This is the sixth story in an ongoing series called Education, Interrupted which looks at how school closures during the coronavirus crisis are affecting students. Sign up to receive a regular newsletter from the Great Divide team. You can reach out to us at email@example.com with story ideas and tips.
At around 7:30 on a recent morning, Jaliyah Bacchusfelt her mother tugging gently at her shoulder. The 15-year-old Dorchester student lifted a groggy eye and saw the shape of her mom’s face, but says she didn’t move.
“I’m leaving,” she heard her mother whisper.
Soon, Jaliyah felt the bed shift with the tiny weight of her 3-year-old sister Jayda, who grabbed a pillow to snuggle. She curled up close to Jaliyah so they both faced each other and lifted her small hands to pat her big sister’s face. Jaliyah waited until her baby sister drifted to sleep, but soon she will need to rise to prepare for a day of watching Jayda, while her mother works. Her class assignments — again — will have to wait.
Since the global coronavirus pandemic shut schools and day-care centers, teenagers like Jaliyah have been stepping up to play an outsized role at home. Jaliyah, a sophomore at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of Boston’s three exam schools, has been charged with caring for Jayda; her mother, Trisha, works a full schedule as an administrative assistant at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — four days a week from home, and one from the hospital. Jaliyah’s father typically works long days outside the house.
Jaliyah, an honor roll student, is glad to help out her family and spend more time with her younger sister, who she affectionately describes as “my little best friend.” But at moments the family time has imperiled her school time. It’s a common scenario affecting countless teenagers across the state as more parents juggle a full schedule with limited child-care support. And with schools and day-care centers in Massachusetts now closed for the academic year, child-care responsibilities could in many ways determine which students can forge full speed ahead virtually — and which ones fall behind.
Many students now have significantly expanded home duties, including working to support the family financially, running errands, and caring for sick relatives, said Sarah Iddrissu, executive director of the Boston chapter of Educators for Excellence, a teacher networking and advocacy group. The organization informally surveyed about 100 teachers, most of whom reported knowing students whose new duties intrude heavily on their time for distance learning.
Some, like Jaliyah, are devoting large amounts of time to watching younger siblings. And some log on regularly to virtual classes but struggle to fully engage because of nonacademic worries and responsibilities. “If we continue to shelter in place this way, the opportunity gap is going to expand, especially for students of color,” Iddrissu said.
Jaliyah takes six classes: history, chemistry, geometry, English, French, and a writing class called AP seminar. Three of them — chemistry, history, and English — started holding Zoom meetings three times a week shortly after schools closed. The others haven’t met regularly online until recently, but have given out assignments at the start of the week over the last two months. Jaliyah says the assignments across all of her classes — from studying Shakespeare to analyzing what constitutes “real” science — usually take about four hours a day to do well.
She estimates that most weeks she has spent about nine hours attending virtual classes and up to 20 hours completing assignments on her own. School time partially overlaps with the more than 25 hours a week that Janiya tends to her younger sister.
The family has three sisters but the middle one — 11-year-old Janiya — is able to manage on her own. Jaliyah’s voice brightens as she describes Jayda’s big personality and open-hearted bluntness. The 3-year-old, like most toddlers, loves attention. (When a Boston Globe reporter visited the family outside their home, Jayda clearly wasn’t thrilled about being pulled away from an ice cream treat and lamented the absence of her friends from day care. “I can’t go to school because they are closed,” she said.)
Their mother Trisha tries to make things easy when she’s working from home. She prepares breakfast early, gets Jayda ready, and gives Jaliyah some time to sleep in. But by 8, she’s hitting the phones and logging into work. “I’m constantly on the laptop, calling patients,” Trisha says. Her primary job these days is canceling or rescheduling nonemergency appointments. She needs quiet and space to focus to get through these sometimes difficult conversations.
“Jaliyah has been a great help for me,” Trisha says. “But then it is hard for Jaliyah as well because she does have classes.”
Although Trisha equips Jaliyah with coloring books and drawings to keep Jayda occupied, the mother can hear her 3-year-old screaming sometimes while Jaliyah is trying to power through her school work.
“There are times when Jaliyah is texting me and telling me that I need to come up with a different plan because she can’t do this," Trisha says. “I feel totally bad, but I am like, What do I do? I still have to work.”
Both mom and daughter miss their old routine, when Trisha would drop off the two older girls at their schools and Jayda at day care. After school, Jaliyah was active at her job as an organizer at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs. In just a few short months, she had been transitioning from a shy and nervous teenager — “the suffering in silence type,” as she describes it — to a vocal youth advocate.
Jaliyah has appeared before the Boston School Committee to press for more public education funding, and helped to lobby state lawmakers to support the Student Opportunity Act, which increased school funding across the state.
Like most teenagers, Jaliyah also spent plenty of time hanging out with friends, at the mall or movies, cultivating a growing sense of independence from her family.
Now, that’s indefinitely on hold. “At the beginning I was losing my mind,'' Jaliyah said. “I [used to] go out every weekend or my best friend would come over.”
When schools first closed, Jaliyah says she and her mom talked about her stepping in to help out with Jayda. “I had this idea, like, Jayda is gonna be good and she’s just going to listen and sit down for me. I just didn’t prepare myself [for the fact] that she’s a baby and she’s not always going to listen.”
Jaliyah is extremely serious about her school work. But since the closings, she spends a lot of time playing catch-up.
On a recent Monday, Jaliyah had a Zoom class in American history scheduled for 1. She handed her iPad to Jayda, opened to a tracing and alphabet app for young children. But during a discussion on the Civil War, Jayda asks for chips, so Jaliyah mutes the class to help her get a snack.
Another time, the iPad that kept Jayda occupied died in the middle of a chemistry class, forcing Jaliyah to dash away in search of a charger.
She often wonders, given the pandemic and its daily disruptions, if class participation still counts. “I don’t get to participate as much as I would usually,” she said.
When Jaliyah misses part of class, she uses the Zoom chat function to ask classmates to help fill her in. They always do. “But it is not the same as hearing everything that the teachers say,” she said.
After Zoom classes end, there are the weekly assignments in the six classes to chip away at. She lets those wait until her mother is done with work around 5 and then dives in, often working straight to 9:30.
Jaliyah says she felt stressed by the sometimes competing obligations during the first weeks of the new schedule, but with time she’s adapted. She remains optimistic that she won’t have fallen behind significantly when classes — she hopes — resume in person at the O’Bryant in the fall.
The teen might not be able to hang out with her friends anymore but she makes sure to set aside some time for self care, like growing out her nails. “I definitely am ready to go outside,” she said. “Not that I miss school, but I miss going to school.”
For the time being, there’s one ongoing, if sometimes wearing, source of daily normalcy and comfort: “I get to spend time with my sisters."
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.