The struggle is real: NWEA families share what life is like for them right now

Things are really hard right now. (How’s that for stating the obvious?) As a mom of two preschoolers (that’s them above), I count my lucky stars every day that their school is open again, that I’m able to work from home, and that I have a reliable spouse who helps carry the load. Many families aren’t as fortunate.

I spoke with eight of my colleagues to hear more about how school is going this year in hopes that you might find comfort in their experience. They’re pretty lucky, too: they can work from home and have caring spouses. But no matter how you look at it, parenting during coronavirus is far from easy. Here’s what they had to say.

CHRISTINE FETTERHOFF, MOM TO RYU (AGE 8, GRADE 2) AND ZELDA (AGE 5, KINDERGARTEN)

At NWEA: Experience design lead, Partner Experience Department, Oregon

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online with synchronous and asynchronous learning.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? Ryan works from home full-time, and we have similar schedules. His job is relatively stable for now, but his company has gone through pay cuts and two rounds of layoffs in the past six months.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? No.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? I am 75% responsible. My husband is back in school (online, in the evenings), so his schedule is less flexible than mine.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? Communication and meeting kids where they are.

Teachers have been absolutely amazing. The school librarian/technology instructor made 500+ individual bags, one for each student, filled with library books so that each kid can have reading material at home. Both second grade and kindergarten teachers have decided to print out worksheets that we pick up for our kids, then drop off for them to provide comments. Teachers are trying hard to reduce the amount of screen time when possible but still provide instruction in a meaningful manner.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? They see my husband and me more often. Their days aren’t so long. Prior to online schooling, they would get on the bus at 7:20 and not get home until 5. Now, school’s done at 2:15 and they have time to play.

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? My son has dyslexia and he made SO MUCH progress last year! I am worried that we won’t be able to help him stay on track this year.

From a non-academic standpoint, I’m sad that both kiddos don’t get to see their friends and play sports or do activities. So much of elementary school is navigating social relationships, and they don’t have the chance to learn this in a “normal” way this year.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? I’m micromanaging two additional schedules, so a lot of my focused work time has to happen when the kids are in bed or on weekends.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? My kids have become more confident in their online classrooms. My five-year-old learned to use a trackpad, which even I can’t do. But the biggest success is seeing how adaptable and resilient they are. They are quite happy, despite everything going on in the world.

MELISSA JOHNSTON, MOM TO CHLOE (AGE 10, GRADE 5) AND TIM (AGE 8, GRADE 3)

At NWEA: Chief strategy officer, Maryland

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online with a mix of live and asynchronous.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My husband, Mark, is a freelance producer and is able to work from home weekdays, typically 9­–5. All of our benefits are through NWEA since Mark has been  contractor for 15+ years. Mark had about two months of job insecurity earlier in the year as many productions had to be shut down due to COVID. He is now back in a role that will take him through March 2021.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? Not really. My sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and niece live about 30 minutes away. We have seen them a few times during the pandemic for outside socializing. The rest of our family lives far away. I haven’t seen my dad or sister since Christmas 2019.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? Mark and I equally share in schooling responsibilities. Since I have back-to-back calls, my husband is often pulled in to help during school hours. I tend to be the parent who helps with homework.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? The district decided to make the hours of online learning 9:00–3:15 every day except Wednesdays. It is great to have the afternoon off in the middle of the week; it gives them a much-needed break from the stress of screen time.

Also, my son’s teacher came to our house the day before school started and dropped off a welcome bag. Since she was new to Tim and our family, making that personal connection (even with masks on) was so important in establishing a relationship with him.

The other thing that all of the teachers did really well was orienting both of my kids to the online environment. The district has a new platform (different from the one they used in spring), and making them navigate and understand how to log in and turn in assignments has been so incredibly helpful to Mark and me.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? I think they both enjoy that their “specials” are back. Having art, music, media, and PE has been a huge boost. It also allows them to connect with teachers they have known for years. That is so incredibly important.

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? I am most worried about my daughter. She has an IEP and the type of individualized attention she got in the school building just can’t be made up in this virtual world. Also, if they offer 1:1 support, it is usually not within the school day, so that translates to more Zoom calls. I worry about her falling even further behind, and most concerning is that it might start to impact her self-esteem. She has had such a growth mindset and I have seen her shift away from that. Chloe has so many assets and things that she is good at but because the virtual world seems to only honor one type of learner, I worry that she won’t feel as valued.

