Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series about the return to school amid the pandemic.
As teachers return to the classrooms, students are still attending school virtually over zoom. But with the students at home, how are parents bearing up under the pressure of watching their children and maintaining jobs?
“It’s kind of been all over the place. There’s not really a word to describe it. It’s better organized than it was at the end of last year. We did have a breakdown on the second day trying to balance his Zoom calls and my work meetings,” said Marjorie John, whose son attends Sayéik: Gastineau Community School. “It’s pretty challenging balancing being a mom and work. Just making sure he’s staying on task and engaging. They want us to be doing these games and activities and they don’t always relay this.”
Many parents, especially those who work, can find balancing the responsibilities of their jobs and making sure their children are getting quality education, especially if the children are on the younger end.
“Our back-to-school experience has been challenging. She’s had one full week,” said Morgan Cruz, whose daughter attends Glacier Valley Elementary School. “The teacher reached out to us because they ended up changing platforms. I feel like the teachers have this expectation of a parent being there watching the child.”
That expectation does exist, said JSD Superintendent Bridget Weiss in an email.
“The expectations for care of children while in the home are the same whether they are in a learning opportunity or not. Children need to be supervised. For our elementary age students as an example, we expect there is a caregiver there with them,” Weiss said. “Many families also are supporting their middle-schooler or high-schooler. Each family has their own needs in this area.”
While all parents expressed sympathy and support for the teachers tasked with delivering an education in this new model, some worry this may be a no-win scenario.
“I feel like there’s no winning for these teachers. It’s really sad to see the disconnect this is causing between parents and teachers and students,” John said. “I worry about the long-term effects when they do go back. There’s no one size fits all. Everyone’s trying their best. Something that may work great for me may not work at all for someone else.”
Bread on the table
In 2020, in most families with two parents, both parents are employed, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This can be difficult to reconcile with a near-requirement to be present to help younger children during the school day with class, exercise and meals.
“My issues are compounded by the fact that I’m a night-shift ER nurse and I’m supposed to be asleep during the day,” said Caitlin Bedford, who works at Bartlett Regional Hospital, in a phone interview. “It’s 12-hour days, and it’s not like I can work from home.”
Even for parents whose jobs allow them to work from home, things like bandwidths, client confidentiality and numerous children can make it hard to keep all the balls in the air.
“When you’re running from one computer to another computer to another computer and there’s three kids, you’re like, ‘Wait, what are you supposed to be doing?’” said Cierra Kendrick, who has one child at Floyd Dryden Middle School and two children at Mendenhall River Community School, in a phone interview “The internet crashed six times yesterday. My middle-schooler was like, ‘Mom, what do I do?’ One of the programs our second-graders are running tanks the internet every time they click on it.”
The district is aware of the problem, Weiss said.
“We are aware that some home networks may be older or less powerful. Neither Zoom or the other programs we use require much bandwidth but when too many devices are connected to an older or under-powered network crashes or slowdowns can happen,” Weiss said. “We are still working on alternative internet access for those families who do not have adequate Internet at home. We are also working to provide supervised spaces for small groups of students who need Internet access, to do distance learning from schools.”
For others, a certain amount of flexibility allows the parents to work a more distributed workday, but there are lines in the sand that don’t always play well with the school schedule.
“My job has been so supportive,” said John. “For the most part I can adjust my work schedule around his (schedule). For the most part I’m still able to do my job but with more interruptions and breaks.”
For some, with workplaces that can accommodate it, the transition in education has allowed some parents to spend more time with their children then they ordinarily would.
“Our entire team has gotten approval to work from home for the next year,” said Erin Fahsholtz, who is homeschooling her son through Homebridge this year in lieu of a distanced education. “They understand that I have a 6 year old. I keep them updated with what’s going on with school.”
Fahsholtz said the homeschooling had allowed her to spend more time with her son, though getting used to the new balance of her schedule was taking a little getting used to.
“This is still my first week of trying to do everything all at once: trying to fit that into a schedule where there’s meeting after meeting, and 20-to-40-minute lessons, and trying to keep my son fed,” Fahsholtz said. “It affects our moods, how we interact with each other.”
A dearth of alternatives
While there are child care options, there aren’t many, and of those, the cost can be prohibitive. The school’s Relationships and Leadership Learning for Youth program, for example, would cost more than $1,200 a month, Bedford said.
The Juneau School District applied with the city for increased funding from the CARES Act to help subsidize employee payroll costs, but this request was rejected recently amid discussions of creating a framework for child care.
“We thought that we would get some backup from the school district,” Bedford said. “It’s a quarter of my take-home pay. No one is like ‘Woo-hoo, let’s send the kids to school, that sounds awesome,’ but some people don’t have options.”
While some parents are able to lean on older relatives for help, this isn’t a perfect solution either, parents said. Older humans are at higher risk of severe effects from the coronavirus.
“If your kid gets it and is asymptomatic and gives it to your 70-year-old mother she might get it and die,” said Bedford, who also pointed out that teachers who are also parents can hardly be expected to watch their own children while teaching a class full of other children.
Additionally, the tech-based model JSD has adopted doesn’t necessarily lend itself to being easily understood by older generations, Kendrick said. The vagaries of Zoom, Canvas, connection speeds, routers and apps involved in the process of modern education can be convoluted.
“We’re a household of six.” Kendrick said, who has an older relative who can sometimes sit in on kids during the school day. “She can kind of sort of sit and babysit one of the kids on the computer and she can say ‘Nope, we’re not playing with toys, you need to focus,’ and that’s about the extent of it.”
The school district recommends calling their help line for technical assistance, Weiss said.
“The JSD IT department has played a key role for families in the opening weeks of school,” Weiss said. “Families can call the JSD Help Desk if needed at 907-796-5899, and they can do a test Zoom session to make sure things are working correctly. After the first week or two of school, the JSD Help Desk call volume for all grade levels has decreased significantly.”
Return to school?
Opinions on returning the students to physical classrooms are split — sometimes in the same person.
“I’m still really conflicted about it. I think I go back and forth daily,” John said. “I do miss the routine and the structure and the morning rush of getting him out the door. There’s no right choice right now.”
Others are less conflicted.
“I would love for the kids to get back in school. The educational benefits completely outweigh the risks,” Cruz said. “I think there are mitigation strategies to reduce risk. That, or they need to take the year off from education.”
Some are holding fire, reserving judgment until more information can be gathered.
“Kids are pretty versatile,” Fahsholtz said. “We are planning on reassessing come Thanksgiving.”
The district plans to evaluating the situation with regard to quality of education and rates of community spread of the coronavirus at the end of September, Weiss said.
“Given that we are only two weeks in, just starting week three, we are doing well. There are many variables and each family has different challenges and needs,” Weiss said. “In general, we have received a lot of feedback that the increased expectations, the more creative distance delivery instruction, and the overall approach is working much better than our efforts last spring when we had no warning before schools being closed.”