Melissa Hernandez has no other choice but to leave her 16-year-old son in charge of his little brother while she is out working every day. Before heading out each morning, she says a prayer and hopes for the best.
Hernandez is one of many parents across the country who are struggling to care for their children and help them adjust to changes brought by the pandemic.
“I think as a mom, I wish I could be here so I could monitor everything and see how I could be more involved with how things are going.” Hernandez said.
The single mother is busy all day doing outreach for an outpatient drug treatment facility. She sometimes wants to quit her job and help her two boys with remote learning, but she can’t. Chicago Public Schools started the year remotely and has no immediate plans to return for in-person learning.
“I still have bills to pay. I still have a gas bill. I still have rent,” Hernandez said. “My children still need food in the house.”
Many families report serious challenges keeping their children’s education going, finding child care and helping their kids stay physically active, according to a new poll by NPR, Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about the toll the pandemic has taken on American households.
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, 59% of households report serious problems caring for their children, according to the national survey, which was conducted in July.
Kids in charge at home
In Chicago, just over half of parents surveyed reported serious challenges looking after their children. Many, like Hernandez, say they are struggling to help their children with school work and deal with the frustration of sitting long hours in front of the computer.
Hernandez’s oldest son, Jimmy Angel Melendez, reached out to his school counselor recently because he said he couldn’t take it anymore. He a junior at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center on the city’s Northwest Side,
Before the pandemic, all Jimmy had to worry about was getting good grades and finding time to hang out with his friends after school.
Now it’s all different.
“I wake up, and immediately I have the laptop next to me charged,” said Jimmy. “We eat cereal while we are in our first class. After that class ends I join another class. After that one ends, I join another class, and we are getting homework in between.”
Hernandez lives with her two kids in Belmont Cragin on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a neighborhood that struggles with violence and a rapid increase of COVID-19 infections.
The isolation, the demanding expectations of remote learning and the stress of being stuck at home are weighing on Jimmy and his 11-year-old brother.
“I can’t see any of my friends too much, and I am really limited to my house,” Jimmy said. “It’s really not motivating and, to be honest, is kind of depressing.”
Hernandez worries about the long-term impact this will have on her boys.
“My youngest, I see that he already developed a pattern where being cooped up in his room has become the normal,” Hernandez said, adding that he just wants to be on his phone all day. “He is looking at YouTube videos. He is complaining that he is bored, because the only way he knows how to interact and engage has to be online. Anything outside that world doesn’t seem normal anymore.”
And Jimmy is not the motivated teen he used to be, she said.
Juggling and improvising
Experts in Chicago say this situation is particularly tough for low-income families, single parents and hourly workers.
“You have parents that are working shift jobs; they may not know what their work schedule may be with enough time to get child care situated for them,” said Vanessa Schwartz with Metropolitan Family Services, a social services organization. “Some of them are having to quit work to ensure that their children are in the same space and being cared for more appropriately.”
Tania Cruz is a single mother with four children: three in elementary and one in high school. She’s barely paying the bills and wants to get a job, but she has to be home to help her kids with remote school. One of them has autism.
It’s really hard,” Cruz said. “I can’t even go to a doctor. I can’t do anything basically. I am here in the house stuck.”
Chicago Public Schools offers free child care services for working families who need it, but that’s not an option for Cruz because she worries about getting infected. One of her other children has health issues.
Chicago launched a free high-speed internet program for low-income families over the summer, and Cruz’s family qualified. But she is having serious problems with the connection. Forty percent of the Chicago parents surveyed in July in the NPR/Harvard poll said they also have serious problems with their internet connection or don’t have high-speed internet.
Cruz spends each day wearing many hats: mom, teacher, tech support and therapist.
Hernandez and her sons aren’t giving up either. Jimmy drags his little brother out to the backyard to play basketball when they are done with class online.
Hernandez calls them constantly while she is working, lets them order carry-out and stays in touch with their teachers. But like many families out there, by the end of the day, everyone is exhausted and looking forward to a day when they can return to normal life.