I also worry about my son not being challenged enough. School is quite easy for him and he doesn’t seem to mind the online environment. I just want to make sure he is pushed to accelerate.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? Just feeling like I am not giving enough to either my work or my kids. We are all trying the best we can but at the end of the day, we have to be able to focus. This fall has been much better as the school and teachers have organized the time so the kids are less reliant on Mark and me (thank goodness!), but still I am much more mindful of what is going on in their world and want to help.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? It has given me a new appreciation for teachers. It has also activated Mark and me even more to engage in our kids’ learning and spend more time with them. I also got to experience MAP® Growth™ remotely.

JASON MENDENHALL, DAD TO FLANNERY (AGE 14, GRADE 9) AND WALTER (AGE 11, GRADE 6)

At NWEA: President of State Solutions Division, Oregon

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online with the intent to transition to a hybrid model when the governor’s criteria are met.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My wife has worked from home for the last decade and runs her own web and graphic design company. Her work is very flexible and has allowed her to manage many of the kids’ logistics. The downside for her is that her whole family has invaded her workplace. The downside for me is that there aren’t enough logical workspaces for her, me, and the kids now that they are back in school so my workspace is a corner of our bedroom.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? For us it is more the other way around. We live five minutes from my wife’s parents, who are in their late 80s and require a lot of care. Our responsibilities as care providers for them have caused us to be extra careful with COVID preventative measures. Other than that, our only consistent support is each other. We have found that our kids are far more self-sufficient and resilient than we thought. They are supporting each other more than ever before and they both have learned to take care of themselves (cooking, for instance) during this time.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? It’s not exactly planful and our schooling support responsibilities tend to be more ad hoc and situational. Since I was a high school teacher in a past life, I tend to support Flannery and my wife tends to support Walter. That said, sometimes our support is based on the subject. My wife was a math major and I taught biology and literature, so our support approach is often topical or domain specific.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? Humor and engaging lessons. The teachers who have gone out of their way to leverage humor and create engaging learning experiences have really made a difference. For my daughter, it was learning to tell dad jokes in Spanish for her Spanish class. For my son, it was his science teacher taking a moment to create breaks between intense learning sessions. For example, after a lot of content on photosynthesis, my son’s teacher took a break to have a contest to balance pencils on their upper lip before moving to the next topic.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? No buses. Later start times. Having a flex day on Wednesday to adjust priorities and stay on track. Better technology for rapid teacher communication and feedback.

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? My kids are both fairly motivated when it comes to academics so my concerns immediately gravitate toward social and emotional learning and collaborative problem solving. As an employer, I deeply value staff who work well with other, maximize diverse talent, and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts by working together. That is much more difficult in an online environment, so I worry about a lack of teamwork and defining success in a very individualistic way.

I’m also worried about the loss of hands-on activities. Art classes, like ceramics and photography, have been canceled, music exposure is hollow at best, and online physical education lacks the social/team building environment my kids really crave.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? Timely availability. We have even more meetings than before. That makes it very difficult to provide learning support in the moment for my kids and to get my own work done.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? I’m so grateful for my kids’ teachers. They are so committed, creative, and positive. This is difficult and the dedication and resilience I’m seeing from my kids’ teachers is incredible. Having more exposure to how great my kids’ teachers are every day has been a bright spot.

CHRIS MINNICH, DAD TO CARSON (AGE 8, GRADE 2), ANDREW (AGE 5, PRESCHOOL), AND NATALIE (AGE 2)

At NWEA: CEO, Oregon

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My wife works full-time, and we have been trying to share times with work, but it’s been really hard. She’s ended up doing more of the work with our eldest, Carson, and it’s not fair at all times. We’re stressed about it for sure.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? We have help from a consistent outside caregiver for our youngest two. She definitely helps a lot, but it’s still hard on the education side.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? We shoot for 50/50, but we are more like 75/25 with my wife doing 75.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? Carson’s teacher is doing a great job of trying to connect with him and build a relationship.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? Carson cannot stand it. He said to me the other day, “When can I have friends again?”

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? Carson’s ability to interact with others, and his happiness. Academics will be ok.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? Everything. Life. It’s hard right now. There is no distinction between work time and school time.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? I’ve loved spending more time with my kids. My relationship with my youngest is really special right now.

