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Parents struggle to homeschool, care for kids amid coronavirus crisis

Sarah Yunits checked her 7-year-old daughter Ada's math quiz while Cora, 5, waited her turn. Meanwhile, Ada and Cora's father, Conor Yunits, was on a conference call. All four are at home because of the coronavirus outbreak, which has shut down schools and workplaces.
Sarah Yunits checked her 7-year-old daughter Ada's math quiz while Cora, 5, waited her turn. Meanwhile, Ada and Cora's father, Conor Yunits, was on a conference call. All four are at home because of the coronavirus outbreak, which has shut down schools and workplaces.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The memes bouncing around social media sum up the feelings of many parents these days.

“Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes,” TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes, creator of hits like “Scandal," tweeted in one heavily-shared version. “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

But beneath the foxhole stories of kids interrupting conference calls and playing video games instead of solving math problems, parents are struggling as they try to navigate an uncertain and unprecedented reality: caring and educating their children at home after schools and day cares were shuttered because of the coronavirus. All while trying to adjust to working from home in many cases.

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“This isn’t a regular snow day, and we can’t have grandma come over to help,” said Nora Flynn of Reading. Both she and her husband, a civil engineer, are working from home full time while trying to care for their 8-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

They take shifts working upstairs at a card table in the bedroom, while the other parent entertains the kids. “After bedtime, we’re logging back on," as well as squeezing in more work on the weekends, which they didn’t typically do before the outbreak, she said.

"We now work seven days a week,” said Flynn.

For parents of school-age children in Massachusetts, the predicament is compounded as schools take a district-by-district approach to how they will handle remote learning while they are closed. Some schools have sent children home with worksheets and assignments, even laptops in some cases. Elsewhere, parents say they and their kids have been given little guidance about what they’re supposed to be doing. Online parent forums seethe with frustration and worry.

“You have to Ramp Up Remote-Learning Efforts! We pay too much on [sic] taxes to keep our students for 3 weeks plus without e-learning,” one twitter user vented at Lexington Schools Superintendent Julie Hackett.

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“Today is day 3,” Hackett replied.

The challenge is even greater in poorer districts, where some students don’t have computers or Internet access at home. Certain districts, including Boston and Lawrence, are working to get laptops into the hands of those students who need them.

“We are indeed working hard on a plan to provide technology to LPS families, which we hope to share with them very soon," said Christopher Markuns, a spokesman for Lawrence Public Schools, though he wasn’t able to share details other than to say the biggest remaining step is securing commitments from technology vendors.

“This exposes the real inequities, particularly in communities of color and low-income [districts],” that exist among the state’s more than 400 school districts, said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Not only do students in some districts not have access to technology, they may also not have ready access to pens, paper, or well-stocked libraries, she said. And not all teachers have access to the same sorts of technological resources either, she added.

Jackie Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the goal is not for students to keep learning new material as they would if it were a regular school day, but rather to ensure they can pick back up where class left off when kids can return to the classroom.

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“What we’re hoping is that schools and parents and kids, that they’ll find a way to keep some continuity of learning going,” she said. “That could take a lot of different forms, and it will vary considerably.”

The state education department has partnered with public media outlets WGBH in Boston and WGBY in Springfield to provide some distance learning resources via digital and broadcast. Starting Monday, students can tune into the WORLD Channel from noon until 5 p.m. for the TV programming, which is still being finalized, WGBH said Thursday.

Many private K-12 schools, by contrast, seem to have more readily transitioned to remote learning. Christine Flaherty of Reading, whose 15-year-old son is a freshman at Malden Catholic High School, said her son “has a laptop and a great schedule of daily work." His technology class meets by Zoom. Another teacher messages every couple of hours to check in and see if anyone needs help. He has an English quiz Friday.

“It’s not ideal. I have a child who needs some extra supports, but he’s getting them,” said Flaherty, a commercial real estate lender with Berkshire Bank who is working from home full time now. She and her son created an “old school” schedule of start and stop times on a piece of paper, which includes breaks for basketball in the backyard.

“I was here working and he was working,” said Flaherty. "I don’t feel like he’s losing as much as he would if he was at home on his laptop playing Fortnite.”

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It’s been a rockier experience for other families.

Conor Yunits, a senior vice president at public relations firm Solomon McCown & Cence, lives in Brockton, where schools have been closed since Thursday. He said day four of trying to home school his 5- and 7-year-old daughters was easier than day one, but harder than day three.

“By Monday evening, we had established a detailed calendar that integrates reading, spelling, math, physical activity, lunch, snacks, art, and social studies, but trying to stick to that schedule has so far proven impossible. Every incoming e-mail, conference call, and even bathroom break or snack threatens to throw the entire schedule out of whack, and these kids fly through worksheets and activities faster than we can dole them out,” he recounted by e-mail.

He, like many parents, acknowledged how lucky his family is, with no need to worry about food and shelter, a yard to play in. They plan to use FaceTime to see friends and family.

“But honestly, this feels like something that can be maintained for a week or two, at best. I have no idea how families are going to manage work, homeschool, life, and mental health beyond that,” said Yunits.

Conor Yunits of Brockton, working at home.
Conor Yunits of Brockton, working at home.Matthew J. Lee

A nurse in a Boston hospital, Michelle — who asked her full name not be used — usually alternates between day and night shifts, but rushed to switch her entire schedule to nights when word of school closures started. Her husband is in law enforcement; neither of them can work from home. “I think I’ve probably switched with four or five nurses to navigate this,” she said.

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Already there have been days when she’s come home from her 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and had to spend the day caring for her two elementary school-aged children until her husband gets home at 4 p.m. She said the schools in the Boston suburb where they live, have shared some online resources for “optional learning” but she has found them “completely overwhelming.” She has since found some worksheets, which she plans to have her kids start working on soon.

“It’s been a challenge to know what to do,” she said, though added she’s not upset with the schools given the unprecedented situation. But if schools are out much longer than the initial three weeks as planned, which she sees as a real possibility, schools will need to set up a stronger curriculum for the kids at home. Even then she worries about how families like hers, where two parents will still need to work, will manage.

For now, they’ll do some worksheets and online tutorials. “Otherwise we’re just trying to eat, breathe, and keep the house not on fire.”


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.