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"Day-by-day": Families talk schooling in the age of COVID

Courtesy of Malissa Clair

Malissa ClairLamphere Public Schools. Both she and her husband are essential workers for Consumers Energy. Before the pandemic, they both worked during school hours. But when Clair found out that her kids' school district was only going to be virtual this fall, she went into "mommy mode" and changed her schedule so she could be home during the day to help her youngest daughter, five-year old Sloan, with virtual kindergarten. Clair's hours are now 3:30pm - midnight, sometimes longer.

"Last week there were nights when I was out til 3 o’clock in the morning, so I would come home and go right to bed, and then I was back up at 7 o’clock in the morning to wake Sloan up and start getting her ready for her day to begin. I’m so tired right now. I’m so tired!"

Clair says her three oldest children, all in high school, are doing ok with virtual learning. But she's worried about how her youngest daughter, Sloan [left], is doing.

"I don't feel like Sloan is doing well at all. I don't feel like she is focused. I don't feel like she's retaining information. I don't know if it's just her. I mean, the school district seems like the program they're offering is good, but it's not for my kid at all."

Like many districts across the state, Clair's district will reassess its return-to-school plan later this month. If the district allows students can return to school for face-to-face learning, Clair says her kids "are a go, definitely." If the district decides to maintain its virtual-learning plan and not allow students to return to school, Clair says she and her husband will pull Sloan out of public school and enroll her in Catholic school.

"We can’t just sit here and watch her slide farther and farther behind. What other option do I have?"

Credit Courtesy of Sarai Koster-Stetson

Stateside's conversation with Sarai Koster-Stetson, Friday, October 9, 2020.

Sarai Koster-Stetson, Ann Arbor Public Schools. Koster-Stetson is a teacher at a low-income district outside of Detroit, and a parent in AAPS. Stetson's 16-year-old daughter has an IEP, which means that she has some special learning considerations.

"She's not the problem. She's doing the best she can. She's emailing the people. She needs the email. She's trying to figure out how to get her Chromebook to read things to her. You know, she is attending class. She's got her camera on. She's got her. My God. She's engaged. She's participating. She's doing her thing. But the thing is, is that if the school can't figure out how to read things to her, then she can't pass classes."

Koster-Stetson, a middle school art teacher, says she wishes districts would re-think what school looks like during a pandemic, and says she doesn't think we need this year in education. Instead of focusing on academics, she says teachers could check in with students to make sure they're safe physically, and OK emotionally, and families are connected.

"There would be absolutely nothing wrong with 11-year olds taking a year to play, and explore, and do a little bit of learning. We could catch up as a nation."

Credit Courtesy of Julia Koumbassa

Julia Koumbassa, Lincoln Consolidated Schools.

"So I have four children. They're all doing virtual schooling. They're each in a different room. And so I sit down to help my 6-year-old with something in a workbook. We start working on it. And then I hear 'mommy' from the other room. And I'm like, OK, hold on, 6-year-old. I run in to that room, start helping her with trying to figure out her schedule and what class you supposed to be in next. Then I hear my son in the other room screaming at the Chromebook about to throw it across. So I run in there and try to help him. Then I go back out of the room. Then I deal with a couple phone calls from work. And, you know, it's just like that all day long. And I feel like...I'm kind of failing everyone."


Koumbassa is the breadwinner in her family, and she says "trying to do this and work and everything else is just kind of proving to be too much." She's talked to her doctor about mental health support, and worked out an arrangement with her supervisor at work. "But I mean, what adds to the anxiety is like, I can come up with a solution or take a leave from work for the next few weeks, but then what about after that? Or what about when I run out of leave time? So, yeah, that unknown is really hard."


Credit Courtesy of Caitlin Lynch

Caitlyn Lynch [second from right]. Lynch is part of a learning pod that she and her neighbors set up when they found out their elementary school would be all online this fall. A total of five families are in the pod, and each family contributes what they can to help make it work. For Lynch's part, she and her husband converted their playroom into the pod schoolroom. Other pod members have contributed snacks, a backyard for recess, and a grandmother who helps keep the kids on task during online school.

