First grade teacher Jessica Higgs set up a video chat with her Lakeview Elementary students Thursday to start their afternoon lessons. When class time arrived, she was in the middle of a work call, so her students had to wait. But that just was the beginning of her problems.
Once the class started, her 5-year old decided she wanted to be in on the action. So, she climbed onto Higgs’ lap, inadvertently logging Higgs out of the virtual classroom in the process. As Higgs tried to figure out the issue, her husband came into her office, aka the dining room, asking for advice. When the Weber School District teacher finally logged back in, her students saw two of her.
Higgs pressed on. She sat her 5-year-old beside her and opened a book to read to the 23 or so eager faces on her screen. Just as she got started, her 5-year-old spilled Higgs’ Diet Coke all over the computer.
Home schooling while working during the coronavirus lockdown is hard — even for teachers.
“It was very hard for her to understand that it was time for my class,” Higgs said of McKayla, her youngest of three children, ages 5, 7 and 12. “It was hard for her to separate my time to focus just on my class. [It’s just] one of the challenges. Even just answering emails and such can be hard for them — to realize that finding something might not be at the top of my list while I help a parent with something.”
Gov. Gary Herbert has directed a statewide soft closing of schools through at least May 1 to prevent the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19. The move puts the brunt of the education of roughly 660,000 students statewide across 41 public school districts and 116 charters in the very busy hands of parents, siblings or other family members. Trying to juggle working full time from home while also acting as a full-time moderator, often for multiple kids in multiple grades on subjects they know little about, can be particularly overwhelming. Those who have been trained to teach don’t find it any less so.
“You know, like, we are also people, too. So we’re struggling, too, through all of this change and this crisis,” said Shannon Hoover, a kindergarten teacher at Highland Park Elementary in Salt Lake City and the mother of three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1. “This is all new for all of us.”
Like with any working parent, boundaries, or lack thereof, are a big issue. Some teachers don’t have dedicated office spaces; others can’t hole themselves away when they’re also supposed to be keeping an eye on their own kids. And kids, even when they know they aren’t supposed to, have a knack for recognizing those rare times when a parent is alone at a computer as good times to try to get undivided attention.
Making matters worse, social distancing prevents parents from buying themselves a few hours of focus by sending their kids to play at a friend’s house or dropping them off at a day care center. Now, in addition to teacher and parent, they are also expected to fill the role of activity director.
Danielle Ferrari, a sixth grade teacher at Valley View Elementary in Davis County, said finding balance is her biggest struggle. She has two children, Tylee, 8, and Connor, 12. Her husband is still working his normal hours as the director of campus events for Westminster College.
“When I’m in school eight hours a day, I know my kids are taken care of,” she said. “With them being here and not getting interaction with their own teacher, I’m the only thing they have right now.”
Ferrari said she considers her students her kids, too. She concedes she puts unnecessary pressure on herself to make sure they have their needs taken care of, which often comes at the expense of her own kin.
“It’s so hard, but I feel like I’m kind of putting my own kids second,” she said. “Because first thing in the morning, I’m getting up and I’m checking emails and I’m having parents FaceTiming me and kids FaceTiming me. And I try to have Zoom class almost every day.
"So while my kids are trying to do their classes and their homework, I’m ignoring them. I’m like, ‘Sorry, I’m doing a Zoom class right now.’”
That sentiment was echoed by other teachers, many of whom feel they’re working longer hours than they did before. They said they wake up early or stay up late figuring out lesson plans that will work in this new remote format. They grade papers while the rest of the family naps or watches TV. They answer pleas for tech support from parents at 8 at night. They’re losing sleep over students who have fallen off their radar. While some people on social media complain of being bored while sheltering at home, teachers are seeking out precious slivers of unoccupied time.
They also don’t have all the answers, particularly when it comes to their own kids’ schoolwork. Teachers who have children close to the age they teach have it a little easier. As Hoover said, they know what kids that age are capable of learning. When it comes to the best way to get information through to kids of other ages, though, they’re left scratching their heads like most everyone else.
Still, educators who are also parents do have a unique perspective on these unusual circumstances. They can see both sides of the coin. As a result, they can offer some wisdom.
First, keep kids on a schedule. It gives children stability in a time of upheaval. Second, they try to carve out at least a little time for play so their kids can see them as a mom, not just a teacher. Lastly, they suggest that when it comes to home schooling, parents should just do their best. Whatever that is, they said, it is enough.
“I just feel like parents just need to know that they’re doing the best they can and that that is good enough, right?” Hoover said. “You know, because I just feel like they’re just beating themselves up. That they’re not getting enough done and that they’re not doing it the way that we do it and that their child isn’t learning. And I just feel like those are the feelings that we have to just say, ‘You’re good enough, you’re doing a great job, and they’re going to be just fine.’”
These virus-related restrictions won’t last forever. For most children, these weeks and months will be just a blip in their life spans. Any extra screen time or any uncompleted homework assignments aren’t likely to create major problems down the line.
Looking back, some good things might even come out of this hardship. Ferrari said she can already think of at least one aspect of remote teaching she will dearly miss.
“One thing that’s been so nice that you don’t get in a real classroom,” she said, “is a mute-all button.”