After a spring of pandemic lockdowns and a summer of uncertainty as coronavirus infections surged, working parents with school-age children now face what could be a year of online schooling, presenting a buffet of bad options.
Sacrifice earnings and career advancement to stay home. Hire a nanny, if you can afford it. Lean on elderly relatives. Enroll kids in private schools or expensive day care programs and risk exposing them or others to the disease.
There are no good solutions, and every decision comes with trade-offs.
“There’s no solution that won’t harm someone,” said Hollis Rudiger, a teacher in the Madison School District and mother of two school-age children.
Some day care centers have developed virtual school assistance programs where elementary students can do their online learning with adult supervision. But the cost — as much as $300 per week — is well out of reach for many families.
An already existing child care crisis compounded by online schooling in many school districts could harm women’s careers, widen the gender pay…
Madison School and Community Recreation is offering all-day care for $600 a month — with fees waived for low-income families — and the Madison School District plans to use federal emergency funding to provide care in some schools. But together those public programs will have space for about 2,000 of the roughly 13,500 elementary students in the district.
Child care providers will have to follow special health protocols, but the risk of spreading the coronavirus is still greater than if students stayed home. And while COVID-19 has been less deadly for children, its effects are less understood, and children can transmit it to teachers, parents and other relatives.
“It feels like we’re making the best choice out of a lot of bad choices,” said Rebecca Beebe, whose sons, age 5 and 10, will be doing their virtual lessons at two different private child care centers.
Parents across the country are reporting extreme levels of stress, said Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association, who describes the situation as “decision fatigue.”
“Everything’s a decision. ... It all starts to feel really overwhelming,” she said. “There’s no good options right now.”
Feeling in limbo
As a single mother of two, Nadia Spencer doesn’t know what to do.
Spencer, who works as a job coach for people with disabilities, was laid off in March as the COVID-19 pandemic put many of her clients out of work.
Her son, Aidan, will be a second-grader at Madison’s Lake View Elementary, where students will get instruction online, a challenge for any 7-year-old, but especially one with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity.
“Either way is bad,” Spencer said. “If they go back physically with the virus, it’s not safe. But if they don’t go back, we can’t go back to work.”
Aidan needs more supervision than his mother can provide while also watching his 15-month-old sister. His father is a truck driver, only around on weekends.
“Unfortunately, he can’t do much,” Spencer said.
Spencer applied for the MSCR Cares program, which will offer in-school supervision for up to 1,000 elementary-age children, but she hasn’t heard if Aidan has been accepted.
“They sent something saying it was time to register. I thought I already registered,” Spencer said. “I called ... to clarify for me what it is. Nobody called me back. I just signed up, but I don’t know what it is.”
With just over three weeks before the start of the school year, Spencer feels she’s in limbo.
“I’m very confused. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Spencer said. “Right now we’re just sitting and waiting and praying.”
Caught in the middle
As a teacher and a parent, Hollis Rudiger said she feels caught in the middle.
Rudiger, who works as a librarian at Nuestro Mundo Community School, said schools just aren’t set up to accommodate the type of social distancing needed to provide safe in-person instruction. But after struggling to help her own kids, ages 7 and 12, navigate online learning in the spring, she understands parents’ frustration.
“It’s not that we’re being lazy or not thinking about your kids. I probably spent more time last spring on other kids than my own,” Rudiger said. “We have our own children. Who’s going to help them?”
Rudiger said even though she’s a teacher she doesn’t have the expertise to handle all the material, and she worries that her older son, who has autism and developmental delays, won’t get the support he needs through online learning.
“I am one of the most equipped parents to supervise virtual learning. I’m an educator. I have space in my home. And yet, you can’t do two things at once,” Rudiger said. “What you can do is a crappy job at both and feel like you’re letting your children down and your colleagues down.”
‘Failing at everything’
Rebecca and TJ Beebe have been able to work from their West Side home but struggled to keep up with their jobs — she’s an academic adviser for UW-Madison, he’s an architect — while keeping their sons, 5 and 10, engaged.
Their older son, Oscar, has attention deficit disorder and needed help staying focused, which meant the couple had less time for his brother, Truman.
“It felt like we were just failing at everything,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t feel like I was keeping up with work. I didn’t feel like I was being a good parent. We were just sort of barely getting by all around.”
For the fall, the Beebes enrolled Oscar, who will be a fifth-grader at Orchard Ridge Elementary, in a new all-day program run by Black Belt America, where he has been going for after-school care and karate lessons. Truman will attend his virtual kindergarten classes under supervision at the University Avenue Discovery Center, where he attended 4K before the pandemic.
