New York City Parents Tell: What Remote Learning During Covid-19 is REALLY Like

New York City parents of school-aged kids have had their work cut out for them during Covid-19, with the prolonged responsibility for remote learning. 

The NYC public school system, serving 1.1 million students, closed to in-person instruction on March 16, 2020. To date, public middle and high schools remain closed. Most public elementary schools are operating under a hybrid model (meaning students are split into cohorts and alternate between in-person and remote instruction), with a handful offering 5-day in-person learning. All schools have had lengthy shutdowns due to positive cases from school testing and rising community cases. 

Private schools have followed similar trends, though many offer full-time in-person instruction.

School kids have relied on remote learning, with parents* partnering with schools to supervise, co-teach, tutor, and facilitate the process. Stepping up and doing whatever it takes for the well-being of our kids (to the extent that we’re able) is not new to parents.

However, being assigned the unpaid labor that supervising remote learning entails has created substantial economic and emotional impacts for parents. As the New York Times put it: “In the Covid-19 economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both”.

Around 20 % of working parents have had to drop out of the workforce to support remote learning, with parents of color, and women disproportionately affected. The impact of a generation of working mothers dropping out of the workplace creates a risk of long-lasting economic impacts

Some parents are simply not in a position to lose income in the first place or cannot afford to outsource remote supervision. NYC Department of Education has opened a limited number of free places for the Learning Bridges program, an in-person, remote-learning pod. These centers have also been subject to Covid-related closures. 

Many school children have been further disadvantaged socially, emotionally, and academically by pandemic school closures and the limitations of remote learning.

Parents in the privileged position of working from home are juggling the additional demands of supervising remote learning in parallel to their work responsibilities. New York is an at-will state, so there’s increased pressure to perform to avoid layoffs. For independent contractors, there are no safety nets–work output that doesn’t fit quality, timeliness, or any other client requirements can mean abrupt income loss for parents.

All parents are doing the best they can with the position they’re in. A friend who’s a nurse comes off night shift to spend the day guiding her young children through remote schooling.

There’s also the emotional impact. The extent to which families had a village of any kind, has been decimated. Many parents feel like they’re failing their kids, and their employers.

Why is this? Surely setting your child up in front of a computer is no big deal! After all, kids love screens. We’ve all seen those cheerful images of parent and child, side-by-side, productive, and fully engaged in their work. Can working from home with children really be that hard?

New York parents of school-aged kids tell what it’s really been like to support remote learning, the challenges, and the unexpected joys. Find out what they had to say by reading on, or clicking the links below for individual stories:

Thank you to all parents who contributed their experiences to this article. And to parents everywhere who are doing their very best to support their children’s education throughout the pandemic.

Carissa

Carissa is a teacher, who’s been working remotely from home. Her 5th Grader, and 3rd Grader, have been schooling under a hybrid model.

I’m a full-time teacher working fully remotely. My husband’s an essential worker. My mom had to come and live with us, especially on the days my boys are fully remote. 

Remote learning is doing a huge disservice to our children. My boys need to be more active and see peers in-person for social gatherings, away from a screen. The most challenging part for me has been the constant battle my third grader gives, every day that he’s remote learning.

My well-being is suffering, especially mentally. We’re gaining weight and we’re stressed. Students and parents are struggling. I’m very lucky to have a supportive family and the financial ability to buy everything my boys need to learn at home. But other kids might not have that. 

As a teacher working remotely, I see my students struggle to find a quiet space to work. They have many technology issues. Most importantly, my students do not have support at home. It’s very disheartening. 

During the pandemic, my third grader learned how to ride his bike without training wheels. My fifth grader enjoyed playing roller hockey and wants to learn how to rollerblade.

Chloe, 8 years, is required to wear her uniform for remote learning. Photo credit: Nakia Gordon.

Kirsty

Kirsty has been working remotely from home. Her third Grader, H, has been schooling under a hybrid model.

Initially, H had to manage his own schedule while we were both working, which is so unfair on young kids. He did remarkably well, but had some teething problems at the start. We were lucky not to have technical issues but seeing other people having them (including teachers) is frustrating.

On remote days there’s no actual class teaching. There are only cluster teachers for art, music, etc. We were lucky that his teacher chose to Zoom kids at home into her classes, but that’s only because she chose to do so.

