On Monday morning, Yailene Welden-Gonzalez, the single mother of two Schenectady students, was starting to nail down a plan for the new school year.
Her daughter, Angelena Welden-Gonzalez, 8, was preparing for second grade, and her son, Francisco Gonzalez-Lopez, 12, was preparing for seventh grade. Both kids knew their expected teachers after working with them in the district’s virtual summer program and were readying themselves to finally return to school after months away. Gonzalez weighed the pros and cons of her choice between an all-virtual program and a mix of in-person and virtual learning, opting for the chance to get her kids some direct interaction with teachers and the consistency of a school routine – even if fundamentally altered by reduced hours and sweeping new health precautions.
“I had quite a bit of a long time trying to debate that,” Gonzalez said of the decision. “I definitely wanted them to be safe but ultimately they do need that one-on-one time (with teachers). Even if it’s just that little bit of normal school back, it’s good having their normal routines.”
Gonzalez mapped out her own work schedule, planning to handmake masks and clothes from home while her kids were at school and on weekends – how she has been making money since losing her job amid business closures in the spring. Gonzalez was starting to message the plans to her kids, too, preparing them for the new rules they would face at school, like wearing a mask, and plotting out how she would manage the hours when she would be charged with ensuring kids were logging in for virtual lessons.
“I’ve had these talks where I quiz them and ask how they feel and why they think they should wear masks,” she said.
But by the Thursday afternoon, her plans were back to scratch. Facing a looming 20-percent state aid cut, Schenectady school officials pared the district’s in-person plan to elementary students only – leaving Francisco to learn from home full time – and consolidated students into half of the buildings – leaving Angelena to learn at an unfamiliar school – and announced hundreds of layoffs. On Thursday, school staff called Gonzalez to tell her her daughter would be attending classes at Lincoln school; a short while later, they called back to say, actually, it would be Paige school.
“Seeing that there is only literally 10 days until school starts, I am already facing trying to explain to my daughter that she is going to a different school. Once she sees she is not going to the same place she is supposed to go she is going to have a meltdown,” Gonzalez said. “We have never been to Paige. I don’t even know where it is.”
Gonzalez said her daughter will struggle to adapt to a new environment and act out in response to that discomfort. She asked school staff if she could shift to the all-remote option for both kids, expecting it would be easier to manage; they took her number and said they would get back. Now with both kids possibly learning from home, Gonzalez tried to stay positive while facing down an even more uncertain future.
“Everything is going to have to change,” she said. “I was so hopeful, and it’s just all of the plans I had just came crashing down again.”
The ‘impossible’ task
Parents across the region are grappling with a new school year that presents a complex maze of challenges on constantly shifting grounds. While districts have detailed reopening plans and held countless virtual forums, many parents are still wondering how the fine details will play out in reality, while others are still waiting on student schedules, teacher assignments and school supply lists. And even where plans seem set in stone, every plan includes an emergency switch to something entirely different. Parents and teachers still have unanswered questions about what happens if a positive case shows up in a school and how social distancing will be enforced. The scheduling and childcare challenges for families balancing work and overseeing virtual learning present countless tradeoffs.
Kate Averett, a sociology professor at the University at Albany, has been interviewing parents across the country since March about how they are managing their children’s education during the pandemic. She said many parents making decisions about sending kids back to school feel like they are being asked to weigh the risks on their child’s physical health – from Covid – and mental health – from missing out on in-person school and peer interaction.
“Parents are in an impossible situation,” she said. “A lot of the parents I’ve talked to feel like they are being asked to make a potentially life or death decision with limited or incomplete information or always-changing information.”
She said parents she has interviewed appreciate the challenges facing school administrators but also recognize school leaders are making decisions based on priorities different than those of parents and that the solutions districts are coming up with won’t work for all students. But parents also have limited information about the risks involved with different choices and are not education experts or familiar with current teaching methods.
“How do you choose things when they are equally important?” she said of parents. “And it’s not always clear to parents how to prioritize.”
She said the impact of the new parenting responsibilities has fallen especially heavy on the shoulders of mothers and that single mothers face their own particular challenge amid the parenting turmoil caused by the pandemic.
“Is it possible to say more impossible?” she said of the challenge facing single parents.
Averett, who has researched homeschooling since well before the pandemic, said some parents she spoke to were planning to continue with the virtual programs offered by local schools but still wanted to keep a potential switch to formal homeschooling “on the table.” Homeschooling, which includes a formal withdrawal from public school, would present families more freedom to adapt the schooling they are already doing at home to their family’s specific needs.
