One year into the pandemic, Eliza Carey, 32, woke up at 8 a.m. She was already a little bit behind.
Some days, Carey has to walk around to all three bedrooms to shake her kids awake. On a Thursday morning in early March, all five of them had jumped out of bed on their own.
Carey, relieved of one duty, still had to clean the clutter and disarray that her children had left behind in the bathroom, send them to get breakfast and stand in the middle of the chaos as Makayla, 2, screamed and all of them crowded around one sink to brush and spit.
Carey had to make sure all four students had charged iPads and were set up for another day of remote classes. Jaida, the oldest at 13, is on the autism spectrum and needs to be in a separate room to focus. CJ, 11, nestles into his mom’s closet, which was converted into a home office in the midst of quarantine last year. Matthew, 9, sits criss-cross applesauce on his bed in front of his screen, which was propped up against his bedroom wall. Raelynne, 6 and full of energy, started this morning on Carey’s bed.
Carey still had to help Makayla decide which movie to watch in the morning so she could stay occupied.
“I want Popeye!” Makayla said, referring to the movie-musical “Trolls.”
Ten seconds later she changed her mind, screaming when Carey mentioned Popeye again. Eventually, they settled on “The Croods.”
“So much screaming,” Carey said, unfazed as she moved through the rest of her morning tasks.
It’s been over a year since the Monroe County Community School Corporation closed its doors for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 13, 2020. While students at all grade levels have had the option to return to in-person classes since the fall 2020 semester, more than 3,200 out of the about 10,000 students in the district remain in online classes.
According to a pulse survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in October 2020, about 11% of public and private school students had no contact with their teachers during instruction. Indiana has about 87.5% of its students learning in person, according to Burbio, a company tracking school districts’ reopening plans.
MCCSC developed a system in the fall. The metrics committee, an MCCSC entity that tracks COVID-19 cases and spread, would determine whether schools would be in-person, in a hybrid schedule or completely online every few weeks based on the number of COVID-19 cases. But all MCCSC students were not required to go back to in-person learning, regardless of their school’s status.
Around the world, parents, especially moms like Carey, are barely holding on.
This summer, following the end of the school year that had everyone’s kids at home and teachers scrambling to figure out how to connect with their students through a computer screen, Carey was ready to send her kids back to school for social interaction and in-person attention from teachers.
Chris Jackson, Carey’s fiance, did not feel the same. He said he thought the risk of contracting COVID-19 was too high, and he eventually convinced Carey to keep the kids home for the year.
And they were lucky, to a certain extent. At the time, Carey was working from home as a customer service representative for Bloom Insurance, so they knew she would be able to stay home during the day. And in November, when Carey got a new job at IU Health as a registration specialist, which required her to leave the house Monday through Wednesday, they were able to hire a sitter, a friend who doesn’t charge much and whose kids get along with theirs.
Now, Thursday through Sunday, Carey runs the household. Her fiance helps out with the kids and their schoolwork for a couple of hours two or three days a week before heading to work.
Carey said being home has had some benefits, such as getting to see more of Makayla’s milestones, but she doesn’t hide the fact that this year has been hard.
For Carey, it hasn’t been easy dealing with a screaming two-year-old while corralling four elementary school students through the crazy morning routine only to release them to her bed and her closet instead of to the school. It hasn’t been easy for Carey to only go outside for work or groceries, which have grown more expensive because the kids eat all three meals at home every day. It hasn’t been easy losing her privacy and taking on the extra role of educator.
But she is doing this for the family. She knew she made the right decision when she saw COVID-19 cases spiked during the school year. As of November, about 100 MCCSC students had contracted COVID-19. She still thinks the setup her family chose is right for them. As long as they are safe and healthy, she said, that’s all that matters.
Raelynne clicked into her meeting at 9 a.m.
Every school day, Raelynne, who is in kindergarten, has one meeting every morning which serves as a preview for the rest of the lessons she will work on for the day, which will be completed through pre-assigned online tasks.
This morning, she decided to do her classes in Carey’s bedroom, a space which is treated more like a communal area than a private bedroom.
Raelynne lay on her stomach, staring at the screen as her teacher from Childs Elementary School outlined their lessons for the day and proposed questions. All the while, Makayla sat on the floor of the same bedroom, watching “The Croods” and screaming at her mom, who was picking up clothes around the room and straightening up the bathroom corner.
