In addition to fundamentally reshaping the nature of work for millions of Americans, and whether they can continue work at all, the coronavirus is also placing an almost impossible expectation on working parents by casting them in the role of teacher.
For parents who are pivoting to remote work, this can mean attempting to manage their own full-time jobs in addition to home-schooling their children, something that many parents have no experience doing. For parents who aren’t able to telework because their roles in health care, food service, transportation, the media and more are deemed essential, the current crisis has placed a harsh spotlight on the lack of resources, including affordable child care, facing many Americans.
“You know when they tell you on airplanes that in the event of losing cabin pressure, it’s important to adjust your mask before helping others? Well, that’s how I feel about working from home with school-aged kids,” says Allison Bozniak, a communications executive with a nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia who is teleworking while also home-schooling her 12-year-old son and her 14-year-old daughter. “This week came up on me like a brick wall, trying to prepare to work from home, eat from home, entertain ourselves at home and, of course, worrying about friends and family.”
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Bozniak’s two children are in middle school, don’t need constant supervision and are accustomed to submitting assignments online already, which helps some with the transition to home schooling. And in addition to creating her own dedicated workspace in a guest room, Bozniak is creating “learning environments” in the kids’ rooms so they can focus on schoolwork.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 1.7 million students were home-schooled in the U.S. during the 2015-2016 school year (the most recent figures available). In fall 2019, there were 56.6 million students in the U.S. overall. Kieryn Darkwater, the director of outreach at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, suspects that as states mandate varying levels of shelter-in-place regulations, many of those students will be in some sort of emergency home schooling situation, at least temporarily.
Closing schools impacts more than coursework. Across the country, children facing extreme hunger often rely on school meals to meet their basic needs. The closing of libraries means less access to educational materials, although many school districts are scrambling to provide online resources if publishers and authors agree to make them available.
Several organizations are making resources available for free to parents and children alike. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a series of age-appropriate teaching guides on forced displacement available on its website. The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting offers a ” journalist in a classroom” program, which can be conducted via video chat. Archives at the Smithsonian and Library of Congress also offer great educational resources. And an ever-growing cadre of resources, from celebrities reading children’s books online to new games and tools, are freely available.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order that ensures schools continue to receive funding during the statewide shelter-in-place order, the first in the country.
“Even though a school may be physically closed, educating and feeding our kids shouldn’t stop. Students still need instruction, even if it’s at a distance,” Newsom said in a statement. “Our low-income students also continue to need access to free or reduced price, healthy meals.”
At the San Francisco Unified School District, administrators are trying to provide a plethora of online resources, while emphasizing that they’re optional. “All of these ideas can be done with regular household items. At the same time, we know that for some families, doing formal learning activities at home is not an option right now, and that is OK,” says Laura Dudnick, a public relations manager for the district. “No students are required to do school work at this time.”
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San Francisco isn’t the only school district offering resources. Darkwater says it’s happening throughout the country and recommends reaching out not only to your kids’ school, but to teachers, state and county education boards, community organizations and other neighborhood resources to see what’s available.
“Additionally, teachers, neighbors or elders in the community may be willing to offer remote tutoring or supervision if children are old enough to be left unattended with the internet,” Darkwater says. “We don’t recommend leaving children to fend for themselves when it comes to making sure their education is happening, but also know this is a trying time and we all have to do the best we can with what we have.”
But, like Dudnick, Darkwater is also urging parents not to stress.
“Don’t try to replicate a school day in your home. Use the resources and materials your school is sending you, and use the internet to help your family stay connected with friends or even go on field trips. Screen time is OK,” Darkwater says. “Everyone’s emotional health is just as important as physical health. Home schooling is about flexibility and doing what works for your family and children individually.”
For Bozniak, worrying she’s keeping her kids on track academically is only part of the challenge facing her as she’s working and home-schooling.
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“More than anything, I’m worried that I’m not supportive enough as my kids are dealing with heightened anxiety over the whole thing,” she says. “I’m just trying to come to terms with it. I’m usually the mom with all the answers, but here I have none.”
Although home schooling is a twist to teleworking for many parents, the teleworking basics still apply. It’s important, as much as possible, to set up a dedicated workspace, which includes a space for videoconferencing, an area for work-only supplies and materials and a schedule for the family that earmarks time for dedicated work, school, play and family activities. Communication is key, too. After several weeks together, even the most loving families can start to have a little tension, and being clear about work, personal and family needs — with each other, and bosses, teams and schools — can go a long way.
And although it may not seem like it now, this is temporary, and many people around the world are going through the same thing. There will be more answers and resources to come as kids go back to school, and people return to their jobs. For now, it’s OK to focus on remaining healthy and safe, and worry about the rest later.
Molly McCluskey is a multimedia journalist and editor who has spent the past decade living in and reporting from some of the most interesting places in the world — and a few not-so-interesting ones as well. She covers foreign affairs, economics, finance, travel and other topics for a wide range of national and international publications. A frequent contributor to U.S. News & World Report, McCluskey’s bylines include Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, CityLab, The Washington Post, National Geographic and more. She is also the creator of Diplomatica, which profiles the hidden histories of diplomatic properties around the world.
She was the editor of CityLab’s limited series, Room to Grow, about the benefits and challenges of raising small kids in urban areas throughout the world, and has edited for publications ranging from Talking Points Memo to Al Jazeera English to Middle East Eye, and was a news producer for the European Broadcasting Union. She currently serves as Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier, a global foreign affairs magazine.
McCluskey is a former reporting fellow in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a recipient of the McGraw Fellowship for Business Reporting, the inaugural recipient of the Solutions Journalism Network Freelance Fund reporting grant, a Media Scholar with Women Deliver and a Reporting the Border Fellow with the International Center of Journalists and the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers. She is a frequent lecturer and panelist on journalism, press freedom and other topics around the world, and served four terms on the Board of Governors of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.