By Katie Taggart, MSW, LCSW
Someone asked me recently what it has been like keeping my kids in school virtually. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. It’s been hard. My kids haven’t seen their friends in person since the beginning of March, and that seems like a lifetime ago. We went on Spring Break, planning to hang out and have a fun staycation. We ended Spring Break suddenly worried about a strange new virus, wondering if it was safe to send our boys to school. Because of our family being at high risk, we had already made the decision to keep them home when the school closed for the rest of the year. Like most families, we made it through, thinking it was temporary. My boys had no issues ending the year. I was feeling pretty good and thinking, “I’m glad we have good kids and good students.”
I am the mom of two teenage boys—one in middle school and one in high school. I am also a working mom, managing multiple chronic illnesses. I am a mom who is involved. I attend parent-teacher conferences and activities. I support their need for study time and extra-curricular activities, but I am not a mom who ever checked the parent portal. I have never felt responsible for their schoolwork. I knew they had a test when they told me, but I didn’t know what unit was being studied in class. I am not a mom who micromanages; I am not a helicopter mom. In fact, I encourage my clients’ parents to let them have some autonomy. I am often reminding other parents to allow their kids to take responsibility and even sometimes to let them fail. When we made our decision to keep them home for the first semester, I had no idea how difficult each day would be for all of us—especially me.
The boys started the year much like any other. We gave them quiet, private workspaces and then allowed them to take care of their schoolwork for the day. Neither one wanted to be micromanaged. They even asked us to allow them to figure it out. So we did and, at first, felt good about it. “Aren’t you so glad we don’t have to worry about our kids like some of those other families?” We soon discovered that having “good” or “smart” kids had absolutely nothing to do with success in virtual learning. Despite being good students, both boys were struggling—not just with grades but also with the workload. They were doing 10+ hours of schoolwork a day. As a parent, it was difficult to know when to say, “Just keep going, you’re almost finished,” or “Stop, it is time to go to bed.”
After a month of school, it was too much. I started reaching out to both schools, asking for help. I was shocked to hear that some kids were struggling, like mine, but some parents had been complaining about the lack of schoolwork. “Wait? They don’t think there’s enough work?” I said to the school counselors. Now, I really felt confused. Was it simply a matter of too many AP classes in high school? Was it too hard for a kid with ADHD to learn virtually? I was suddenly responsible for getting them through the school year. I didn’t feel equipped. I’m not equipped. There is a reason I am not a teacher.
I am not used to starting my day with anxiety over my kids’ schoolwork. I started asking other parents for ideas, “How are you doing this?” I knew that I was not able to sit with them all day. I also knew that was the LAST thing they wanted—mom sitting beside them while they worked. When I am working, all of my focus and attention has to be on work and my therapy clients; I cannot multitask. I had to find a way to get them set up for the day and then be able to be on their own.
I can’t tell you how overwhelming that felt. Many days we started or ended the day in tears. School is not supposed to be this stressful, for kids or parents, but what was I going to do? It wasn’t an option to send them in person, and both of my boys were insistent that they stay home to keep our family safe. For one of my boys, my husband and I worked with the school counselor and teachers to develop accommodations for virtual learning. We all had to be flexible, since we didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t. It is one thing to have accommodations for in-person school, but it is completely different to have accommodations when the school staff can’t even be in the same room.
Four months in, I finally feel like we are making some progress. I began helping to write out a simple schedule for each day, including time for breaks and for lunch. I have told my boys this year is about “survival” and taking care of their mental health—that is difficult for a kid who tends to overachieve. It’s also still difficult for a mom who is used to seeing A’s on report cards.
I now start my day by logging into multiple platforms and webpages to write out a daily agenda. It felt really uncomfortable at first; it felt controlling. What I have realized is when our kids go to school, the teachers manage their time. Bells ring hourly to tell them when to switch classes and teachers tell them what to look at or what to read. No wonder it’s difficult for kids to know what to do when they are alone in their bedroom with tons of distraction and not a lot of motivation. I end the day reviewing lists, checking off tasks, and, yes, checking the dreaded parent portal to make sure assignments have been completed. And we have developed a STOP TIME, which is simply the time when they must close their Chromebook for the day and have some fun.
We have committed to remaining virtual for the rest of the school year, despite the challenges, as it is the best and safest decision for our family. It causes me some anxiety, as I don’t know exactly what it will bring, but I am working on it. I am paying attention to my own stress level and making time for self-care. I try to enjoy the small amount of time alone that I get when my boys go up to their rooms to start their day. I’ve realized my anxiety is much less when I make time to exercise in the morning before I start working. I text my sister… a lot. Sometimes I just need to vent or hear that another mom is struggling. I make time to meet with my own therapist. My self-care has become something that is non-negotiable; it is essential to everyone’s survival in my home.
I know I cannot do this alone. I work together with my husband; we are much better as a team than as individuals. However, I’ve learned not just to complain to him. I ask him for specific types of help and support. For example, “I am really overwhelmed today, can you check homework before dinner?” And I’ve learned to talk more about school with my kids. If we, as parents, are feeling anxious, they are feeling it as well. We can ask our kids specifics, “What is the hardest part of your day? What is the best way I can help you?” And I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask the school for help. The teachers and counselors want to help, but they don’t always know-how. They don’t even know what is happening in our homes if we don’t tell them.
Perhaps the most helpful things I’ve learned? If our kids are old enough, have them help to create a schedule for the day—making sure to include a starting and stopping time. Search to find the right balance of structure and oversight for each individual child. Make free time an essential part of the day; family time is important and private time away from family is important. Loosen up or let go of old pre-COVID rules and expectations. We might have to allow for more screen time than before because that is how kids can stay connected to one another. And it’s so important that we don’t forget to reach out to our own friends. All parents are struggling this school year. This is not a time to put self-care on the back burner. Do we need a Zoom happy hour, a good workout, a relaxing bath? Whatever it is, make the time!
I am hopeful for second semester. I’m hopeful we can all use what we have learned to be more successful and have a more positive experience. And I am constantly reminding myself – remember this is temporary and won’t last forever.