The Hidden Burden of Parenting and Teaching From Home

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It seems appropriate that the 2020–21 school year in Portland, Ore., began amid toxic smoke from the catastrophic wildfires that blanketed many parts of the state for almost two weeks. The night before the first day of school, the smoke alarm in my bedroom went off. Looking back, I see it as a clarion call, a shrieking, beeping warning of all the threats, real and existential, we’d face in the year to come.

On that first day of what would be that fall’s online version of school, I was still reeling from the loss of one of my dear friends. As wildfires approached her remote Sonoma County, Calif., home, she chose to end her life. She’d spent the initial months of the pandemic isolated from friends and loved ones, her serene mountain retreat no longer offering solace. She left no note, only a tidied kitchen and, according to those who’d attended a virtual yoga class with her on the last day of her life, a peaceful smile. She was my friend and I loved her.

Marooned inside our house, all the windows and doors tightly sealed, I stared into the grid of black boxes on Zoom that now represented the students in my high-school visual arts classes. I wondered how I’d find the strength to carry us all through the year.

As I greeted them, the air inside my home was stale, smoky, and distinctly claustrophobic. It was becoming harder to breathe. I struggled to find words of uplift. What do you say when the world is burning up all around you?

Ad-Hoc Childcare

Unable to find solutions to the larger and more menacing threats outside my door, I shifted my focus to managing the chaos inside. My first and most pressing concern was what to do with my nine-year-old daughter during the school day. My husband, who works outside our home as a studio artist, was under contract for a job that would last much of the year, ensuring us needed income at a time when so many had none. However, it also left us in a new type of childcare bind.

Last spring, a few friends, also teachers, realized that it was going to be next to impossible to juggle parenting and homeschooling, while simultaneously running our own classrooms. In the spirit of self-preservation and of maintaining a shred of sanity, we decided that three days a week we’d set the kids up, masked—and with blankets and heaters once it got cold—on our porches or in open garages. We decided that, at the very least, left largely to themselves they’d develop skills of resiliency and independence, and learn to navigate their fourth-grade year together.

We put our trust in our kids and gave up control. In truth, we had little choice. We all felt lucky and incredibly privileged even to have such an option. No matter how imperfect, at least it was a plan. Our kids were old enough to make our ad-hoc solution work and they seemed desperate enough to socialize in the midst of a pandemic that they were willing to tough out Portland’s cold and rainy fall and winter outdoors together.