Carolyn Bims-Payne and her two sons go for a walk to take a break from work and schoolwork while sheltering in place in 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many parents to take on the role of teacher while working from home. For single parents, the adjustment has called for major changes. Three Oakland women shared how they are trying to keep their sons on track.
Trusting Her Teenager
Before the coronavirus pandemic transformed her life, Caroline Colson would bring her son Saeed to church every other Sunday to help deliver food to Oakland’s homeless encampments.
“He has a clear understanding about helping others,” she said. “I instilled that in him.”
Now Colson is asking her son to bring that sense of responsibility and caring to their own home, as the statewide shelter-in-place order forces them to create what she calls, “a new normal.”
For Saeed, it has meant learning to cook for himself, do his laundry and take on chores like separating the recycling. “Some of these things we've been doing. But he has to do it more since he's at home,” Colson said.
And then there is school.
“He has to go to the different teachers that are available online who have loaded assignments, because not everyone does it every day,” Colson said. “He has to check, go to each tab for each teacher and then we'll talk about the assignments.”
As an analyst for the state’s Department of Social Services, Colson is an essential worker who can work from home three days a week, where it’s easier for her to help Saeed. But two days a week, she must head into the office and leave her 13-year-old at home.
Colson is a single parent, and for the past three weeks she has been trying to find the right balance between doing her job and directing her 7th grader's school work. At times her son can be with his father, she said, but mostly he is with her — which means monitoring Saeed's progress remotely while at work.
“He is emailing me and texting me and letting me know that he's eating, that he's doing his homework,” she said.
Sometimes Colson must take time to try and explain school assignments over the phone.
“You know, basically all the education is totally relying upon me. Unfortunately for me, I don't know all the material that is being presented, so I’m like, ‘OK. Well, share with me. Let me see what you're doing so I can read it and see what they're asking you'," she said. “It's like I'm learning the material and, at the same time, helping him.”
Colson said she doesn’t know how Saeed will be graded since some of his teachers at Oakland’s Bret Harte Middle School have yet to connect with him. She said she spent one evening exchanging text messages with a teacher because an app Saeed needed for his schoolwork wasn’t working.
Colson would like Saeed to be able to connect with his teachers directly, because they’re the ones with expertise, and she senses his frustration.
“He asked me, ‘Well, why am I doing all this ton of work, Mom?’ And I had to explain to him that they still want you to have the same type of work and homework as though he was in a classroom," she said. "And he's like, ‘Well, we're not a classroom, we're at home.'”
When Colson is working at home, she and her son take breaks together to go for a walk or have lunch. She lets him skateboard in the park and play games with friends online. Late in the afternoon, he focuses on school work.
She thinks he is getting a little more comfortable learning with her, one-on-one, away from the distractions of a classroom of 30.
“We're having more and more talks about school, about different stuff,” she said. “It is actually a blessing I don't have multiple kids and multiple grades in all different ages.”
“I am doing fine, to be honest with you. I've been praying every day,” she added. “That's just something that's just part of my lifestyle, because I am a Christian.”
Learning on a Cell Phone
Things were just falling into place for Miesha Henderson before the coronavirus pandemic hit the Bay Area. She had a job at Costco in Richmond. She had to take BART, a bus and then a Lyft to get there from her home in Oakland, but it was helping to pay the rent.
Henderson also worked as a paid crossing guard at her son’s elementary school, Think College Now, on International Boulevard, and she was in training with a local activist organization, The Oakland Reach, where she would earn a stipend for going through the program.
All that income has dried up now, but the bright spot of being forced to stay at home has been spending more time with her son, Gregory.
“We're like two peas in a pod, so this is nothing new for us,” Henderson said.
She’s been continuing Gregory’s first grade math and reading lessons with help from his teacher, Julie Dulay. All of that takes place on her cell phone, since Gregory doesn’t have a laptop.
“We're doing a lot of stuff on the phones with Zearn.org, and a lot of the reading and the math assignments are being put on online,” Henderson said. She is also using an app called TalkingPoints, which she said all parents at her school are required to download to stay in touch with the school and their teachers.
Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has said it is still surveying district families in the hopes of providing a device for all who need them. In early April, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that despite some help from tech companies, the state is still short of about 150,000 devices.
Henderson said the phone apps are working for now, and it helps that she has a good relationship with Gregory’s teacher.
