“It got real on Monday”: Parents adjust to extended school closures

Parents share their experiences of juggling a career and kids at home due to coronavirus.
Nakisha-Washington-with-kids

Most people can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when planes hit the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. I was headed to the bookstore at Tennessee State University before my second class. I thought the world was ending. I didn’t sleep well for weeks. I thought that I’d never get to experience the world as a “real grown-up.” 

Almost 19 years later, we’re in a coronavirus pandemic, and I’m experiencing similar feelings. This time, however, I am a “real grown-up.” I have a job, a business, and most importantly, children to consider.

I’ve been watching news around the clock as new cases of COVID-19 are reported around the world. It hit closer to home when the first cases were reported in the U.S., and then in Mecklenburg County. As of Tuesday morning, there were 106 positive COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County. 

It got real on Monday 

That was my first thought when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that public school closures across the state would extend through May 15.

Schools have been closed since March 16, and I had planned for two weeks of homeschooling. I’d made a trip to BJ’s and created a meal and snack schedule. I’d even had separate age-appropriate conversations with my kids about what to expect for the foreseeable future. From a mental health standpoint, I went so far as to iron their back-to-school clothes anticipating that schools would re-open in early April. 

Now, I’m full of questions. Will the school year be canceled? Will students attend school over the summer or start a new grade in August? What if my kids aren’t up to speed in the fall?

My 12-year-old son Kellen and 5-year-old daughter Karson are in seventh grade and kindergarten, respectively. Like most kids, they’re experiencing a range of emotions. At first, they were excited to get an early, possibly extended, spring break. Then, as dance recitals, field trips and basketball games were being canceled, they became upset. 

Two weeks into social distancing, they’re starting to become restless. For them, the biggest surprise in all of this is that they still have to do school work.

Social distancing, the new catchphrase

Social distancing describes staying home as much as you can, postponing gatherings of 10 or more people, and staying at least six feet away from people if you must go out.

With children, social distancing isn’t one size fits all. Not everyone has a partner to keep the kids busy while they take a conference call. Some can’t work from home while others are facing financial challenges. This unprecedented time looks different for everyone. 

A new reality for some parents is working from home until a date to be determined. For working parents, it doesn’t mean less responsibility. Often, it involves additional touch points that don’t happen in the office.

For instance, my team’s monthly meetings are now held weekly. In these meetings, we share project status updates and hurdles that we’re facing. My manager is flexible with our working hours as long as we get the work done. In my role as a senior learning designer, I frequently work from home, so there haven’t been any major adjustments in my workflow. Other employers are finding themselves scrambling to provide equipment and establish new working norms to support their teams working from home. 

Parents, just breathe. You’re here to guide.

In my household, I have morning meetings with the kids to let them know what our day will look like. On days where I have calls or need to be at my computer for long periods, I explain to them that although I’m home, I’m “at work.” I create physical reminders, including getting dressed and not allowing them in my office area during certain times.

Rashida Freeman, a mother of four, was homeschooling her 13-year old twins before the coronavirus outbreak. She offered encouraging words to parents who have suddenly been thrust into homeschooling.

“Breathe. The legwork has been done for you,” said Freeman, who has been homeschooling her sons since 2015. “The lesson plans have already been created. In most cases, the kids are using apps/programs that they are familiar with because they were using them in class. You don’t have to take on the role of teacher but more of a role of guidance.” 

Rashida-Freeman-with-kids
Rashida Freeman (left) with her four children, including her 13-year-old twin sons who she homeschools. Photo courtesy of Rashida Freeman

Guiding your child through educational time doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have a pen grading worksheets. It means checking for understanding. That can be done through conversations with your child. Can they explain new concepts? Are they able to interpret what they read?

It’s OK if every day doesn’t look the same. Freeman suggests four to five hours of instructional time each day. She doesn’t restrict her sons to formalized learning areas. 

“Use this time to access your child’s learning style and be creative,” she said.

