A Delicate Balance: Teaching while Parenting in the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Tigerlily Theo Hopson
Kate Jensen, an 11th grade history teacher at East Side Community High School in New York City, was consumed with fear on a mid-March day as her husband Ryan lay in their bedroom, delirious, soaking through sheets as his face burned with a temperature of 104.5 degrees.
In the next room of their small 750 square foot North Greenpoint Brooklyn apartment, she tried to give her feverish eight year old, Gus, a Tylenol. “I don’t feel well,” is all he said before vomiting. Her five year old, Cyrus, wandered in at that moment, asking for help with a school assignment.
Ms. Jensen, who had spent the past week disinfecting the apartment, ordering Chromebooks so her sons could complete their online assignments, helping her kids with intensive school work, caring for her sick husband, and on top of that teaching and supporting her almost 100 history students, broke down as the wail of sirens echoed outside.
For many teachers, this tumultuous time feels overwhelming, even without a family member infected with COVID-19. Teachers, like doctors and nurses, are essential workers, at least for any family with school aged children. Their days are jam-packed with meetings, lesson plans, helping kids figure out technology, grading work, and converting everything to an online platform.
Many teachers have to keep track of hundreds of students, checking on how they are doing, if they are completing their work, or if they need extra support. But, on top of this, many, like Ms. Jensen, have the responsibility of a full time caretaker.
Parenting responsibilities vary from teacher to teacher, but no matter the circumstance, COVID-19 brings additional hurdles. Daily caretaking responsibilities for parent-teachers include laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, supporting their school-aged children with online school work, keeping them occupied when they are not “in” school, and making sure their kids get exercise. Ileana Solla, 8th grade science teacher and mom of a four and six year old, explained how most of her day is spent multitasking: “Oftentimes I am cleaning, grading, [doing] laundry, and playing with the girls all at the same time.”
For teachers, completing daily virtual classroom obligations while at the same time helping their own kids with school work, proves to be a sometimes frustrating balancing act. When Ms. Jensen, whose family did thankfully recover, works during the day, she often has one of her sons sitting right next to her. “We feel for families with multiple kids. Even though there are two of us, sometimes I have to be with one kid one on one, and he [her husband] has to sit with a kid one on one to get any work done, because they are not self directed learners right now,” she said.
Cooking and food preparation is a challenge, especially without the meals that schools used to provide. Erica Fontana, 6th grade English teacher and mom of an eight and ten year old, often prepares nine meals a day, with her and her kids on different online schedules and eating at different times. Nailah Moonsammy, a 10th grade English teacher and mom of Sammy, her nine year old, expressed a similar sentiment, “Samuel eats so much food. I spend most of my day working in the kitchen because he eats four manly meals every day. I cook a lot of ethnic food, too, so it takes forever.”
For moms with newborns or small children, daily life during the coronavirus is especially demanding. Thai Sanders, math and science learning specialist and mother of a four month old, has extra chores on top of the ones other parents have, such as having to pump daily.
Also, such a little child functions on a less regular schedule. “It’s hard. My baby doesn’t really respect the time or the schedules. Change me now. Feed me now,” she said, as her baby gurgled and cried, and ambulance sirens screamed in the background.
Mark Federman, the principal of East Side Community School and father of a seven year old, has a million things on his daily to do list. Most of his day is spent problem solving and supporting the families and students of his school: “This is a small thing, but I just ran to the post office to mail a computer to a kid.” He is very grateful for his partner, who does the majority of child care and “domestic stuff.” Although Principal Federman treasures having more family time and the ability to pop out of his office to give his kid a hug, it is hard when he’s in the middle of a call and he hears his son struggling and he cannot go out and comfort him. “It’s more in my kid’s face that I’m not paying attention to him. That’s the hard thing,” he said.
The separations between work and family have dissolved during the day. Before, teachers could drop their kids off at school or daycare, and then completely focus on their work at hand. Ms. Fontana exclaimed, “Now, there are no boundaries. Work and play and quiet time, it all blends together.”
