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Coronavirus Triple Duty: Working, Parenting, And Teaching From Home

Many parents suddenly have the task of making sure their kids learn while adjusting to a new life of managing working from home.
Artur Debat
Getty Images
Many parents suddenly have the task of making sure their kids learn while adjusting to a new life of managing working from home.

Like so many other parents around the country, I was transitioning to full-time remote work last week while preparing to support my family through a crisis.

That's when my 10-year-old son, Kenzo, came home with a large, Ziploc bag full of school supplies.

It included an iPad with various apps to enable him to attend class virtually, where his teacher will take attendance at 8 a.m. Tiny icons representing his teacher and classmates will appear in the corner of the screen. She can address the class, hear students respond and track their assignments.

"They try to make it as real as possible — as school-like as possible," Kenzo explains. It's not yet clear, he says, how a student can raise their hand to be called upon. "She hasn't explained that to us."

This is one of the most novel — and disruptive — things about life in pandemic culture: parents and children are forced to adjust to a new rhythm of school and work at home.

Remote learning is a brave new world for both of us — one we've entered with little warning. And like me, parents everywhere are grappling with remote school while trying to work remotely. (To say nothing of the challenges for parents whose work requires them to be physically present and now must find child care.)

Some schools are sending kids home with devices, workbooks and other resources — but many others may not. Either way, parents are left with a dual challenge: managing new ways of working, while not allowing their kids to disappear into social media and video games for weeks or months.

Jennifer Hertrich's school district in Seattle was one of the first to cancel classes, so now she has some experience managing remote work and school under one roof.

"It's interesting, a lot of what we do for work is also mirrored in the experience for my child. Having things like a schedule is very important," says Hertirch, an account manager for office furnishings company Steelcase. She sets multiple alarms during the day to keep everyone on task, which enables her to schedule her own calls and Web meetings.

"I was having some live sessions in the morning from about 9:30 to 10:30, and then I could get my son going on some assignments," she says.

She carved her home into zones to avoid talking over each other's calls. She has a home office, her 8-year-old has set up shop in the living room, and her husband occupies the basement.

There are some benefits to life like this, Hertirch says: They enjoy lunch and dinner together as a family; morale and Wi-Fi have held up so far.

But then late last week Washington state canceled school for an additional month. Now, things aren't looking so great, Hertirch says.

"When it was 14 days, you can kind of take it day by day," she says, but six weeks really starts to have an impact on everyone's life.

To minimize disruption to childrens' education, keep a strict schedule and a list of goals to meet, says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital.

That will keep expectations clear, and prevent kids from spending endless hours on TikTok or watching senseless shows.

Not all streaming video is bad, says Rich, a father of two out-of-school teenagers. In fact, there is an opportunity to see classic films, or delve into areas of the child's personal interest. "We could look at this as an opportunity to do a little independent study," Rich says.

But that will require parents to curate appropriate content, so it's important parents recognize they cannot do it all: parent, work and teach all at once.

So recognize that challenges, and plenty of distractions and interruptions will occur when there is no separation between work and home and school.

"We're not going to be very good at parenting them if we're constantly frustrated that they're interrupting us," Rich says. "And we do need to be able to parent and guide them and frankly, to model self-discipline and focus because they're going to learn from that much more than they will from what we tell them."

In other words, as parents learn to remote work, their children will also learn — by example.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.