"The logistics are still honestly being sort of fleshed out. You know, one mom said -  should we sign a contract with for liability purposes, saying if my kid gets hurt in your backyard, you know you're not responsible or whatever it may be? And we haven't gone that far, but we're just sort of having open communication."

Lynch's three kids are in the pod, and her oldest, Brody, has special needs. Lynch says if their district opens up for in-person school, she will absolutely send him. But until then, they will do their best to make the pod work.

"Because of our son's special needs, he is extra challenged and extra challenging under these circumstances. So we're not a 100% sure this is the best thing for him. I mean, I am 100% sure this is not the best thing for him. But under the circumstances, I think we can make it work. I don't know. I...ask me again in a couple of weeks if this is sustainable. I don't know."

Credit Courtesy of Melanie Floyd

Melanie Floyd, Farmington Public Schools. Floyd is a single-parent with three kids at home: a 16-year old in 11th grade, a 6-year old in first grade, and a 5-year old in kindergarten. Floyd works outside the home, while all three kids are doing virtual school at home. She sums up the whole experience with one word: chaos.

"The 6-year-old actually got kicked out - was it yesterday? - kicked out of her meeting because it’s hard to get her to sit down and pay attention. She was being a kid! So she got kicked out of online school for the day." [laugh]

Credit Courtesy of MJ

MJ, Eastpointe Community Schools. MJ and her nine-year old daughter recently moved to Eastpointe, which offers in-person school five days a week, but only from 7:50am - 11:50am. The school does not offer any latchkey or after-care. The other option is a fully virtual one.

But here's the hitch: MJ is a single-parent and works as a building maintenance worker, which means she cannot work remotely.

"I can't, you know, repair a drinking fountain from my living room."

She also recently bought a house, something she had been working towards for years, so quitting her job is not an option.

"I worked hard for this, I don’t want to lose this because of school?! I mean honestly what world are we in? You should never have to juggle or choose, your child’s education or your job. There should be more programs, more things in place to help us single parents. We make it work, you know what I mean? We make it work, but sometimes we can’t make everything work."

MJ does not have anyone who can reliably pick up her daughter from school at 11:50 a.m. each day, so her daughter is doing virtual school and "bouncing around from house to house" so various family members can babysit her during the day.

Credit Courtesy of Amanda Eldridge

Amanda Eldridge, Romulus Community Schools. Eldridge is a working mom who's balancing working from home while parenting a child who is doing full-time virtual learning.

"Being a full-time mom and teacher has had its rewards and headaches. I love working from home. On the flip side being a teacher while at home is difficult. My daughter can’t separate the fact that she’s distance learning and at home. I constantly have to redirect her and give additional timeouts [laugh]. I’d rather be safe than sorry but it is difficult for me because my child has learning disabilities. If and when school opens she’ll be there bright and eager to learn. Until then, we will tough it out."

Credit Courtesy of R.J. Fox

R. J. Fox, Ann Arbor Public Schools. Fox, as well as his wife are teachers in the AAPS district. They have two kids; 9 and 6 years old. Both are home for virtual learning, while both parents teachers are teaching from home.

“I had a lot of anxiety leading up to the school year. I thought it was going to be a lot more stressful than it’s turning out to be.”

Fox says one of the biggest struggles is that the kids can need a lot of help while they’re in the middle of teaching. Mom is fortunately teaching part time, so she’s able to devote time to the kids during the school day. They also have a grandparent who comes and helps a couple times a week. There’s a few days during the week where both parents have a full load of classes.

“So it’s really just like…trying to teach the kids to be more independent. But also being there to help them when they need it. My 6-year-old, he’s learning to read and my daughter, who’s nine, knows how to read but her work is sometimes more challenging because of her age. And also just teaching them not to come barging in and screaming, and demanding help or asking with help on the toilet in the middle of a class, which has happened [laugh].”

“It’s really been just, kind of day-by-day. I mean…some days…there’s always going to be technology issues. That’s another issue where like, the internet goes down, or something’s not working with Zoom or the learning platform we’re using. But we’re very fortunate that we can both be home with the kids. I mean, it’s inconvenient at times, and obviously like, you know, we can’t be at our best as teachers but I still feel like I’d rather be at home and safe than being at risk, which is the biggest issue right now.”

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Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.
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