The Coronavirus Outbreak

By Elizabeth A. Harris

For the adults in the house, trying to do their own jobs while helping children with class work has become one of the most trying aspects of the pandemic.

It has been challenging for Casey Schaeffer and Daniel Levin to manage the schooling of their children, Ramona and Linus.
It has been challenging for Casey Schaeffer and Daniel Levin to manage the schooling of their children, Ramona and Linus.Credit...Daniel Levin
Elizabeth A. Harris

Daniel Levin’s son, Linus, 7, was supposed to be doing math. Instead, he pretended to take a shower in the living room, rubbing a dry eraser under his arms like a bar of soap, which upset his 5-year-old sister, distracting her from her coloring.

As much as he tried, Mr. Levin, who lives in Brooklyn, could not get Linus to finish the math. His hopes for the reading assignment were not high, either.

“He’s supposed to map out a whole character trait sheet today,” Mr. Levin said one day last week. “Honestly, if he writes the name and the age of the character, I’ll consider that a victory.”

Ciarra Kohn’s third-grade son uses five different apps for school. Her 4-year-old’s teacher sends lesson plans, but Ms. Kohn has no time to do them.

Her oldest, a sixth-grader, has eight subjects and eight teachers and each has their own method. Sometimes when Ms. Kohn does a lesson with him, she’ll ask if he understood it — because she didn’t.

“I’m assuming you don’t, but maybe you do,” said Ms. Kohn, of Bloomington, Ill., referring to her son. “Then we’ll get into an argument, like, ‘No, mom! She doesn’t mean that, she means this!’”

Parental engagement has long been seen as critical to student achievement, as much as class size, curriculum and teacher quality. That has never been more true than now, and all across the country, moms and dads pressed into emergency service are finding it one of the most exasperating parts of the pandemic.

With teachers relegated to computer screens, parents have to play teacher’s aide, hall monitor, counselor and cafeteria worker — all while trying to do their own jobs under extraordinary circumstances. Essential workers are in perhaps the toughest spot, especially if they are away from home during school hours, leaving just one parent, or no one at all, at home when students need them most.

Kindergartners need help logging into Zoom. Seventh-graders need help with algebra, last used by dad circa 1992. “School” often ends by lunchtime, leaving parents from Long Island to Dallas to Los Angeles asking themselves the same question: How bad am I if my child plays Fortnite for the next eight hours?

Yarlin Matos of the Bronx, whose husband still goes to work as a manager at a McDonald’s, has seven children, ages 3 to 13, to keep on track. She spent part of her stimulus check on five Amazon Fire tablets because the devices promised by the city’s Education Department had not arrived.

Ms. Matos, a psychology major at Bronx Community College, said she must stay up late, sometimes until 3 a.m., trying to get her own work done.

“I had a breaking moment where I had to lock myself in the bathroom and cry,” she said. “It was just too much.”

Laura Landgreen, a teacher in Denver, always thought it strange that she sent her two sons, Callam Hugo, 4, and Landon Hugo, 7, off to school rather than home schooling them herself.

She doesn’t find it strange anymore. “My first grader — we would kill each other,” she said. “He’s fine at school, but here he has a meltdown every three seconds.”

“I need to teach other children,” she said.

There is widespread concern that even with remote learning in place, many students will return to school behind where they would have been if they’d been in the classroom. (President Trump said on Monday that governors should consider reopening schools before the end of the school year.) Teachers had little time to prepare for remote learning, and many children had inadequate or no computer access.

For students without close parental guidance, the outcome could turn out even worse.

Ronda McIntyre, a fifth-grade teacher in Columbus, Ohio, said that of her 25 students, only six were participating consistently, generally the ones whose parents were already in regular communication with their teacher.

Other families have reached out to Ms. McIntyre to say that they are too overwhelmed with their own work to help with the lessons at home. And some have told her they are trying, but that their children won’t cooperate.

“She gets frustrated every time we start,” one mother emailed her last week, “and then I get irritated and she gets irritated and it usually ends in me saying we should take a break and then the cycle repeats. One or both of us typically ends up in tears by the time it’s all said and done and no work is completed.”

Even parents who describe running tight ships at home say they are anxious about what months away from classrooms will mean for their children. They are also finding it hard to accept that 25-minute Zoom classes or lessons sent by email is what school has been reduced to.

The litmus tweet of the moment came from Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“I told our son’s (lovely, kind, caring) teacher that, no, we will not be participating in her ‘virtual classroom,’ and that he was done with the 1st grade,” she wrote on Twitter in early April. “We cannot cope with this insanity. Survival and protecting his well being come first.”

Her post brought thousands of responses on Twitter and Facebook.

“In terms of the online reaction, I would say on Twitter, probably 95 percent of the reaction has been positive,” she said in an interview. On Facebook, which has more favor among the pre-millennial crowd, the reaction was more mixed. Many people praised her decision, while others criticized her as dismissing the hard work of teachers and doing a disservice to her child.

“On Facebook, the mommy wars have come,” she said, “and I’m the hill people are willing to die on from both sides.”

Education experts advise that making a schedule can help children treat the current setup more like school, as can being clear about when it’s work time and when it’s play time, using a timer, for example, to delineate when they are in “school.” Creating a dedicated space for them to work can also be helpful.

And parents should take it easy on themselves on days when things don’t go as planned.

“Are your kids killing each other, or have you killed your child?” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, an education researcher and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “Is there anything they’re eating that resembles healthy food in between the chocolate and sugar? If the answer is yes, give yourself a break.”

As stressful as it can be, of course, it’s not a crisis for everyone. Behold Helen Williams-Morris, a mother of three children and a cafeteria worker at a school in Memphis.

She said that all of her children are fairly self sufficient. Her son is in college, and her middle child, a ninth grader named Camille, has been taking care of her work on her own. She attends Crosstown High, a charter high school that uses a lot of technology in normal times.

Ms. Williams-Morris also has a 6-year-old, Calyah, but she said that if she plops her at the dining room table, she can make a meatloaf or some grits in their open kitchen while the child does her work. Ms. Williams-Morris just peeks over now and again to help with any questions, and to make sure Calyah hasn’t switched the screen over to Minecraft.

“But I wouldn’t say this is easy for me,” Ms. Williams-Morris said. “I like talking to other adults.”

Kim Pinckney-Lewis of Mechanicsburg, Pa., would also seem to be well-prepared.

A former teacher, Ms. Pinckney-Lewis lays out the schedule for her son, Gavin, a first-grader with special needs, every morning on colored pieces of construction paper. Red is English, orange is math, blue are his breaks. She previews his video lessons to make sure they aren’t too long and makes notes about when to end them herself if necessary.

And yet despite her background in education, she said, “I have complete and total anxiety.”

“Some days," she said, “I am so tired by 4 p.m. that it would be really nice for us to play a game right now, but I’m just going to lay on this couch.”

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.