The combined cost of the programs is more than $500 a week, but Rebecca said one of them would have had to quit work to keep the boys at home — “either way there was going to be a financial impact,” she said.
Though they recognize there are health risks with having the boys exposed to other kids and staff at their care centers, Rebecca said it seemed like a better alternative for their learning and the family’s emotional well-being.
“It feels like we’re making the best choice out of a lot of bad choices,” she said.
Sea of unknowns
Oconomowoc resident Tiffany Liessmann will have to navigate two different scenarios this fall.
Her 7-year-old son will attend school five days a week, while her 14-year-old will go two half-days and do the rest of his learning online.
On Mondays and Wednesdays Liessmann, who recently separated from her husband, will have to drop off her boys at different schools — one at 7:20 a.m., the other at 8:40 a.m. — then return to pick up her oldest at 12:15 p.m.
While she’s been able to work out a schedule with her employer, Exact Sciences, Liessmann worries that her older son, who has attention deficit disorder, will need more help than she can provide.
“I have no choice but to send them,” she said. “I just don’t have the flexibility to try to do all-virtual. Last school year just did not end well.”
While hopeful that it will go better this year, she’s frustrated by the uncertainty.
“When I registered the kids my oldest had a full face-to-face option. Two days later, the School Board changed,” Liessmann said. “They sent a 27-page document. ... It’s so much information that you can’t even make heads or tails of it.”
She doesn’t know what will happen if someone in either boy’s class gets sick.
“I am not exactly sure how this is going to work,” she said. “There’s just too many unknowns.”
Fear of falling behind
As the mother of a 6-year-old with health problems, Mai Pa Lor feels torn.
“It worries me to send him to school,” Lor said. “It also worries me to do virtual learning.”
Lor’s husband works during the day in a warehouse. She expects to return to work later this month as a peer support specialist with Wisconsin Family Ties.
“Child care is just too expensive right now — especially in Madison,” Lor said. “I don’t even know if it’s safe. Kids are dirty and messy.”
When she returns to work, Lor plans to send her son, Cory, and 2-year-old daughter, Nora, to stay with her mother in Wausau. But with her limited understanding of English, Lor said her mother won’t be able to understand Cory’s teachers and lessons.
“It’s going to be a struggle and I’m kind of unsure of what to do,” she said. “The biggest fear is that he’s going to fall behind.”
The learning pod
With jobs that allowed them to work from home with some flexibility, Tina Lloren and Brad Paul were able to take turns supervising their 9-year-old son, Nelson, during the spring lockdown. But as the pandemic wore on, Lloren said their discipline and resolve began to wane.
“The first quarter is survival mode,” she said. “The second quarter — this is kind of novel. By the third quarter — what is this?”
Lloren said she has been Googling learning pods, an increasingly popular solution where small groups of children work with an in-person tutor.
“We just hit the panic button,” Lloren said. “We need some help.”
While some learning pods function with parents taking turns running lessons, Lloren has joined with two other Randall Elementary families to hire someone with an educational background to help the three fourth-graders with lessons and provide them with some engaging experiences.
Lloren, who works in international development, and Paul, who heads the state association of anti-poverty agencies, are thankful for their dual income.
“We’re not going to be saving a lot, but we’ve got resources to dig into. Other families — this would be out of their reach,” Lloren said. “It’s definitely a position of privilege to be able to organize this.”
Fear of failing
As the owner of an online business, Michelle Ellinger had been working from home for about five years when schools closed last spring.
But she wasn’t necessarily prepared for the stress of helping her three boys, who will be in fifth, eighth and ninth grade this year, navigate online learning.
She had to rearrange her schedule — getting up at 5:30 a.m. to walk the dog and check email before the kids wake up and doing her work at night.
Ellinger, who already had a business that provides in-home newborn care, decided to set up an online business — called Virtual Learning Helpers — to match parents with qualified and vetted nannies to support their kids’ online education.
“I really didn’t want to, but this is a skill I have,” she said. “I can’t solve every societal problem ... but I can solve this one little piece of the puzzle.”
Ellinger said parents are “just scrambling, trying to piece everything together.”
“It’s a shared experience and we’re all doing it separately,” she said. “We all think we’re doing it wrong.”
She is also aware that in-home nannies aren’t an option for most families.
This summer, Ellinger took part in a Madison school district focus group that met to talk about options for the fall and said the stories from other parents left her with “secondary trauma.”
“There were going to be a lot of kids home with no support. Teenage siblings trying to care for younger siblings,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”