Andrea Heldt remembers when she first heard that Washington’s schools would close to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I definitely felt OK at the beginning — that we’re all in this together, we’ll sacrifice and try to make this work,” said Heldt, a Vancouver parent of two elementary school students. “The longer it’s been going on, it’s become apparent how I’m feeling this constant stress.”

It’s been 10 months since public schools shifted online and parents have grown weary. Even as younger students begin returning to the classroom under Gov. Jay Inslee’s new guidelines, school remains far from normal. Most elementary students will be in class just two days a week in person, and at home and online the rest of the week. Middle and high school students must wait weeks for their chance at this hybrid arrangement.

When The Columbian asked parents how remote school was going, email flooded in detailing their frustrations:

  • Parents described logging long hours at their jobs while shepherding their children through schoolwork.
  • They said they struggle to navigate the myriad online software applications necessary for their children to complete an unrelenting torrent of assignments.
  • They said they worry about so much screen time as children complain of headaches and fatigue.
  • Most troubling, parents said they fear isolation is pushing their children into depression and anxiety.

Many parents said teachers are doing their best in this difficult circumstance, but they’re not the nearest adult when things go awry. It’s parents who deal with students’ meltdowns over unexpected Zoom disconnections or assignments that don’t save or submit properly. Even families that haven’t suffered illness or job loss during the pandemic have struggled with the day-in, day-out stress of conducting work and school inside homes that are supposed to be havens.

Heldt said she misses greeting her daughters, 7-year-old Nora and 9-year-old Kylee, at the bus stop and hearing about their day away at school.

“I’m having more arguments with my kids, and not ever feeling like I can do fun things with them and be the happy mom,” Heldt said. “It dawned on me a few months ago that I feel like I’m always telling them, ‘Do this,’ or, ‘Have you done this?’ I’m the bad guy keeping them on task at school, with their chores and getting ready in the morning – all the stuff I was doing before but now I have this extra six hours a day. It’s just a daily grind of keeping them on task.”

Heldt’s husband has a job that doesn’t allow him to work from home, so he’s away five days a week. She reports to her health care job Sundays and Thursdays. She has given up on accomplishing her usual household duties on her days off, and wakes up an hour and a half before her daughters to find time to exercise.

“They’re young enough that they still need me,” she said. “I knew I would just get frustrated if I expected I would get my stuff done.”

Even with her help, she said her daughters, who used to be enthusiastic about school, seem less engaged with each day that passes. “They moan and groan about having to ‘do school,’” she said.

Other parents say they also feel strained. Jennifer Ham and her husband have four children, ages 2 through 12. Three are in school – grades second, fifth and seventh.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was in a Zoom meeting with clients or employers or my co-workers and had kids in and out of the room asking, ‘Can you help me?’” said Ham, a job coach for adults with disabilities. “I already felt like I was juggling with work and home life before COVID.”

She said she has to pick her battles with her oldest son, the middle-schooler, who has trouble staying focused on school work. She fears her second-grader is falling behind; he’s eligible for special education services that he cannot receive effectively from home.

“You get that parent guilt,” Ham said.

Vulnerable families

The pandemic is “unquestionably a challenging time for kids and families,” said Andrew Tucker, southwest regional director of Children’s Home Society of Washington.

Especially hard hit are families that have lost jobs or loved ones, and those in poverty who don’t have access to health care, a stable place to live, enough food or reliable internet connections.

“Regardless of a child or family’s specific experience of the pandemic, the science is pretty clear that a strong parent-child relationship is the most effective way to mitigate childhood stress,” Tucker said.

“One of the most difficult parts of the parent being an educator is that it increases opportunities for negative interactions that could potentially throw off the balance.”

Families should not be shy about reaching out for help, he added. Children’s Home Society of Washington (1-800-456-3339) can connect them with assistance.

“Who could blame a parent for losing their cool right now?” Tucker said. “It can be extra painful given how everything is contained in the home. The emotional temperature of the family can begin to be turned up too high.”

That’s why it’s important to make time for fun, Tucker said, something local families said they are trying to do.

The Heldts adopted two kittens and a puppy, and playing with them has become a big stress reliever for the kids. Every Friday, family members rotate picking a favorite meal and activity. (Nora recently selected drawing as the family’s Friday evening fun.)

The Ham family has a weekly movie night, complete with snacks, and makes a point of going for walks through the neighborhood. The boys get outside to play basketball on the family’s hoop.

When it comes to school, tune into what’s working and what isn’t, Tucker said. If your child is someone who really needs the sort of one-on-one attention that’s hard to get in a Zoom classroom, ask teachers about scheduling a meeting during office hours.

“It’s helpful for parents to approach this as a partnership and sit down with their children and establish realistic expectations for schedules and routines,” Tucker said. “The solutions that we identify might not work forever, and we might need new solutions. This will be a continually moving target. You might identify a schedule that really works for your family, and it works for three months, but after three months you might need to find a new schedule.”

And cut yourself some slack, he said.

“Accept that you and your child won’t be as productive as you normally would be,” Tucker said. “Stay calm when it’s hard, because it’s going to be hard. And don’t give up.”

Columbian staff writer Meg Wochnick contributed to this story.

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