CARRIE PHILLIPS, MOM TO BRANDON (AGE 7, GRADE 1) AND BENJAMIN (AGE 2, PRESCHOOL)

At NWEA: Senior director of School Improvement Services Department, Virginia

What learning model is your kids’ school using? Brandon is 100% virtual. Benjamin’s preschool is open in person.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My husband works full-time from home. He owns his own small business, which always operates out of our home, and has four employees. His work hours are flexible.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? No.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? I take the lead on monitoring virtual schooling for our first-grader, while my partner takes the lead on watching our preschooler. Except on Mondays, our asynchronous learning day, when my partner oversees our son’s completion of assignments.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? Frequent movement breaks and embracing how squirmy first-graders are by allowing them to bounce around in their seats or roll on the floor while participating virtually.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? That he has more unstructured time after school. He used to be in aftercare and now is at home. He probably appreciates all the extra screen time that involves!

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? The socialization my first-grader is missing out on and how sad it is making him not to be able to play with friends. I also worry he is not being challenged enough by virtual learning because the teacher isn’t able to monitor what his individual needs are and customize them. My husband and I are trying to supplement at home, but we wish we could do more. I also then think about all the kids in his school who struggle so much with engaging with virtual learning at all. What’s going to happen when we eventually go back to school and some kids learned almost nothing during this time?

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling?Virtual learning has gone much better this fall than in the spring. The hardest thing is not knowing if my kid is getting what he needs and seeing how stressed everyone in the school system already is.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? We’ve spent more time practicing reading with our son since there isn’t reading practice at school, outside of phonics instruction. We’re also not rushed as much since our son isn’t in aftercare (because it doesn’t exist now), so he’s not as tired at the end of the day.

CHUCK PHILLIPS, DAD TO NICKLAS (AGE 9, GRADE 4)

At NWEA: Senior project manager, Product Management Department, Oregon

What learning model is your kid’s school using? 100% online.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My wife is currently in a full-time MBA program. Classes are online. The workload is heavy, and the timeframes vary from class to class.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? Ha, ha. No.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? I would say school duties are split 50/50. My wife would probably say it’s more like 70/30.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kid? My son’s teacher is very organized, proactive, and communicative. He has done a great job creating schedules, communicating assignments, and setting expectations. This has minimized chaos and maximized the students’ ability to be self-sufficient. (Giving me more time to spend on my work!)

What’s one thing your child seems to be enjoying about their new learning environment? This is the video game era, so my son has no problem sitting in front of his computer for amazingly long periods. In fact, he’s already started lobbying to continue to be 100% online if that option is available when they return to the classroom. (Spoiler…that’s not gonna happen!) Online learning, socializing, and entertainment appear to be natural for some kids.

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? I feel fortunate to have few academic concerns. But the kids are missing out on all the aspects that make school fun and contribute to a lifelong love of learning. Music, dance, sports, the playground, school parties and activities, interacting with teachers and friends, etc. These elementary years form the foundation and, unfortunately, kids are missing out on these vital experiences.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? Focus. The constant context switching. One minute I’m on a call with my project team, the next, I’m reading Kleptocats. Then it’s back on a call just to hop off to make tomato soup. I’ve learned that kids require an endless flow of snacks!

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? As mentioned above, some kids seem to adapt well to online learning. They can be very comfortable with computers and technology, so once the bugs are fully worked out with the classroom processes, learning loss will hopefully be minimized.

KELLIE SCHMIDT, MOM TO IAN (AGE 11, GRADE 6) AND THOMAS (AGE 7, GRADE 2)

At NWEA: Manager of content, Content Solutions Department, California

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online. They each spend 3–4.5 hours a day online in “class,” and then they have independent work to complete.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? My husband, Darren, works from home full-time, which is what we both did before COVID. He works in assessment as well, so we have had some worries about the stability of the industry. That being said, we have had that worry before, too.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? No, unfortunately. We have one set of grandparents close by, but one is high-risk. We’ve been very strict about social distancing.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? It is very much a “Who’s on first?” situation. I am most likely to get our youngest started each day, but then we try to figure out who can tend to what between meetings. It feels very chaotic. Our eldest doesn’t need us much during the day, thankfully.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kids? The energy Thomas’s teacher brings to the table is phenomenal. I don’t know how she does it! A few weeks ago, Thomas said, “I love Mrs. Burnette because I can tell she cares about me a lot.” To be able to convey that to a remote student is really impressive.