“Parents I spoke to in the last couple of weeks were tentatively opting to do a virtual program but were really worried about whether they could do it,” she said, noting concerns about managing multiple students in different grades, functioning technology and the feasibility of meeting school expectations.
Tatiana Pearson, the parent of a Schenectady first grader and third grader, said she was still concerned about the health risks of the pandemic, including the risk to her father with a heart condition, and had opted for the district’s virtual option. But she was also concerned about how the program would actually work and how she would be able to manage overseeing her young kids’ learning, while also managing her job outside the home.
She works 12-hour shifts providing care for adults with disabilities – and also makes money doing virtual tarot readings on Facebook – with her job taking her out of the home between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. for much of week. Also a single mother, she said she has no choice but to make money for her family, complicating her ability to oversee her kids’ school.
“I didn’t have the comfort to just stay home and not have something come in,” she said.
With just a couple of weeks until the start of school, Pearson said it wasn’t clear to her what the daily schedule and regular routine of school would be like for her kids. She said she had heard there would be a large chunk of each day they were supposed to be logged into classes but that that wasn’t reasonable for a family of young kids and a working parent – even if they had a childcare option. She said it was nearly impossible to get the kids focused on class assignments when school went online in the spring.
“To me that is totally absurd,” she said of her kids spending a multi-hour part of each day sitting through virtual classes. “One: I work. My kids are not computer savvy, they are children, they don’t know how to go to links or access mics.”
She said she will work on schoolwork with her kids at night and on weekends – “That’s how it’s going to have to be, because I’m not able to do it any other way,” she said – and she hopes the district will give her the flexibility to do so without being chastised or punished. She said she hopes teachers pare down lessons and assignments to the most important topics and to give kids and families creative ways to explore subjects. She said while she planned to give the virtual program a try, she was also thinking more seriously about homeschooling her kids.
“It’s a really weird time for everyone right now, nothing is really realistic in terms of what ideas are being thrown out about school,” she said. “Would I mind having full control over what my kids are learning? No.”
Averett said for many parents education – usually an intense focus for parents – has taken a back seat to other, more urgent priorities like health and well-being, noting many families are focused on survival and hopeful their kids will bounce back academically when things return to more normal condition.
Pearson said her car payments and house bills are still due and that she is focused on remaining independent and setting her kids up for a better life.
“My top priority is maintaining stability,” Pearson said. “To be honest, education is not the priority right now.”
Kristina Lipinski – a Schenectady parent with a son starting high school and two kids at Zoller Elementary – said she opted for the district’s all-virtual program, because she didn’t like that the hybrid format still relied on students logging in to remote classes from home each day.
She also said she worried that experiencing school in the sterilized form it will take this year – with bare walls and empty toy boxes and regular health screenings – would have a negative impact on her children.
“I can’t imagine them going to school and then me sitting them down (at home) to do it all over again,” she said. “That would be impossible.”
Lipinski, a single mother, works as a waitress, but works late shifts and will be home to manage the new schoolhouse in her home. But like other parents preparing for the year, she said last week she had no “insight or word” into what the school year will look like or what will be expected for students and parents. She also said she hoped teachers will offer parents flexibility and an open line of communication as the year progresses, suggesting teachers should offer weekly virtual meetings for parents with questions. Last week Lipinski was still waiting to learn more about supply lists and whether she would have access to more computers for her kids.
“How can I prepare my kids and myself for the new adventure we are about to go on if I don’t have any more information,” she said.
She said she was nervous about how well she would be able to oversee and advance her kids’ studies and worried about her son, who gets extra speech services through the school district. She said he received extra virtual services in the spring but that she hadn’t received an update on how it would go during the new school year. She was also nervous about how her kids would respond to limited peer interaction and what a future transition back to school would look like.
“I will feel horrible if it’s because of me that they don’t succeed,” Lipinski said. “It’s just nerve-wracking because you don’t know if you are making the right choice. You hope you are.”
On Thursday, still reeling from the recent news that school plans had changed on her again, Gonzalez said things would get even harder to manage after the district further limited in-person options for students. At home, her kids will now need more space to do their work, limiting the space for her work, and her schedule will grow even tighter. She said she would have to plan on making outfits, her source of income, “in the time I usually sleep or whatever.”
“I kind of want to keep my head up in hopes things get a little better,” she said, noting the challenges. “It’s going to be a little bit harder now.”
For parents in the pandemic, the work never stops, and for many a new job as teacher and principal is only just beginning.
“I do feel like all of us have been going through a lot, especially parents who have lost work, parents who have to keep working through all of this,” Gonzalez said.