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Working Parents Hope For More Structure This Fall For Kids At School — At Home

Most Massachusetts public schools began classes this week after a delay due to the coronavirus. Districts,  independently of one another, developed their plans and many schools are teaching remotely. That means parents and caregivers are again juggling their work schedules while also acting as teacher helpers.

But families are armed with some insight from last March, when schools suddenly shut down because of COVID-19.

Last spring Kennadie Thompson, who just started 7th grade this week, and her sister Addison, who just started 5th grade, had their "desks" all over their house.

“In the spring, your setup was in our recliners,” said their dad, Mustafa Thompson.

Sitting on the front porch of their home in West Springfield, Mass., Thompson, his wife BeckyJean and the girls laughed thinking about how some days went.  

"Sometimes Addison set up with me in my office,” BeckyJean Thompson said. “She would come in with her laptop and I would adjust the ironing board as her desk so that she could work alongside me.”

Now their desks are set up in the dining room. BeckyJean, who is a realtor, pointed out she has to share her office with a hamster. The family also has a bearded dragon and two guinea pigs.  

“And three dogs and a fish,” they all said, almost in unison.

Mustafa, who is major in the Massachusetts Army National Guard out of Worcester, lovingly referred to their home as a zoo.

In mid-March, when the kids had to suddenly start remote school from home, he was gone long hours. His battalion was tasked with setting up COVID-19 testing stations around the state. When he would come home, he basically “disinfected” himself, he said.

“And then, after showering, coming down — watching my 12-year-old do homework at one in the morning? That was an adjustment,” he said. “However, their report cards came out and she did great.”

Mustafa gives his wife a lot of credit for managing with the kids on her own.

It was challenging, BeckyJean said, “building time to help them with homework and classwork, as well as finding time with the clients and running to the office and doing regular household errands.”

Last year there was a lot of confusion. But when West Springfield's superintendent announced school would again be online this fall, BeckyJean said families received a lot more guidance. She was relieved.

Classes, which began Wednesday, are on a schedule. 

“l think that we will have more of a pattern every day,” BeckyJean said. “We'll know what to expect, and if we know that between 11:30 and 12:15, it's lunchtime and we can go outside and play a game of basketball, that's great. Instead of, ‘Oh, I want to do homework now.' 'No, I want to do this now.’ And then a fight ensues.”

In towns around Massachusetts, including West Springfield, some families are campaigning to get their kids back inside school buildings sooner rather than later. The Thompsons believe their town is doing the right thing. But BeckyJean said which side you're on is a very personal decision.

“It’s about how you've been affected by [the pandemic] thus far,” BeckyJean said.

“I'm going to differ from that,” Mustafa jumped in, speaking as a first responder. “It's not a personal decision, it's a pandemic.”

BeckyJean made the case for people who can’t work if their children are at home.

“There’s the possibility they could lose their place of residence and not be able to feed their families," she said. “Some people don't have a choice.” 

There is no single model for school this fall or solution for how to make sure kids — of any age — are engaged in their school work.

And working parents of preschoolers are also stretched.

Meredith Lively, who works full time, is still trying to find a preschool program for her four-year-old daughter, Zada.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM
Meredith Lively, who works full time, is still trying to find a preschool program for her four-year-old daughter, Zada.

Meredith Lively is a single mom. Her daughter is four years old and at a playground recently — upon seeing a person with a microphone — she shouted from a long ways away, “Hi! My name is Zada!”

Since March, Lively has been able to work from home and has a fair amount of flexibility managing the wholesale market of an area farm. She starts her workday at 6 a.m. at the kitchen table, before a very energetic Zada wakes up. She goes back to work at night sometimes, she said, after Zada goes to sleep.

Lively considers herself lucky. Her daughter is great at playing on her own, she said. Still, she needs her mom.

“We sit together. I have the table set up that when I’m working — she's sitting right there with me, whatever she's doing. Eating, playing tablet, reading a book. And I definitely have to stop all the time,” Lively said.

Zada was at an outdoor preschool this summer, but the program was canceled for the fall. So far, Lively said, she hasn't found any other place Zada can go. Part of that is financial, and part of that is the pandemic. 

“To be honest, I’m so overwhelmed with my work that I haven't had time to look into other options, and the word on the street is that everything is full. So I actually asked my...advocate [for help],” Lively said.

Lively has a few advocates through community organizations. They help her navigate housing, health care, and other needs. Personal safety is an issue; She left an abusive relationship with Zada's father, who she said she is not in touch with.

“I worked really, really hard to get a solid footing in western Mass., and got it all really lined up and working,” she said. “And then the pandemic happened and it was like, 'Go back home, work from home, stay at home all the time!'”

With school still online in Amherst, Mass., parents Katie Shults and Ted White continue to play a large part in their daughter Eve's online education. Eve, who has Down syndrome, just started 8th grade.
Credit Submitted / Isabella Dellolio / isabelladellolio.com
With school still online in Amherst, Mass., parents Katie Shults and Ted White continue to play a large part in their daughter Eve's online education. Eve, who has Down syndrome, just started 8th grade.

Not far from the playground on a recent Sunday morning, 13-year old Eve White, like many teenagers,  slept in late. She's the daughter of Ted White and Katie Shults.

“Why don’t you just tell her that Jill’s here, and that she wants to know what we think about school,” Shults said to White. “Or just [tell her] come visit, because maybe if we bring up school, she might not want to come!”

In the end, Eve didn’t come outside, so Shults described her. Over the summer, Eve spent a lot of time outdoors. Her mother said she loves pop music and all things L.A., and Eve has Down syndrome.

She started 8th grade this week at Amherst Middle School and is also going to school online, but not with the usual supports of a student with special needs. Eve, like other students under Massachusetts special education guidelines, have paraprofessionals with them during the school day.

That wasn't the case when school closed in the spring. So it became another job for Shults, who teaches several yoga classes a week and runs a natural health remedy business. 

“I hope I manage better than I did in the spring,” Shults said. “It’s just really hard to maintain your work schedule, and be there for your kid in meaningful ways, and keep abreast of what's happening educationally — especially when they have special needs.”

In 7th grade, Eve had eight different teachers — not unusual for her but much more than a mainstreamed middle schooler. Imagine that online, Shults said.

Eve's father, who teaches at Keene State College, was around to help in the spring, but won't be as much this fall.

“When Eve started learning from home, I was teaching from home. Now I’m going back to school and we don’t know what Eve's doing exactly,” White said.

On Wednesday, Eve met her online paraprofessional for the school year. Shults is hopeful, and said the district has been communicating a lot over the past two months.

And just this week, the family was bombarded with information.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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