ending that this wasn’t going away, and the start of the school year was going to look very different than normal. After a good cry, I thought about our options and tried to be realistic about what was ahead.”
Like many parents across the country, the return of school is going to majorly disrupt Jennifer Lyker’s life. The self-employed web designer and developer is facing a new academic year in the middle of a pandemic, and she and her husband will have to manage schooling and care of their three children—eighth-grader Maggie, fourth-grader Audrey, and Zack, in second grade—without any help.
“It hit me back in June as the school year was ending that this wasn’t going away, and the start of the school year was going to look very different than normal,” she said. “After a good cry, I thought about our options and tried to be realistic about what was ahead.”
With more than 10 states seeing a surge in COVID cases in recent weeks, some of which are directly related to resuming in-person learning, parents are grappling with the reality of school in the age of coronavirus. Many are being forced to navigate distance learning in order to protect their families from risks associated with the virus, and that means doing so alone while often maintaining full-time jobs.
According to a new survey conducted by The New York Times, four in five parents reported they will have no in-person help with educating and caring for their school-age children, who often need assistance in their virtual classes. As the pandemic rages on, they simply can’t risk turning to the people they might typically rely on, such as nannies, tutors, family members, and friends.
Lyker and her husband Dan, an IT manager, made the decision to forgo their district’s online program in favor of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, an established, fully virtual, tuition-free public school with a stable, modern curriculum that balances traditional subjects, fine and performing arts, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses.
Distance learning presented significant adjustment challenges for many students and teachers in the spring, which is why Lyker chose to make the official switch to cyber school for the 2020-2021 school year. In order to enroll in PA Cyber, she had to withdraw her children from their regular public school for the year. While the whole family is on board with making the switch, she still has conflicting feelings about the decision.
“I keep reminding myself that our goal isn’t just to keep our kids and family healthy but to give the kids some stability and consistency in their learning this year,” she explained. “I pictured quick switches from in-person and back to online and imagined the transitions being a disaster, and I didn’t want that.”
“After a good cry, I thought about our options and tried to be realistic about what was ahead.”
Throughout the summer, President Donald Trump has been aggressively pushing for students of all ages to resume full-time, in-person schooling, even as the number of documented infections in the U.S. surpasses 5.5 million people. Despite receiving ample warning about the novel coronavirus and the havoc it would unleash on the U.S. public health system, the Trump administration has bungled the federal response and failed to control spread of the virus.
Schools in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina have all experienced COVID outbreaks within the first week of opening. Over 2,000 students and nearly 600 teachers in Mississippi alone are currently quarantining due to virus exposure.
Research has shown that while young children who become infected with COVID have milder symptoms than adults and contract the virus less often, children can still spread it. One recent study shows the rate of infection in children and their viral loads make them more likely to be “silent spreaders,” and some children have become seriously ill from the virus and even died.
In Colorado, community spread has thus far been reported primarily among college students. But Lacy Cunningham, a freelance administrative consultant who is also enrolled at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Masters of Social Work program full-time, is still keeping her first-grader, Emmanuel, at home this year.
“I wanted so badly to attend to his social-emotional development,” she said. “Looking at it now that we have evidence of how easily it’s been spreading at schools, I can admit to myself that I would have been sick to my stomach every day sending him to a building full of other people.”
Cunningham and her husband Chris, director of Learning Experience Design at University of Colorado Boulder, will share parenting and school work duties. “He worked it out that he is now squeezing his job into four days a week so I can shut myself in the office for a full day every Monday,” she said, explaining that the arrangement doesn’t fully cover her paid work or most school work.
“Outside of that semi-formal arrangement, it’s a question of which parent’s work is lowest priority in that moment. Can I spare an hour? Or do we have simultaneous meetings? Can we get Emmanuel deep in a LEGO project or is it time for the iPad to babysit? Every day, hour to hour, we come to the negotiating table,” she explained. “It’s exhausting.”
Without family nearby, Cunningham and her husband are also without child care. Because of the pandemic, they’re practicing strict social distancing and are reluctant to hire outside help. “I don’t want a babysitter who lives with roommates or takes care of other children in families we don’t know,” she said. “The other piece of that is financial. If we were to decide we felt safe hiring outside help, I would want them to be compensated fairly, and we simply don’t have the ability to pay well.”
Relying on a metaphorical “village” is part of raising children for a lot of parents. Parenting through a pandemic is difficult beyond measure, especially in the absence of family and friends as the virus continues with no end in sight. Mothers are already disproportionately affected by the COVID recession, as women across the country are simultaneously experiencing heightened unemployment, an unequal division of household labor, and increased childcare needs.
“It does hurt a little bit to take my foot off the gas in my business because I have had my best year yet,” Lyker admitted. In lieu of childcare options, she plans on waking up early on school mornings to tend to her own work for a few hours. She and her husband plan on sharing the daily duties as much as possible, with schoolwork, and checking in to ensure they’re meeting their children’s emotional needs as well.
“In addition to the logistical concerns of work, school, chores, and life, there’s the fact that we are living through a pandemic,” Lyker said. “It’s overwhelming, and making sure we’re talking with the kids honestly about things without scaring the crap out of them is tough.”
Cunningham said her biggest struggle is when her son asks her to play with him while she’s in the middle of her work. “He says in his plaintive little voice, ‘I wish you and Daddy didn’t work so much,’” she said.
“He says in his plaintive little voice, ‘I wish you and Daddy didn’t work so much.'”
The impact of the pandemic’s gravity coupled with trying to co-exist, learn, and remain employed is taking its toll on American families and the collective mental health of children everywhere. Cunningham said Emmanuel is developing behavioral issues she believes are directly related to the pandemic.
“I almost don’t believe I’ll make it through this year without something falling apart,” she admitted. “How can we possibly choose what to de-prioritize in order to make this sustainable?”
But her son has also found solace in self-directed solo play, which allows Cunningham and her husband moments of reprieve. “It’s in the moments when he is quietly drawing an elaborate comic series about robots and villains that I see his resilience shine through.”