In an interview with Marc Sole, an 11th grade Biology teacher, his three year old daughter Violet made frequent audio appearances. At one point he turned around and responded to her chatter with a chuckle,“Okay, hold on, can we talk about rocks in a second?” Such interruptions have become routine for teachers like Mr. Sole, who said, “The only time I have to take a breath is when Violet goes to bed, and by that time I’m tired as well.”
Joanna Dolgin, 11th and 12th grade English teacher and mom of a five and three year old admits, “Now everything is a juggle. I try to sneak away for a staff meeting or to grade student work. But often a little kid comes in to either get on camera or try to get me to do something else.”
Even when children are older, the demands of parenting remain. 8th grade English teacher, Diana Quinones, is the primary caretaker for her fifteen year old daughter, who still needs help with school work and needs to be reminded throughout the day to stay on task. As Ms. Quinones prepared dinner, pots and pans crashing in the background, she said, “I am in mother mode and teaching mode at the same time, and it feels like my brain is spread into too many different directions sometimes.”
Many teachers, more than anything, just want a break. “Our teachers are spent,” Principal Federman said. Science teacher Illena Solla's husband is a Post Office worker who works 15 hour shifts, so Ms. Solla is left to do most of the childcare, and yet she does not want to “short change” her students. “I just need to catch up,” she voiced.
She explained how before quarantine, at school she wore her “teacher hat,” and when she left school to pick up her kids she replaced that with her “mommy hat.” “Now it’s like mommy, homemaker, teacher, whatever. However many hats you want to put on my head you can,” she said.
All that teachers do would be impossible if they are overtaken by the coronavirus. Ms. Fontana, a single mom who cooks, cleans, organizes, helps her kids with their schooling, and lies down with her eight year old until she falls asleep every night, explained that she is taking all possible precautions because if she gets sick, running the household would be a burden too heavy to place on her older, ten year old daughter. “We just have to survive right now, we just have to do the best we can while saving our own mental health,” she said.
Many teachers are afraid to come into contact with relatives, friends, or family members that would usually help babysit or provide support. This can especially put pressure on single moms and dads. Ms. Moonsammy, a single mom, said, “I do have moments when I kind of wish I had a partner, like an adult person to talk to. Because you don’t want to put that on your nine year old. That would be inappropriate.”
This being said, the quarantine does have a brighter side. Rob Eugene is a 6th grade math teacher and father of a five and ten year old. While his daughters worked on an art project sprawled out by his side, he said, “One positive aspect is that I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with my family.” He lives in New Jersey, and his commute to school, which is in Manhattan, is an hour and a half each way. He used to leave before anyone else was awake, and got home only an hour before his daughters had to go to sleep.
For Ms. Sanders, although the quarantine is a challenge (“it’s a real head trip man”), it has allowed her to spend more time with her young son, whereas without the quarantine she would have had to leave him to go to work every day after her maternity leave ended. “I hate to say that the quarantine has helped me sort of develop my parenting, but it has, because I have more time with him. Actually, all I can do is be with him,” she expressed.
After reaching her breaking point, Ms. Jensen took a deep breath. She let her five year old, Cyrus, watch a PBS Kids show, and reassured him she would be with him in a moment. She put on headphones, turned on music, and cleaned up the throw up. This would pass, she thought. And, it did. Her husband and her two kids did recuperate, and although each day is still full of trials and tribulations, she, like each parenting teacher, is finding her way.
Students may forget that teachers are more than the small icons posting Google Classroom assignments or the smiling faces on Zoom meetings or Google Meet office hours, but it is important to recognize that, as one teacher put it, “we are all on a learning curve together.”
Teachers, like everybody else, are figuring out this new virtual world, and trying to develop a new rhythm for life. But, as long as COVID-19 lasts, the feat of switching on and off the “mommy” or “daddy” hat and the “teacher” hat will be oft-repeated.