School buildings are closed, but it’s still been a busy couple of weeks for Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher.
She’s been attending virtual faculty meetings, receiving district training for remote instruction, and grading student essays online. On Monday, she held a class via Zoom for about 45 minutes, in which she checked in on her students’ mental health and introduced National Poetry Month. About 100 of her 170 students logged in.
Nearby through it all are her own two children, who are out of school as well. Figuring out how to teach online while making sure they’re occupied has been its own challenge.
“At first we tried to make it clear if mom or dad have headphones and are staring at the computer, it means you can’t bug them,” Nakada said. “The 8-year-old can get that, but the 5-year-old has a hard time.”
“Everyone is doing their best, and none of it’s going to be pretty,” she said.
As many schools across the country transition to remote instruction — in the wake of widespread building closures caused by the new coronavirus — Nakada’s experience is the new normal.
A sizable share of America’s teachers have young children. Most teachers are women, who often bear disproportionate caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members. And although many of the country’s large districts say they’re attempting to be flexible with teachers as they move to remote instruction, few if any have policies that explicitly accommodate those juggling work and full-time caregiving.
That’s making for some complicated daily decisions about whose kids are getting attention at a given moment. It’s a challenge that schools will have to continue helping teachers navigate in order to make remote instruction work, especially as it extends for weeks and months.
“The history of teaching, since we’ve feminized the profession, there’s been this emphasis on teachers [as] ultimately altruistic — they love children,” said Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy at Baruch College. “For the vast majority of teachers, that’s true about them. But they’re not usually asked to sacrifice attention to their own children in the process.”
“If you are home alone with your kids, and you’re also trying to meet your students’ needs, something’s got to give,” she said.
About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.
Among those teachers is Brian Grimes who is now setting up his kids — ages 7, 9, and 13 — to work at the dining room table every morning instead of sending them off to school.
“It’s like the summer, but there’s no fun,” said Grimes, who lives in New Jersey.
Once they’re settled, he starts his own job as a high school history teacher — videotaping lessons, grading assignments, talking to students and their families — a few feet away.
It’s been a dizzying transition. “I put my shirt and tie on and I go to work, it’s ‘teacher Brian,’ and then when I come home, it’s ‘parent Brian,’” he said. “Now everything is merged together.”
Many children, after all, haven’t yet adjusted to the sudden shift. “It’s very difficult,” said Alexis Mann, a Minneapolis teacher. “They don’t understand when mom’s home, that I’m actually working.”
In one respect, though, the fact that teachers are still facing these challenges reflects good news. As millions of workers face layoffs, teachers still have jobs and a steady paycheck.
But the change presents unique challenges for teachers, and few districts appear to have offered specific accommodations for teachers who are also caregivers. “We haven’t seen a lot of policy or explicit guidance on that,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been compiling large districts’ coronavirus response policies. (Many districts are still developing, or have not fully instituted, a remote instruction plan.)
Gill said that most districts don’t seem to be requiring teachers to conduct live instruction at specific times. Miami-Dade County schools, for instance, says it expects teachers to be available for at least three hours every day to students, but gives teachers the freedom to decide on those hours themselves.
Philadelphia’s guidance to educators says that “daily work schedules should remain largely unchanged” but that “reasonable flexibility shall also be used to accommodate employees’ individual needs.”
Gill suggested that teachers collaborate to ease each other’s burdens — for instance, a teacher available during the day could focus on connecting with students, while another teacher videotapes lessons at night that students could watch on their own.
Grimes said his school district has told teachers to monitor their emails during the day and to grade student work promptly, but generally been flexible. “They understand that we’re dealing with a lot on our own,” he said.
Nakada said her school district, LAUSD, hasn’t communicated explicit policies for caregivers. A spokesperson for the district said that teachers are expected to work during the day and hold office hours at least three times a week at flexible times.
That sort of flexibility is essential, teachers say. Mercedes Liriano, who teaches fifth grade in the Bronx, says her principal expects teachers to attend two staff meetings a week but otherwise has been accommodating.
“He knows that we have family, he knows that we have other requirements that demand our time,” she said.
A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education reiterated this. “We understand that teachers and staff may be caring for others,” said Danielle Filson. “There are no expectations for specific time periods for teachers to be logged in and schools are not expected to replicate a regular school day schedule in a virtual environment.”
But there are challenges. Liriano has two computers at home, meaning she and her two children are one device short at all times. And then she is also trying to help her son, who sometimes struggles in school, get through his lessons.
“I’m having to navigate helping my parents and my students, who are constantly calling, while I’m trying to help my son at the same time,” she said. “But I can’t be on my computer while he’s trying to do his work.”
In any case, trying to get work done while children are at home is complicated — the new reality for millions of parents, teachers among them. For some, the fear and uncertainty associated with the global pandemic that precipitated all the disruption has made it even tougher.
“There’s so much time and mental space that’s being occupied by the coronavirus,” Alex Driver, a New York City teacher who is also the parent of twin six-year-olds. “So much head space is being taken up by that, and then we also have the back and forth of parenting and teaching. And then what’s left?”
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