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‘We feel like we are drowning’: Baltimore-area parents struggle to guide kids’ schooling from home

The Wesby family poses for a portrait together in Patterson Park. From left, Melissa, Lydia, Mitchell, Olivia (who's holding their dog Brooklyn), and John Wesby stand together near the park's entrance. Like a lot of parents right now, John and Melissa Wesby are balancing a full time work schedule with making sure their kids stay up to date on their school assignments. 5-5-2020
The Wesby family poses for a portrait together in Patterson Park. From left, Melissa, Lydia, Mitchell, Olivia (who's holding their dog Brooklyn), and John Wesby stand together near the park's entrance. Like a lot of parents right now, John and Melissa Wesby are balancing a full time work schedule with making sure their kids stay up to date on their school assignments. 5-5-2020(Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

When the coronavirus pandemic began Melissa and John Wesby were going to be the family that was on top of their three children’s lessons and homework. They are a two-parent family in Baltimore with a comfortable lifestyle and multiple computers.

They thought they had this.

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But Melissa was working 12-hour shifts as a nurse treating COVID-19 patients. John’s work space had been taken over by their oldest daughter. Often, he was in another part of the house wrestling the two younger children into doing lessons while keeping the house running. John worried his wife would bring home the disease. At night, he would stay up late trying to get his own work done after Melissa got home.

The Wesbys were fighting on multiple fronts — and losing them all.

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Some Baltimore-area parents are finding that teaching their children while juggling Zoom meetings and conference calls of their own is exhausting and unmanageable. While they are grateful teachers and school systems are cranking out lessons, some say their children can’t keep up with the academic work by themselves. The formal education their children are getting is a fraction of what they would have learned in a classroom with teachers, they say.

School administrators acknowledge the strain of living through a pandemic could have far reaching consequences for thousands of Maryland’s children. They’re planning to give students extra help in the fall. But the fact is that nearly a million Maryland school children are home for the rest of the school year and parents with varying levels of time, energy and enthusiasm are now largely in charge of their children’s educations.

Sherri Schaefer said she is sleeping two hours a night, working an overnight shift and then coming home at 7:20 a.m. to get her four kids up, dressed and on their lessons for the day by 8 a.m. She drops into bed at 8 p.m. each night.

“It is exhausting. I’ve never cried so much!” said Schaefer, who lives in Baltimore County.

Some parents complain that they don’t remember middle school math or World War II history and they don’t have time to stop to relearn it and then teach it to their children.

“I truly feel like the teachers and the staff are doing the best they can, but, even under ideal conditions, students are learning a fraction of what they would in a classroom with a teacher who is physically present,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney who lives in Otterbein.

She said her family has three computers, but even so it has been a struggle and the internet always seems to go out around noon each day. Her husband has used vacation time to help their son with his sixth grade lessons.

“I can’t even imagine if I had a five-year-old,” she said.

Dworak-Fisher and other middle class parents with multiple computers feel guilty complaining because they have it easy compared to households where a parent has been laid off, the coronavirus has hit hard, or there isn’t enough food or an internet connection.

The problem is not evident in all homes. Some families say they have been more relaxed since the stay-at-home order took effect, particularly if they were furloughed and can spend more time with their children. Virginia Ryan, a city school paraeducator, said learning is going pretty well.

"My kids are older, so I think it is a lot better,” Ryan said.

But her high school student is less motivated than usual. “I think he is learning, but he is not as interested as if going to the school,” Ryan said.

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“I honestly don’t think they are learning anything new. That saddens me."


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Matt Gressick, a Howard County high school teacher with two elementary school children in Baltimore County public schools, understands the struggle from both sides. His family is learning, but there have been plenty of issues. When everyone is using Google Meet in different rooms of the house the internet just can’t handle it. He’ll be teaching a lesson and suddenly the system slows down. But his children are learning some new life lessons, like how to mow the lawn.

“This whole trapped in my house thing is draining. I got into teaching to interact with kids...," he said. “It feels like calling out to them from the ocean while they are on the shore. We feel like we are drowning.”

Still, he said he has had some important life conversations with individual students seeking guidance who open up to him over an internet platform.

Sonja Santelises, Baltimore City schools CEO, isn’t going to give city school students a pass on remote learning, but she shares the frustrations of working parents. One day recently, she decided at 2 p.m. it was time to just let her three girls face paint for the rest of the day.

“For those who want to go about it with gusto. Great,” she said.

Some students are finding remote learning easier and are expanding their knowledge quickly. But parents shouldn’t beat themselves up if distance learning isn’t working perfectly, Santelises said. Schools expect they’ll need to assess students when they return to find out where their deficiencies are.

She asks parents of elementary students who are having a hard time meeting all of the school expectations to at least get their children to read books every day. The school system also is focused on paring down the curriculum to the essential items that students need to know to move to the next grade.

Schools aren’t going to reopen assuming students mastered lessons during the ten weeks they were out, Santelises said.

The Wesbys have decided the best approach is to let their children go at a slower pace than they might normally and they are giving themselves more time as a family.

“We have lowered our expectations," Melissa Wesby said. “I emailed all the teachers and let them know that both of us are working full time and so the children may not turn in the work on time and that they may not all sign on at the right time.

“I honestly don’t think they are learning anything new. That saddens me.”

But John Wesby said he sees his second grader learning how to write an essay on a computer and thinks, if nothing else, his children will be more tech savvy when this is over.

For now, he said, they aim for as much school work as is possible without stress. They find ways for their children to learn non-traditional lessons in daily walks to Patterson Park. They have taught them how to use a compass, how to understand wind by watching the clouds go by, and have gotten up in the middle of the night to watch a meteor shower.

“We are going to let them take their time. We will help them when we can,” Melissa Wesby said.

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