“She knows me, I know her, I miss her a lot,” Henderson said.
Still, she said Gregory loves school and misses his friends and teacher.
“It's kind of hard for him because with me, it's a difference between the teacher and then to your mom,” Henderson said. “He's kind of being like, ‘OK, well, Ma, you're not doing it the right way!’ Or he's kind of teaching me how to do it.”
Henderson is following the schedule provided by her son’s teacher, including recess and art time, and said Gregory's teacher is tracking his progress.
“She just sent me his report card through text message and what he needs to work on,” Henderson said. “He's very good at math. In the reading, we just need to work on spelling and writing for Gregory.”
Meanwhile, money for food and rent has become a bigger worry for Henderson. Since the beginning of sheltering in place, a neighbor has helped pick up lunches from the school district, since Henderson doesn’t have a car and she’s afraid of taking public transit for fear of getting the coronavirus. She also relies on CalWORKS and CalFresh for assistance.
Henderson also applied for, and received, a $550 grant from The Oakland Reach Fund, which had quickly raised and distributed $140,000 in cash aid to over 1,000 parents in need — weeks before the city’s Oakland Public Education Rapid Relief Fund got off the ground. The Oakland Reach has continued to collect donations, and is preparing for a second round of cash help to families in the last week of April.
Henderson remains optimistic. She is grateful when Gregory’s father steps in to help care for him and said her son is happy and thriving. Schooling continues to be a bright spot for both of them. The one thing she longs for at home is a garden.
“We miss the school garden,” she said.
Determined Not to Fall Behind
On a recent morning, Carolyn Bims-Payne glanced up from her laptop, and saw her two boys starting to fidget while on their Chromebooks. It was a familiar moment — they were struggling with their school assignments and she knew in a moment they’d likely start to bicker.
Though she was loathe to pull herself away from the deadline she was on for her own work with the Alameda County Social Services, Bims-Payne stood and put on some jazz music and opened up a window to change the tone in the room.
The boys peppered her with questions, “Why we can’t go outside? If we're not at school, why do we have to do work?”
She tried to bring them back to task, stressing the importance of the curriculum. “This is not a summer break,” she reminded them gently. “We still have to learn, because when you get to the fourth grade, when you get to the seventh grade, you're expected to be at a place where you know all of this material.”
What occupies her mind in these moments is how she can’t let her sons fall behind in their learning, even if all their teachers are not available to teach them right now.
“It's very overwhelming because it's like, OK, so now I have to read your homework, understand your homework, explain it and really teach it to you and still try to focus on my job on how I feed and care for the family, financially,” said Bims-Payne, who is an essential worker for the county and is able to work from home. She said she can’t rely on the boys’ father for help, as he is not in their lives.
She has reached out to her sons' teachers. Some have simply handed out multiple assignments all at once, while another teacher has been sending helpful YouTube videos explaining how to get the work done.
Bims-Payne is concerned that OUSD has yet to let parents know how new pass/fail grading will work, or whether school will restart on campuses early in August.
A statewide poll of California parents in early April by The Education Trust—West shows that many parents are concerned their children will fall behind during school closures.
A majority of Latinx and African American parents polled say they do not have the resources, including computers or supplies, to help their child stay on track. The poll also found that many of those parents said they had not been contacted by their children’s teachers or given direction by their school or district as to how instruction would happen.
In fact, when her sons’ campuses shut down, Bims-Payne had one Chromebook at home, but knew she would need another. It was only by chance that she learned from a neighbor that her school was giving out free Chromebooks — she hadn’t received a notice from the district.
OUSD has consistently told parents it is working on building out its plans, and the district's chief academic officer said on April 14 that the district is in its "Try it Out" phase.
But Bims-Payne is not waiting for the district any longer. She came up with a routine to try and balance her work and her sons' needs.
By 7 a.m. each weekday she is set up on her laptop in bed, trying to check in with her supervisor and clear emails before she gets her two boys up around 9 a.m. for breakfast. The three of them combine work with chores and play, trying to end each day with a walk.
“My pastor on International Woman’s Day gave a sermon on our little Facebook group, and she spoke about ‘the woman for the job,’” recalled Bims-Payne. ”I keep replaying that in my head: I'm the woman for the job, even though it's overwhelming, even though I'm tired, even though I'm frustrated with OUSD.”