Dads are taking on the burdens of remote learning too

little kid hands holding bundle of crayons

By Steven Newmark

It is approaching month six of the pandemic and I have been enjoying a brief respite this summer. As a dad with two elementary-school-aged kids and a wife working in healthcare, I’m still reeling from last spring. On top of my full-time job, being the teacher, principal, custodian, lunch lady, and on-call playmate was rough, so summer has been a nice reprieve from “academia.”

The kids are still home all the time, yet I often feel alone. There are countless stories about how working moms are coping (or not coping) during this time. Regrettably, it is indeed a sorry state that in 2020, heterosexual couples still do not have an equal division of the home labor and the pandemic is only making it worse.

Yet, there are plenty of dads like me who have also been shouldering the burden just like the moms, and none of us have a real choice either. We’re adapting on the fly to circumstances beyond any one family’s control. My wife’s career requires in-person attendance at the hospital so of course I took on the bulk of home (schooling, cleaning, cooking) duties.

Through it all I have been telling myself how fortunate this time is in some ways: no matter how long I live, I will never, ever get to spend this much time with my children. But I was always clinging onto the idea of sending them back to school in the fall. 

Last spring, when we finally gave up the dream of returning to school, I held onto September as my North Star. Of celebrating with fresh notebooks, pencils, and the excitement of my kids meeting new teachers and friends. With months of preparation I couldn’t imagine that our kids would not be going back. 

I had been counting the days until the reopening. Even just one day a week would provide a welcome reprieve for me, not to mention the chance for my children to get some real schooling. But alas, there is nothing to count down towards anymore. The opening of in-person school is not on my calendar, even in my hometown of New York City where we worked hard to achieve low transmission rates. New York had talked about a hybrid model, but now the in-person portion of the hybrid seems more and more like a pipe-dream than reality.  

Sadly my First-Day-of-School countdown clock has stopped. 

And now I am left cringing as I think about another round of remote “learning.” For me, I will be forcibly repeating both kindergarten and third grade while trying to keep up with my work responsibilities. (And yes, I know how lucky I am that I can work remotely.) Oh, I will also need to make meals, schedule recess, keep the apartment clean, and somehow not lose my sanity.

Parents are up in arms over full in-person schooling (“it’s a death sentence for teachers!”) while other parents are in a fury over more remote learning (“it doesn’t work!” and “I need to work!”). Then there are the hybrid plans which basically anger everyone. I prefer to be more like Aaron Burr—smiling more, talking lessin an effort not to offend anyone.

In addition, there is a growing gap among the have-nots, the haves, and the have-a-lots. Those in the last category are ensuring their kids academic and emotional needs will be satisfied this academic year by building “pods” and hiring professional teachers. Elite private schools are planning for in-person instruction. Meanwhile, low-income families are left on the wrong side of America’s digital divide.

Then there is the tension felt over micro-philosophies within each family: when should children be in masks (always! Only when near others! Only indoors!)? How many children can form a pod? Is it ok for children to play together knowing they won’t socially distance themselves? Parents are a judgmental bunch; add in a public health crisis and that gets magnified.

The tension stems from a sense of not knowing what to do. Parents can be confident in other arenas, rely on academic professionals to handle their children, and use countess child-rearing books as a crutch. But there is no playbook for this crisis. It is novel, as in the novel coronavirus. Everything we do as parents is both “right” and “wrong” simultaneously. If we go out, we are risking infection; if we stay in, we risk stunting our children’s emotional growth. The confusion is driving us beyond depression and towards insanity.

Yet we will get through this because the only path is forward. We will get through this because of our children. They are stronger than us, and they provide ample reasons to keep going. To them, wearing a mask is just what is normal now, and they are remarkably adaptable. When this ends our children will gain a collective resiliency that our generation never had. They will be stronger for this, and that strength will carry them throughout their lives. 

Pressing on through the end of summer and into an unknown school year, it is reassuring to know that I am not alone. We parents are all in this together, and I am proud to be a sometimes-hopeful member of this tribe. 

Steven Newmark serves as Director of Policy and General Counsel for the Global Healthy Living Foundation. He previously served in various health policy roles in government, and as an associate at an international law firm. He has taught public policy at Baruch College and Columbia University. He is married with two children and resides in New York City.

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