LOS ANGELES — The day officials announced that all Los Angeles schools would shut down, Tamra Johnson made a spreadsheet outlining the next few weeks for her 5-year-old son.
An engineer by trade, Johnson wanted to make sure her son’s schedule still seemed as normal as possible. That meant learning new topics during the day and at night completing assignments sent home by the Los Angeles Unified School District — just as if he were still in school.
All the while, the Venice, Calif., resident is juggling her own work responsibilities as the chief operating officer for two companies. Oh yeah — and she and her husband have a toddler too.
“I fully expect through the rest of the school year that part of my responsibility is acting as the primary teacher to my son,” she said. “Kind of like another job.”
As schools across California and the country closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, millions of parents suddenly became de facto teachers, principals and day-care providers.
Sometimes, that means crowded dinner tables and bedrooms as remote-working parents and children jostle for space. In other cases, parents with essential jobs, such as healthcare providers, must rely on nearby family members or friends for childcare when they go in to work, making complete self-isolation impossible.
LaQuan Morales and his wife have tried to re-create a classroom environment for their 8-year-old daughter, Briaja, who has been home from third grade for more than two weeks. The couple — he’s an industrial painter, she’s a self-employed tax preparer — bought flashcards, a map of California and a poster of all 50 states from educational supplies store Lakeshore Learning to hang up in their Norwalk home.
Running a school while working from home requires a high tolerance for unexpected interruptions.
A few days ago, Ryan Schonfeld, chief executive of RAS Security Group, was on a call with a prospective client when his children, ages 5 and 3, walked into his home office and announced it was “hug time.”
“The tone of the meeting actually changed for the better after that, became much more personal,” the 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident said. “Everybody has the same problem right now if they have kids.”
Trying to keep children in school mode while they’re at home isn’t easy — especially while juggling work responsibilities.
Johnson, the Venice resident, will sometimes wake up at 5 a.m. to get work done or sneak in some exercise before her two children, ages 5 and 2½, wake up. Her 5-year-old has been home from school now for almost three weeks, and Johnson intersperses her workday with activities for him, such as making art or writing letters to friends and family.
As chief operating officer of business consulting firm FlexTeam and enterprise software company Liquid, Johnson was used to working from home most days of the week. But not with the added responsibility of helping her kindergartner with school.
Many of her co-workers are working moms as well. They’ve swapped advice and resources, such as the YouTube channel Cosmic Kids Yoga.
On Fridays, they gather for a virtual happy hour. Sometimes they’ll talk about what they accomplished this week. Most times, it’s simply about how they’re doing.
“You need to be easy on yourself some days,” said Johnson, 41. “It’s do your best, and some days, it’s going to be hard to get it done.”
For the Morales family, the coronavirus outbreak has meant a loss of income as well as schooling. In February, a crane fell at the Los Angeles Rams stadium construction site, where LaQuan Morales had worked as an industrial painter for two years. The accident resulted in workers being placed on temporary standby.
Morales was laid off in late February. He has applied for unemployment but has not yet gotten benefits with the system overwhelmed by claims. Finding another job in this economic climate has been difficult.
For now, the family is relying on their savings and Brianna’s income from preparing tax returns. The couple also have an 18-year-old son in high school and a 2-year-old daughter.
Morales, 36, tries to keep a positive attitude, especially for his family. “If you’re stressed out and upset, your kids feel that … and it can weigh on them,” he said.
Sherri Bell, a state employee, has also been attempting to focus on the bright side. The 39-year-old single mother is trying to take advantage of the extra time she has with her 13-year-old daughter as they work and study from home.
After work and school assignments are done, the two will watch TV or play games of Uno together.
“Let’s do things that we would probably be too busy to do … on our normal schedule,” Bell said. “We’re at home. We might have a little more energy. Let’s spend it together.”
She’s had to reassure her daughter that it’s OK to go outside while practicing social distancing. Once, when Bell announced that she was going to the store, her daughter pleaded with her not to go.
“It is an adjustment,” she said. “It’s a struggle to stay mentally healthy, physically active.”
With four elementary school children learning from home, Lisa Hildreth has all the work she can manage, even before turning her attention to her job.
The oldest child, 11-year-old Logan, has been caught a few times this week playing the popular online game Fortnite when he’s supposed to be doing schoolwork.
“It’s all driving me a little crazy right now,” said Hildreth, a Long Beach resident who works from home as a benefits broker for business owners. “It’s so challenging to my patience.”
Schonfeld, the Redondo Beach resident, has a solution when things get out of hand: “IPads help when all else fails.”
Since the coronavirus outbreak pushed him to work from home, he now typically holes up in the family’s home office for back-to-back calls each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but will switch out with his wife if she has to do a presentation for her marketing job.
On days when both parents have conference calls, Schonfeld will go to his son’s room or pace in circles on the second floor of their house.
For someone used to an office with a door, it has been an adjustment to work at home with background noise and the family dog jumping around. Once, his daughter was belting along with what she was watching on her iPad.
“The key thing that we’ve learned already is that this is survival mode,” Schonfeld said. “Normal rules and expectations that you may have had may have to be relaxed a little bit just to get through this with some semblance of sanity.”
The threat of cabin fever is ever present.
With play dates downgraded to FaceTime hangouts and after-school activities canceled, families must find other ways to get active.
Hildreth, the Long Beach resident, makes sure her kids get outside to ride bikes or write chalk messages on the sidewalk to their neighbors. But it has been hard.
“My 11-year-old is feeling it,” said Hildreth, 44. “His baseball season is gone, and he is just so bummed. The younger kids ask me every single day, ‘Why can’t I go to my friend’s house?’ It’s difficult for them.”
And parents aren’t immune, either. On a recent weekday, Hildreth said she was “hiding in my room right now doing yoga online.”
“It’s bonkers,” she said. “You have to just take a break.”
Parents who can’t work from home face a different type of stress. Binh Phan is a physical therapy assistant at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. His wife is a speech therapist at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. Both must go in to work each day.
The couple’s two kids, an 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, have been out of school for several weeks. With no family nearby, the couple rely on family friends to watch their kids during the week.
On weekday mornings, Phan drops off the kids at two separate houses before heading to work. The kids also bring their own lunches to reduce the strain on the couple’s friends.
“We’re trying not to impose,” he said. “We’re very blessed to have really good friends.”
The coronavirus outbreak has also stymied their kids’ after-school activities. His daughter can’t practice with her swim team — a big change from her usual schedule of swimming five or six days a week. And Phan’s son can’t ride his scooter at the skate park with his best friend.
“I’m going to have to start making some ramps or something,” he said.
Phan and his wife aren’t treating COVID-19 patients, but they’re still careful not to bring germs home. Phan’s wife will change out of her work clothes before picking up the kids. And when he gets home, he reminds the kids not to hug or touch him until he can take a shower.
“This is all really uncharted territory for everyone,” Phan said.
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