‘I’m only one human being’: Parents brace for a go-it-alone school year
By Claire Cain Miller
Parents across America are facing the pandemic school year feeling overwhelmed, anxious and abandoned. With few good options for support, the vast majority have resigned themselves to going it alone, a new survey for The New York Times has found.
Just one in seven parents said their children would be returning to school full time this fall, and for most children, remote school requires hands-on help from an adult at home. Yet four in five parents said they would have no in-person help educating and caring for them, whether from relatives, neighbors, nannies or tutors, according to the survey, administered by Morning Consult. And more than half of parents will be taking on this second, unpaid job at the same time they’re holding down paid work.
Raising children has always been a community endeavor, and suddenly the village that parents relied on is gone. It’s taking a toll on parents’ careers, families’ well-being and children’s education.
In families where both wage earners need to work outside the home, parents have obvious logistical challenges because they cannot be in two places at once. Three-fourths of these parents say they will be overseeing their children’s education, and nearly half will be handling primary child care, according to the survey, answered by a nationally representative group of 1,081 parents from Aug. 4 to 8.
Eighty percent of parents who are both working remotely during the pandemic will also be handling child care and education.
One-fifth of parents are considering hiring a private teacher or tutor to help with their children’s education while school is remote, according to the survey.
“All the choices stink,” said Kate Averett, a sociologist at the University at Albany who has been interviewing parents nationwide since the spring. “There is a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety. Parents tell me about not being able to sleep because they’re so anxious, or tell me they’ve been crying a lot. There’s been a lot of actual crying during interviews.”
Euqueva Varner and Kenneth Watts are security officers in Detroit who cannot work remotely, with sons in second and third grade. Their plan for the fall is precarious: They have back-to-back shifts, so they’ll trade off who’s home with the children, with no flexibility in their handoffs and little time to spend together as a couple or a family. Sometimes the children have to go to work with a parent, busying themselves with coloring and reading.
“They’re suffering,” Varner said of her children. “They really miss their friends, they miss going to school. My kids love school.”
“I try to work with them as much as I can to get them up to grade level,” she said. “It’s very difficult. I don’t have any help at all. It’s just me and the kids and my husband.”
“But we’ll get through it,” she said. “We’ll make a way.”
It’s mothers who are doing most of the planning, and spending the most time caring for and educating the children. In the new survey, 54% of women said they’d be mostly responsible for educating their children on weekdays. Twenty-nine percent of men said they would be — though just 2% of women said their partners would be. Some couples said they planned to split the job equally, though again, men and women disagreed: 36% of men, and 18% of women, said they were splitting the work.
“Here’s the reality: The moms are doing it,” said Betsy Twitchell, a mother of two in Oakland, California, who works in communications for a union. “It’s been frustrating that this term ‘pods’ has become so charged. Actually, when you say that, you’re not supporting women, because we’re the ones who are really bearing the brunt of this, and having to take on this third shift in order to get our children through this distance learning.”
Parents of all races — those living in urban, suburban and rural America; those who have babies, elementary schoolers and teenagers — say they’re highly stressed, with few options other than to take it all on themselves.
While schools are providing remote learning, in most cases this requires an adult to be actively involved. Three-fourths of parents of elementary-school-aged children and half of parents of high-school-aged children say they need adult help to do virtual learning. Some schools have begun sending out sample schedules of days with multiple live video meetings and timed assignments. It’s an effort to make remote school more robust than it was in the spring, but requires even more hands-on effort from parents.
“To assume they can just do everything independently — they can’t,” said Amy Nunn, a teacher in Portland, Oregon, and the mother of two children, ages 9 and 11.
Her partner, Kelli Burke, is a house painter, so Nunn is home alone with the children during the day. She has decided to take a 12-week leave from her teaching job, the longest allowed by the federal government, to help their children, both of whom are dyslexic.
“I’m only one human being, and I just can’t give everything to supporting 20 other families and children while I’m trying to support my own children,” she said.
Parents have taken extreme measures. One in three said they had left a child at home without supervision from an adult or teenager, because of the lack of child care options and the need to fulfill other obligations. Some parents said the risk calculation had changed, since bringing a child on an errand or to their workplace, or hiring a babysitter, now carried the risk of contracting the coronavirus. Single parents and those with outside-the-home jobs have even fewer options.
“I think that really just underscores the impossible choices that parents are having to make right now, especially essential workers,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, who studies child and family policy at Duke and has been interviewing hourly service workers with young children. “The set of folks you can rely on to come to your house in a pinch — family, friends, neighbors — is just really limited right now.”
Thirteen percent of parents have considered quitting their jobs. The same share has considered moving to be closer to family who could help, or moving to a different district or enrolling in private school because of reopening plans.
A long list of fears
Across demographic divides, parents share the same fears. The vast majority of parents say they are worried not just about their children’s academic progress, but also about their mental health, social skills and participation in sports and extracurricular activities. They’re also concerned about the time they spend on screens and the consistency of their routines.
Such worries didn’t vary by parents’ income or employment status. Across the board, the concern was about what their children were missing: school.
“For many poor families and immigrant families, education really is the way out of poverty,” said Frank Worrell, a professor at the graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley. “Even parents who didn’t have college degrees are recognizing the importance of college in this economy, and wanting that for their kids.”
Parents’ income and resources do, however, play a role in shaping the plans they are making for the year. Meeting children’s basic needs, like access to healthy food and regular meals, was a bigger concern for low earners and unemployed parents. For essential workers, help with child care is even harder to find, because of fears of coronavirus exposure.
Parents with college or graduate degrees and six-figure incomes have more options, starting with a greater ability to work from home. Twenty-two percent of parents said they had considered hiring a private teacher or tutor for their child or a small group of children, including 35% of those with postgraduate degrees and 18% of those without college degrees.
Twitchell, the mother in Oakland, and her husband, Charlie Dolman, both have white-collar jobs they can do from home. They’ve formed a pod with three friends of their third-grade son and turned their garage into a schoolhouse, with an extension cord running to it for the children’s laptops. Each child’s parents will take turns overseeing remote school and child care. On Twitchell’s day, her baby will attend.
“It’s that, or somebody quits their job, and one of us cannot quit our jobs,” she said. “This was literally a question of survival.”