At the end of last term, it was pretty much a disaster. There was no learning happening, lots of tears (from everyone) because the world changed so fast and it was a bit scary, and nobody (including the schools) knew what they were doing.

There were a couple of days where we just decided not to bother with school at all. This school year has been so much better. The teachers are prepared, the kids are used to it, and I feel like actual learning is taking place.

My son has enjoyed being at home and I think there have been positives for our family of three in terms of quality time together. My husband was traveling all the time for work before, so it’s been great to be all together, for the first time, for a sustained period.

My employment was affected due to Covid-19 as my work visa expired and my new one has not arrived yet. I’m now able to support my son much more than before. This has been great, but obviously not ideal from a work and income perspective. It was hard before. There were days when both my husband and I could be on call for 3-4 hours at a time.

Supporting my son in remote learning is not easy! We’re not teachers, and frankly, so much of what they learn today is different from how we were taught (or we’ve just forgotten). .  

Thank God we are only playing a “supporting” role and the teachers are still doing an amazing job. When working, I think employers need to realize that flexibility is crucial, and all-day meetings are not possible. I was lucky to have a very understanding employer, and there were times I had to say I could not do certain things at certain times as I needed to check in with my son.

We’ve enjoyed the time together as a family. It’s also been a unique opportunity to hear what is being taught and how, and also to hear how he contributes in the classroom. Math these days is a complete mystery to me.

I’m honestly so relieved we don’t have younger kids at home. I have so much respect for those juggling babies, toddlers, and younger school-aged kids, as well as trying to work.

Angela

Angela is a freelance technical and copywriter, working remotely from home. Her kindergartener and fifth grader have been schooling under a hybrid model.

Supporting my kids during remote learning is a full-time job. 

In a normal classroom environment, the teacher does more than delivering a curriculum. They develop a relationship with the child that positively influences their learning habits. They facilitate the workflow for the day. They support kids through social-emotional needs. And of course, there’s the healthy peer influence from classmates to participate in the classroom and complete their work.

You just can’t replace a skilled and passionate human with a screen!

My kindergartener needs hands-on help with all aspects of remote learning, including guiding him through concepts and troubleshooting technical issues. His live classes are short, so in-between I’m setting him up with school assignments, learning activities, and keeping him out of mischief. 

Although my fifth grader is independent and tech-savvy, he needs help with managing his time and staying focussed on his school work. I coach him and provide scaffolding to encourage effective work habits, though he’d probably call it “nagging”.

Technology is a saving grace and also a pain point. My fifth grader admits that the laptop and internet are distractions. Before the pandemic, we were a screen-lite household. It’s disheartening to see my kids become obsessed with screens. I take them out daily for outdoor time, which is healthy for all of us.

There’s not a lot of downtime, physically and mentally. The daily task list feels endless.

I wage an internal battle between trusting that my kids will be ok academically (after all, the world is one big classroom) but also worrying that they’ll lose important foundational skills from more than a year of disrupted education. 

At the start of 2020, my professional goal was to transition back into full-time employment after pausing to be a stay-at-home parent. The cost of full-time paid help makes this unviable, plus I’m concerned this would also introduce Covid-19 transmission risks. For now, I’m taking on part-time freelance contracts, which give me the flexibility to deliver quality work for my clients. 

It’s challenging to do my own work when I’m supervising remote learning. The kids’ needs are ongoing and this isn’t compatible with the uninterrupted time I need to focus and complete quality work.

It’s hard not to feel I’ve failed my kids this year because my energies are stretched thin, and I’m making compromises that go against how I’d ideally like to parent. On the plus side, we’re happy and healthy, and my boys have been getting along surprisingly well. Being home more means more hugs. My 10-year-old stands firm that “this is the happiest time of my time”. 

I’m lucky to be at home with my kids for remote learning as many parents do not have that option. All parents are doing their best but I see parents tired and overwhelmed by it all. I believe our kids are learning from the dedication and resilience parents show them.

5th Grader, Ethan, is schooling under a hybrid model. Photo credit: Angela Tohl

Kylie#

Kylie# has a fourth grader at school five days a week in-person and a sixth grader who was in a hybrid model but has been fully remote since Thanksgiving.

You’re essentially an indentured servant to your family. I don’t get to plan my day out and am now subject to the minutiae of each of my children’s daily school schedules. One has lunch at 10.30am, the other at 12pm, Thursday is a short day, etc.