What’s one thing your children seem to be enjoying about their new learning environment? Something my eldest enjoys TOO much is the ability to chat during school meetings. He is not the only one; an email blast went out about kids chatting too much during class, and they even changed meeting platforms to try to limit that. I remind him often that he is using a Chromebook from the district, and as such he has no guaranteed privacy in terms of his online conversations. I fully admit that I was trying to scare him. Did it work? I highly doubt it!

When you think about your kids and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? I am a worrier, so I tend to have a list of about ten things I worry about at night, and I try to rotate through for variety. LOL! I would say that I have two big concerns, and they are both around Thomas, my youngest: He is still a developing reader. While I hear and see him having time to work on this during his school day, I fear that he is not advancing the way he might be in the physical classroom. My other concern for him is social-emotional. While he loves interacting with his classmates online, it has been a very, very long time since he had meaningful interaction with a three-dimensional child. He gets pretty lonely, and it is hard to watch. Because we have some high-risk family members, we haven’t found anyone with whom we can safely share a bubble.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? The total lack of control and the inability to focus. I can’t remember the last time I felt that I was able to concentrate fully or give my best to a task or even to a person. It’s been demoralizing. Also, everyone on my team has seen my kids several times during the past few months. The boys burst into my office with, “Mom!” If I’m lucky, they just come in to give me a hug. If I am unlucky, it’s “Zoom isn’t working! Help!”

I also had to write my thesis for my master’s degree during this time. What a mess! I couldn’t escape to a library or coffee shop to do focused work, so my dream of revolutionizing my field of study (I know, that’s kind of silly anyway) became, “Please, please, please let this be passing-quality work. Please.”

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? This is the longest period I have had without work travel since the boys were babies. There are many days when I feel like we are having too much togetherness, but I think the stability of me being at home is good for the whole household. Same with Darren; he travels for work a good bit, but we have both been “grounded” since March.

ERIN ANTONIUS WHITE, MOM TO CHARLIE (AGE 5, KINDERGARTEN)

At NWEA: Director, Curriculum Partnerships Department, Oregon

What learning model is your kids’ school using? 100% online, so we are supplementing with private, in-person instruction. In the last month, we’ve shifted school plans three times so we could get Charlie an in-person option. Kindergarten is so much more about socializing than learning, so online-only without other social engagement felt futile.

What’s your spouse’s work situation like? Richard works for an organization that supports the HR departments of other organizations, so when COVID hit, his business doubled. He does a lot of external-facing video calls, and in the beginning his organization wanted everyone on camera all the time. As time went on, they realized they needed to be flexible for the 60% of their team members who are parents, so they have moved to asynchronous internal meetings and cameras are optional, which has given him so much more flexibility.

Do you have any consistent family or friend support outside of your home? We don’t have any family in town. Our local support are too far for daily support or are in sensitive categories. I envy those with support nearby.

How are schooling responsibilities shared in your home? Initially it was 80% me as the administrative work was mine: finding options, interviewing, enrolling. But as we have moved to in-person instruction, we have moved to 60/40.

What’s one thing a teacher is doing that’s working really well for your kid? It is too soon to tell. The one-on-one Zoom worked really well to connect him to his online kindergarten teacher (she was supposed to do in-person, socially distanced, but the fires in Oregon squelched that). And he is excited to meet her in person, socially distanced, this week.

What’s one thing your child seems to be enjoying about their new learning environment? Meh. He likes it more on day 10 than day 2, but he LOVED day 1 for in-person instruction. Lev Vygotsky says learning is social, and my kid is a social learner. Online doesn’t feel that way.

When you think about your kid and learning this year, what worry keeps you up at night most often? I don’t want this year to kill his joy of learning and school. It’s his first year. We planned for him to do outdoor kinder. We had to change course, twice. He is high energy and needs high engagement from his educators (right now, his parents). I don’t want him to disengage. At five years old, it is all social and routine, in my opinion.

What’s one of the hardest things about juggling work and schooling? Coordinating our schedules to be available to support him on his devices.

What’s one (or a few?) of the bright spots or successes you’ve had during COVID learning? We have had the chance to see how he learns and what interests him (he likes challenges and science) so we have been able to focus on learning that captures his imagination, like baking soda volcanoes and reading about sharks. That has provided family time we might not have had otherwise.

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