'I Can Do This': Oakland Mom Reflects on a Year of COVID-19

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Carolyn Bims-Payne and her two sons go for a walk to take a break from work and schoolwork while sheltering in place.
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)

A year into the pandemic, Carolyn Bims-Payne lives by her calendar. A single mom with two sons, she typically starts her day around 5:30 a.m. to get ready for work, Zoom school and other appointments.

“Two days out of the week, you get a hot breakfast, which is mom's cooking,” she said. “And then the other days, there's items for you to grab.”

Bims-Payne’s sons — a fourth grader and a seventh grader enrolled in the Oakland Unified School District — are getting older. She’s been trying to give them more independence as they’ve continued to take classes online at home.

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“I can't be here every second of the day because as a mom, I still have responsibilities,” said Bims-Payne, who works at Alameda County Social Services, completing assessments for blind and disabled folks. She said she’s been going to the office once a week in person.

Bims-Payne spoke with KQED's Brian Watt last year, shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered shelter in place statewide. Now, as Oakland public schools are set to begin reopening for in-person learning this month, she checked back in to reflect on a year’s worth of lessons learned and what comes next.

Here are some highlights from their interview:

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Over the past year, Bims-Payne said she's learned that her kids are allowed to have bad days: "As adults we have bad days, but we never think of our children as having bad days," she said.

She recalled a recent moment when she and her sons had had enough of the pandemic-era ritual of logging on to the computer.

“It was like, everyone was in their mood," she said. "It was like, 'Don't talk to me. Don't look at me. I am tired of logging on the computer. I am tired of getting booted off the internet.' "

Carolyn Bims-Payne and her two sons, who are enrolled in OUSD public schools.
Carolyn Bims-Payne in a recent selfie with her two sons. Both are enrolled in OUSD public schools. (Courtesy of Carolyn Bims-Payne)

Remote learning has also made it difficult for her kids to develop new friendships.

"A lot of times you make your friends ... in middle school and junior high," she said, "and that's not an option right now."

She said she’s encouraged her kids to find other outlets to make up for the lack of in-person social interactions at school. Her oldest son joined the Black Student Union at Edna Brewer Middle School and signed up for extracurricular classes.

“It worked,” Bims-Payne said. “He’s opening up. He’s not running to his video game.”

Concerns about kids’ mental health have come up during debates over reopening schools. Even before the coronavirus, depression, anxiety and other issues were increasing in children ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The past year has been challenging for Bims-Payne, too. She said she’s started therapy and participates in parent support groups.

“Just to kind of work on me and my feelings and a safe space for myself,” she said.

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On Schools Reopening

Bims-Payne said distance learning has improved in the past year, but she’s concerned about how much information her kids are actually retaining.

"This is time we're not going to get back," she said.

Bims-Payne said she's looking forward to OUSD schools reopening, but has also been exploring other options. She said she’s signed up for open houses at private schools, some of which have been reopened for in-person instruction for months.

Many parents and school leaders are worried about a learning gap that has grown during the pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom has addressed the disproportionate toll on students of color compared to white students in calling for more education funding.

“If school opens on a hybrid method — hypothetically speaking — for next school year, you're going to want my now-fourth grader, who will be a fifth grader, to be on grade level," she said. "Teachers may say, 'Oh, well, we're not expecting that.' But the district is expecting that. And I don't want him just pushed through the system.”

'I Can Do This'

In 2020, when the pandemic was just starting, Bims-Payne gave some advice to parents going through a similar situation to hers: "Stay encouraged, know that you are not alone, know that you're doing the best that you can."

One year later, Bims-Payne stands by that advice, but adds that parents should try to utilize the parent support groups at their kids' schools. And if those support groups don't exist, bring that up to the principal.

She said the groups have been helping her "to stay grounded, to stay rooted."

"It makes you say, 'OK, I can do this. I have a little bit more fight in me left,' " she said.