By Courtney Thatcher
This morning, I asked my two year old if he would like to go to “circle time,” now offered virtually by his Montessori. He ran in circles saying “yes, yes, yes” until we began walking over to my laptop. At that point, he began to yell “I want to go to school, please!?” over and over as he burst into tears. Similar scenes play out in countless households across the world daily, and while there have been plenty of articles addressing how one might work successfully with kids also at home, and there have been many on how to take care of your own mental health during the times of stay-at-home orders and quarantines; I think one aspect has been mostly missing in these conversations. Those of us with children at home are not just homeschooling and providing daycare while working from home (which is an incredibly difficult, if not impossible task during the best of times), we are homeschooling and providing daycare while working from home during a pandemic.
We are all varying degrees of stressed, upset, scared, and worried, and this includes every child as well. Kids are struggling just as much, if not more, with the decisions that have been made surrounding COVID-19, and they are experiencing them with less understanding, less agency, and less fully developed emotional networks. What this means from a parenting or caregiver perspective is that they need us more than ever. We are not just watching them and homeschooling them, we are also supporting them, helping them process what is happening, and making them feel secure and hopeful for the future. This requires a good deal more work, time, and emotional labor than what is being proposed in the how-to articles or considered by many employers and, I fear, colleagues and friends.
Before I continue, it is necessary to acknowledge that this is written from a position of relative privilege. Both my partner and I hold full-time positions that allow us to work from home, and everyone in my family is relatively healthy. My intent here is not to elide those in more extreme situations, but to focus on a specific aspect that might be overlooked in many conversations.
As schools close their doors, children are watching their support systems shrink or vanish. The teachers, counselors, coaches, librarians, friends, and classmates that they rely on daily are no longer as easily accessible, and sometimes not accessible at all. Some schools are continuing with online meetings, and virtual playdates are happening; but meetings are shorter and not particularly comparable, and they tend to be a particularly hard way for younger children to interact with the world. From what I am seeing with my own kids and hearing from other parents, video calls are difficult for the younger children who do not want to engage virtually with people they are used to engaging with in person. And for older kids, the calls are not really on their own terms. The immediateness of the meetings and the invasiveness of the camera make it hard to sit back and assess the situation before joining or to be shy when one is feeling that way.
As school districts continue to announce closures for the remainder of the school year and potentially beyond, our children are feeling it even harder. They will never again step foot into their current classrooms, they will never participate in the exciting grade-level activities and events planned for the rest of the semester. The vast majority of the support kids need now falls on their current caregivers.
The struggles apply to children of all ages in many different ways. I have seen comments that infants and toddlers are not being terribly affected, but they sense our stress and their routines have changed. The middle ages of five to eight seem particularly hard because they have begun to form social groups, are old enough to recognize that something has changed and perhaps even name it but can’t grasp the larger societal structures at play. These are the age groups my children fall in, but I understand the different challenges that the older ages face as well. Teens in particular may resent not being allowed to participate in activities, especially if they see other people in their cities and towns not obeying stay-at-home orders. And at all ages, kids are responding in different ways: some are hiding and becoming more distant, some want to be held more, and some are more easily set off. Siblings are fighting more often, class work can be a daily battle, and children of all ages are viscerally experiencing a shrinking social and physical world beyond their control.
None of this is to say that no one is paying attention to these issues. Many of us have received information about support for child and adolescent mental health from our school, there are programs to make sure students are still receiving meals while schools are closed, counseling services are being offered, and laptops are being distributed for virtual meetings to help support students. But, even all together these efforts can never be the same as having childcare and schools open; and caregivers have to cover what is missing as best as they are able given all of the other disruptions in their lives and their own varying levels of access to vital resources.
As we move forward and, hopefully, emerge from the most drastic effects of the current crisis, I want to urge my colleagues to remember and acknowledge the additional emotional and physical labor taken on by caregivers as we move through our next set of reviews and beyond. Again, the narrow focus here is admittedly focused on the academy and written from a position of privilege, but it’s also a topic of importance. It is and will continue to be far too easy to ignore the additional emotional and mental labor of homeschooling during a pandemic, to equate it to a choice many make to homeschool during normal times, but it’s not. If we are to pursue equity, we must remember this moment and the costs it has levied on all of us, in varying ways and at various times, as we move forward.
Courtney Thatcher is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Puget Sound. She has two children, Hannah (6) and Benjamin (2).