New York City public schools were ordered to close due to rising COVID-19 cases last week, leaving over one million students and their families struggling with last spring’s distance-learning conundrum once again.
Increasing numbers of overtaxed, working parents are fuming over their predicament, with several dozen families gathering at City Hall last Thursday to protest Mayor Bill De Blasio’s decision to close the schools. While De Blasio, Cuomo, and high-ranking Department of Education officials are the main targets of ire, tension has also been brewing between the city’s parents and its teacher’s union.
While the interests of teachers wary of returning to the classroom and parents eager for a reprieve from remote schooling can often seem at odds, in reality, the issue is far more nuanced—if only because nearly half of public school teachers also have children living at home. Recently Vogue spoke to three New York City teachers—all of whom are also parents trying to balance virtual teaching with their own children’s distance learning—about what it’s like to teach and parent simultaneously in the era of COVID-19. Read their stories below.
What does your personal home teaching and learning set-up look like right now?
Jeffrey Beauchamp, physical education teacher at a public elementary school in Brooklyn: The school closures are a little frustrating, because I don’t have a set routine. I love the kids, and I love my job, but I go to work every day not knowing if I’ll be back tomorrow. I have one daughter, who’s seven, and balancing her school with my work has been a challenge. She’s in second grade, and I’ve never met her teachers in person; I just see them online. They don’t know our personal lives and all the things we have to deal with. My daughter has an iPhone, but she can’t do everything on it, and we have one MacBook for the house that I use to teach every day. So she has to wait until I’m finished teaching for the whole day to go online and do her homework. Some teachers don’t understand the careers that some parents have; like, some parents work from eight to six, all day, and can’t help their child with schoolwork at all. I’m fortunate to be a teacher and have some level of flexibility in my day to help my child, but what about the parents who don’t?
Julie Zenobi, art and design teacher at a public high school in Manhattan: You might hear my son in the background while we speak! He’s 16 months old, coming up on that year-and-a-half mark. We just went fully remote again, and he was even smaller when we were previously remote this spring. I was really happy to go back to school, because it gave me a quiet place to work. Now I’m in a 700-square-foot apartment with a toddler screaming—he’s still nursing—and trying to teach. My husband is home and tries to take our son, but my students are just kind of used to it now; “Oh, there’s the baby.”
Matt Driscoll, special education teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan: My son, who’s in sixth grade, uses our home computer, because the iPad that we got from the Department of Education just doesn’t cut it; it doesn’t work with Google Classroom the way it needs to. I have a desk set up in our living room, and then my wife, who is an occupational therapist with with elementary school-age kids in the Department of Education, has her stuff set up around the corner from me in the dining room. So we have the three of us working all at once; we were already fully remote, because both of us have medical accommodations and don’t trust the city or the DOE, so we didn’t send our kid in [to school.] I really feel like the only reason that schools looked safe up until now is because about 75 percent of parents opted out of in-person learning, with a large majority of those being parents of color who don’t feel like the schools are safe for their students.
Is there anything you think the city could have done, or could still do, to make your situation more tenable?
Matt: It would be easier for our family if the city worked on a plan for true equity for all students. As teachers, we see students who don’t don’t have reliable access to internet or devices that allow them to do their work, and that makes it harder on teachers and students. We got into this because we want to help students, right? So it does hurt us when we see our students suffering. It’s not just the city; it’s also about the state and the country actually investing in public education. De Blasio said before the school year started that this had to be the safest school year ever. He was asking us to do that, and then a couple months later, we got a massive budget cut. So, that doesn’t work; it doesn’t make sense.
Julie: It’s hard to say, in terms of my job and childcare. My husband is out of work. He’s in hospitality, so it’s like, who knows when he’ll work again? Could the city offer people like him, who work in hospitality, something to help get through this time? Absolutely.
Jeffrey: I just wish the city had had a plan implemented, so we wouldn’t have this whole “going back to school, going back home, back and forth” situation. I feel like if parents knew they would be remote all year, it might have been easier to plan and navigate this year.
What kind of emotional toll has this year taken on you?
Julie: The first round of closures was next-level traumatic, because our school community was really affected, and there were a lot of deaths. This time around, we’re prepared for it; we knew it was coming, and we’re dealing with it, but it doesn’t make it any easier. You just get so tired. You caught me on a very emotional day, when my students actually witnessed me and my husband having a marital spat! The baby was crying, and my husband was like, “You woke him up, you were being too loud.” But I was teaching! I just never thought I’d have a class of students witnessing those parts of my marriage live on Zoom.
Matt: Well, somethng just happened, actually, where my son—who’s a smart, bright kid, but likes to do the minimum—I was able to get into Google Classroom and look at one of his assignments, and I had to have a long conversation with him about, “You’ve got to do more than the bare minimum here.” This is my seventeenth year teaching, so I’m well aware of what expectations for a middle-school kid are, but that’s something that parents who are not teachers might not be able to do.
Jeffrey: Mentally, this has been really tough. I was on a call with my kindergarten class’s families the other day, and I was getting so stressed out, because I have my daughter’s work, and I have to teach, and I have my own personal graduate school work to do, and it feels like everything’s just collapsing.