One of her sons likes to read upside down on the couch. The other didn’t like math but loves Starburst candy, so she created math lessons with it. In addition to core subjects, Freeman says parents should encourage their children to learn about things they’re interested in. Students can watch YouTube videos on coding or how to repair a broken Xbox.

As we’re all learning what works best for our families during this time, check out the tips and resources below from local parents, information from my kids’ teachers, and good ole Google.  

For infants and toddlers

Even if you have more than one child, caring for an infant or toddler is always a new experience. Some new parents were just establishing normalcy when everything changed. 

Pro tips

  • Take a ride. In the evenings, take a stroll around the neighborhood for fresh air. Have anxiety about social distancing? A car ride can help. Play soothing music and take a scenic drive around the city.
  • Begin potty training. It’s a major milestone that takes time and patience. With more time spent at home, parents and their children may be ready to take that big step. Some toddlers can be potty trained as early as 18 months.
  • Create new ways to bond. Use activities like hair washing, bathing and playtime to bond with your little ones. 

For K-5 students

Ashley-Smith-with-family
Ashley Smith with her husband and two daughters. Photo courtesy of Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith’s employer gave her the option to work from home, but her husband, an operations supervisor, has to report to the office daily. Smith spends her daytime hours juggling her workload as an internal auditor with managing schedules for her daughters, ages 4 and 6. Two weeks into school closures, Smith is searching for balance within this new reality.

“I’m trying to create structure. I break up breakfast, lunch, learning and outside time,” she explained. “It leaves little time for me to get work done outside of nap time.”

Smith schedules free play — unstructured activities that encourage children to use their imagination — and builds in time to watch educational shows and sight word videos.

Pro tips

  • Allow school-aged children to help schedule their days. They’re used to daily classroom schedules, so allow them to help with planning.
  • Find age-appropriate online learning solutions. Most teachers are providing access to sites that students are already using in class. Websites like storyplace.org feature grade-based learning activities. 
  • Ensure that kids stay active. Try GoNoodle for mindfulness and movement videos to keep elementary kids engaged during the day. 

For middle schoolers

I especially empathize with parents of multiple children. Between me and my boyfriend, we have two kindergarteners, a first-grader, a sixth-grader and seventh-grader.

My boyfriend, Andre Procope, is a cloud devops engineer who works remotely full time. During the summer, he travels and spends time with his three sons — ages 5, 7 and 12 — instead of enrolling them in camp. For now, the full-time father is managing the boys’ educational time as he does in the summer, with about three hours of instructional time per day. 

“It’s business as usual as far as education. Socially, I ensure that my sixth-grader remains connected with his peers,” he said. 

Andre-Procope-with-kids
Andre Procope with his three sons. Photo courtesy of Andre Procope

Pro tips

  • Allow preteens/teens to maintain social relationships. Kids can stay connected with their classmates using social media, gaming and FaceTime/Skype calls with friends. 
  • Use this time to encourage middle-schoolers to take on more household chores. Allow children to help with age-appropriate household tasks such as assisting with meal prep, which could also double as a math lesson. 

For older teens

High schoolers, especially the class of 2020, are hit hardest by the pandemic. Milestone events like prom, college entry exams and graduations are being canceled across the country. Educators are scrambling to pull together a curriculum for the next six to eight weeks and determine new graduation requirements. 

Parents should expect friction as teens are adjusting to their new lives, according to a New York Times story on ‘Quaranteenagers.’ Allow teens to feel and express the full range of emotions that are expected during these unprecedented times. 

Pro tips

  • Allow variety in their schedules. Agree on the number of instructional hours per day and allow teens to determine what their days look like. 
  • Encourage development of real-world skills. Teens can use sites like Udemy to learn skills such as photography, graphic design and social media marketing. 

I’ve touted skills in job interviews like balancing competing priorities and being able to pivot when the unexpected occurs. Now, I’m being required to use these skills in new ways.

Some days, I’ve been super productive both with work and around the house. Other days, I’m putting conference calls on mute to deal with a bloody nose and eating chips for dinner. So far, no two days have looked the same. I’m learning to give my children, and myself, grace as we navigate through these uncharted waters together. 


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