The loss of multi-sensory teaching for the younger child was initially very detrimental to progress, with social solitude for both kids. My eldest transitioned schools this year. Starting a new school during a pandemic has been challenging. Encouraging her to take risks initiating new relationships with students and teachers over Zoom is troublesome. To make real bonds with people, it’s better to be fully immersed in-person.

It’s important if you see your child struggling to promptly reach out to the school for extra support. Although you can help your child finish a project or a math problem, without being a trained teacher it’s difficult to tell if the child has grasped the fundamentals of what you’ve shown them so that they can repeat the task independently. You could just be papering over cracks with learning slipping otherwise. A good dialogue with the school is imperative to offer seamless support to the child whether in-person or remotely at home.

I was interviewing before Covid-19, which had to completely stop so that I could focus and support the family, remote learning, and the continuing amount of schedule changes. After Thanksgiving they went remote for a week, then one went back but had a day off for all the school to get Covid-19 tested. We were given 2 days’ notice of a new scheduled day off. This week my eldest daughter’s school released a tentative term and holiday schedule for the school year. They haven’t been able to do that until this point and are still unsure when they can finalize. Everything is subject to change on short notice at present so it’s very difficult to commit to a new job with these unknowns.

On the plus side, I was able to identify strengths and weaknesses academically and support enrichment and remediation in those areas. We interact a lot every day and I’ve tried to keep it light and fun for them such as playing silly tricks during the day to keep them laughing. We break the day up with a quick card game (non-screen based) like Uno, where my youngest always beats me so she can have bragging rights with the family. We go to Central Park daily for walks. That’s been lovely.

Charlene#

Charlene# has 3 kids in pre-K, third and fifth grades, all schooling fully remote.

I want people to understand that I’m dedicating most of my time to make sure my kids are in a safe and healthy learning environment and that their social-emotional needs are always met. It’s very tiring. 

Remote learning is not the ideal learning mode but we try to make the best of it with laughs, playing games, going to outdoor places, and spending a lot of time with family. My kids learned that family is our priority and that health always comes first. 

The most challenging thing is to keep up with the schoolwork of three children, especially constantly occupying a 4-year-old with activities and work while dealing with my own responsibilities. 

I’m basically the teacher for my 4-year-old and seeing her learn new things and get excited to learn is so joyful to see. My older kids learned to be more independent and to do things on their own and they also learned that during these tough times your family and health come first. 

I worked as a teacher in a public school in the last academic year. Due to Covid-19, I was laid off because of budget cuts. I’m currently a substitute teacher but I can’t take any jobs because I’m supervising my kids being fully remote. They do have a remote option (for substitute jobs) but it’s rarely available. I’m currently looking for a remote teaching job.

Nakia

Nakia Gordon leads the Aussie Mums and Dads in New York group and writes for AWNY. She has two kids aged eight and ten. They’ve been schooling fully remote since March, with no other option offered. 

I’m no longer available between 8:30am and 4:00pm for anything outside the house because I’m effectively “teaching” and overseeing my kids’ learning.

I think it’s more challenging for the younger kids to stay focused on a screen all day. There were teething problems with the learning platforms not working properly. I think learning math on a screen is hard. My kids do all classes and schoolwork on screen, with no paper-based learning at all. 

On the plus side, I’m learning and understanding what my kids are doing in class. Is that a good thing? 

I wasn’t employed before Covid-19 but I volunteer with AWNY as Co-Lead of the Aussie Mums and Dad group and I blog about activities in New York for families. I feel both roles were a bit redundant this year with socializing being non-existent! 

Charlie, 10 years, is schooling under a fully remote model. Photo credit: Nakia Gordon.

Are you a parent who’s been supervising remote learning? Tell us what it’s been like for you in the comments below.

* Remote learning occurs in-home supervised by parents, caregivers, paid help, through private learning pods, and the NYC Learning Bridges program, and more. This article focuses on the experience of parents supervising remote learning, ergo the term “parents” is used.

# Pseudonym used by request.

Author: Angela Tohl

Adelaide-born Angela came to New York in search of the ultimate adventure, by way of Australia and Japan. She juggles technical and copywriting projects, with chasing her kids around (usually on roller skates). Find Angela on Twitter @angelatohl and at www.australianwomeninnewyork.org/author/angelatohl/. Image credit: Susie Lang

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