Raelynne yawned and glanced around the room. She mainly glimpsed at the screen, but often, a scream from Makayla or a brother coming in to ask a question would distract her.
She snapped back to attention when her teacher asked about pairs: pairs of shoes, of socks, of pants. Raelynne unmuted herself.
“I got an answer!” she said, then paused for about 20 seconds, looking around the room and muttering “um.” “A pair of windows!”
After Raelynne answered, the cycle repeated. Change position, glance around the room, hear Makayla scream, watch Carey interact with Makayla, stare back at the screen.
Carey said she’s noticed her kids are not as attentive in online school as she imagines they would be in person. And they are missing more assignments than usual. She keeps track of her kids’ progress through a parents’ version of Canvas, a resource where kids can see their online work schedule and turn in their assignments. She reminds them to turn in their work when she can, but there is only so much she can do.
This was something she expected to happen because of the lack of a designated space for learning, especially for Jaida.
In online school, she still gets taught lessons individually by certain teachers and has more time to turn in assignments, but Jaida received more attention and help when she was in-person. While Jaida can complete some work independently, she still occasionally gets overstimulated and then overwhelmed with schoolwork.
At school, teachers were able to identify when Jaida was about to get extremely emotional and work from there, Carey said. Now, because Carey has to run a house and keep an eye on five kids at once, it is harder to catch Jaida at the beginning of a meltdown, Carey said. But they still get through it with a lot of breathing and a lot of hugging.
Carey said she has made peace with the fact that her kids may have to play catch up when they return to in-person classes. Many other kids around the U.S. are struggling with online instruction. Her kids can always get back on track in school, she tells herself.
But if they contract COVID-19, that can’t be undone.
Shortly after noon, Carey revved up her lunch assembly line.
She placed chicken nuggets and French fries on a tray, then slid them into the oven. When those were done, she realized she needed more fries, so she popped more into the air fryer. Then, she laid paper plates across the countertop, one resting on top of the Mr. Coffee.
When she was done, she called out to the kids.
Jaida, who wants to be a scientist one day, walked up to her mom to share something she had learned during her science class.
“I just realized how the moon disappeared,” Jaida said.
“How’d the moon disappear?” Carey asked.
“Because it’s far away,” Jaida said.
Then, Jaida went to grab her plate. Soon, an argument erupted because she passed the sauce to CJ and Matthew got mad because he felt it was his turn, even though he wasn’t ready.
“Anything can set them off,” Carey said.
Since the children started going to school online, Carey’s to-do list has grown exponentially, and her time alone has almost vanished.
This morning, after she had her elementary kids settled for school and set Makayla in front of some food, she slipped away for a shower — something that doesn’t always happen during the pandemic.
However, even the hot water and the solitude couldn’t stop her from being consumed by thoughts about her responsibilities. She thought about what bills she had to pay, what she would need to make for dinner and what Makayla was doing during this period of unsupervised time, one of the only times the two-year-old isn’t attached to her hip.
She stepped out after five minutes. She was too anxious to leave her kids alone longer than that.
Carey is far from the only parent struggling to keep herself away from her kids’ learning and experiencing a disproportionate children-to-personal-life balance.
In addition to the burdens of at-home schooling, more chores have built up because more people are in the house throughout the day. Carey has found herself picking up more clothes, cleaning more countertops and using paper plates to avoid more dirty dishes.
Carey has barely taken her children out of the house for fear of contracting COVID-19, especially Makayla because she is so young.
About three weeks ago, Makayla followed Carey out the door as she headed to the grocery store and stuck her nose in the air.
“Momma, what’s that smell?”
“Baby, that’s fresh air,” Carey said.
It was 5:30 p.m., and the kids were settled in their rooms playing video games, watching TV, listening to music and interacting with their screens, this time for fun.
It was Carey’s relaxing time. Unfortunately, that “relaxing time” included popping the Costco fajitas into the oven, reviewing animals and colors with Makayla, attending an hour-and-a-half-long meeting for Thriving Connections, a campaign which works to eliminate poverty, at 6 p.m., eating a late dinner as a result and sending Raelynne to a timeout after she and Matthew got into an argument, which she said was a normal affair.
“You may sit on your bed now, until you can calm your body,” Carey said to Raelynne, who tried to yell over her mom. “No, no, that is unacceptable, you should not be screaming like that.”
She couldn’t reward bad behavior, especially when they’re all stuck together.
Note: This story was reported virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.