Two weeks off? Vacation!
The rest of the year off? Oh no.
This seemed to be the timeline of thoughts leading up to the predicament that students and parents found themselves in.
Originally, parents questioned what education at home would look like. Now, many are questioning their sanity.
Adults scrambled to figure out how to work online learning platforms and develop schedules for their children. Homeschool, cyber school and stay-at-home parents loomed over their shoulders taunting, “See, it’s not so easy, huh?”
The new normal has many students begging to go back to a place they formerly couldn’t wait to escape and has parents mentally mapping routes of escape from home.
It’s a battle between enjoying the quality time and enduring the quantity of time.
Shakira Clark is a supervisor at the U.S. Army depot in New Cumberland. She’s supposed to oversee employees, but it’s been hard to focus with five children calling her all day.
Clark took off two weeks in April to stay home and help her kids with school. She suffered a pay cut, but knew she wouldn’t be effective at work when her head was at home.
“It was either I let my children fail or I make money,” she said. “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Being a single mom is hard as it is, but, with having to balance work and homeschooling, it became hardly manageable. Then there’s the fact that her two oldest high school children have learning disabilities.
“Tenth grade is a pivotal moment,” she said. “I’m worried they’re going to be too far behind. I’m not equipped to even try to begin to teach them.”
Both of her high school students usually receive assistance in their classes, but the responsibility fell heavily on Clark. One of the students is enrolled in the Harrisburg school district and the other in Susquehanna. Clark said the Susquehanna case manager reaches out to help her child often, but the Harrisburg case manager does not.
The other kids are in seventh, fourth and first grades. Clark makes sure they are all up by 9 a.m. and work until the afternoon, but they all have varying, chaotic schedules.
“Trying to juggle the five of them is very overwhelming,” she said. “The different grade levels require my undivided attention.”
Level the Field
Stories like Clark’s are familiar to Ellen Hartman, head of school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Harrisburg.
“St. Stephen’s is so diverse,” she said. “We had to think—how do we make sure we take care of families on each end of this spectrum?”
Hartman explained how some St. Stephen’s students are living in two-parent households and their needs are being met, while others live in single-parent households and rely on school lunches for food.
That was the first step for the school, making sure everyone was equipped to learn during the pandemic, whether that was through handing out devices or food.
“You have to figure out how to level the playing field,” Hartman said.
From there, the school built an online presence for students containing daily work and online class meetings and videos.
Still, Hartman realizes students have unique life situations that require a lot of catch-up work after schools (hopefully!) reopen in the fall.
“Teachers are giving quality education, but the context is so different,” she said. “Quality is dependent on that child’s context.”
Teachers regularly reach out to students virtually to maintain relationships. Guidance counselors and administrators have been available to students, as well.
With Hartman having a young child of her own who attends the school, she has been impressed with the teachers’ effort and intentionality.
“The silver lining is relationships,” she said. “I’ve seen how much the teachers mean to the kids and how much the kids mean to the teachers.”
Amber Luster is appreciative of her son Amauri’s teacher at Rutherford Elementary School. The teacher regularly Zoom calls with her third-graders.
Even with the teacher’s help, Luster is exhausted.
For weeks, Luster had to handle not only helping her son with his schoolwork but doing her own. Before summer break hit in May, she was finishing up a semester in college. She’s a senior at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg.
“I’m not working,” she said. “I had school, and I still have to cook and clean while helping Amauri. It’s hard.”
Rutherford was giving out devices to students in need of them, but, because Luster had a laptop, they didn’t qualify. The two had to figure out how to take turns using their one computer for homework.
Besides the challenges, Luster was glad her college moved work online for the rest of the school year because it gave her more time at home with her son.
“That’s the biggest plus, that I can spend more time with Amauri,” she said. “But I’m counting down the days until they’re done with school.”
Most parents and students agree. They’re ready for the year to end and hoping for a normal start in the fall. If anything, they won’t be taking it for granted for a while.
“You didn’t realize how much that community meant to you,” Hartman said.
For both parents and students, that may end up as the most widely shared lesson to come out of this strange semester spent at home.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School is located at 215 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.sseschool.org.