“Something has to give.”
Micah Dozier is trying to help.
She’s trying to help the people calling about their unemployment claims, doing her best to resolve problems and calm nerves and, on one occasion, dealing with a man who said he had a gun and just might shoot himself if he didn’t get his money.
Dozier also is trying to help her three young grandchildren. They live with her and want her attention, and they don’t understand why she works at home now or why they stopped going to school.
She can’t afford to send them to day care full-time while she puts in long hours at her state job. She shushes them, hits the mute button on her phone so callers won’t hear any commotion.
And come September, when Dozier again will be tasked with overseeing their daily school work, what then?
“It’s almost like you gotta pick and choose,” said Dozier, 46, of Whitehall. “Either you take care of your family, or you work. The news the other day was hard. Really, really hard.”
Several school districts throughout central Ohio, including Columbus City Schools, announced last week that school buildings will remain closed and students will start the 2020-21 school year learning remotely from home in an effort to prevent the spread of the surging coronavirus.
That’s a tall order under the best of circumstances. Many families don’t operate under the best of circumstances. Existing hardships — poverty or other financial struggle, single parenthood, a lack of computer literacy — can make it difficult to manage home-based education with its many passwords, platforms and online learning sessions.
“I have a 5-year-old getting ready to start kindergarten — virtually,” said Trinity Matheny, 35, of Groveport. “She needs someone to guide her every step of the way. And I can’t.”
Matheny has three children of her own and three who were placed with her when she agreed to serve as a kinship caregiver to keep them out of foster homes. The six range in age from 2 to 18.
Matheny also works full-time in the social services field and has picked up another job delivering papers on the weekend. Zoom meetings, many of them with caseworkers and counselors, take up hours each week.
Each day is full and the new school year hasn’t even started.
“Something has to give,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Matheny had written to Gov. Mike DeWine urging him to at least make child-care subsidies available to kinship families. Both she and Dozier earn too much to qualify for assistance with day care or food.
Dozier received a Chromebook from her grandchildren’s school but had to turn it back in months ago. “And they only gave me the one,” she said. “There are three of them.”
Structure in an unstructured environment
Education experts agree that remote and online schooling is, or has the potential to be, rife with problems.
According to NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization that provides educational research, preliminary projections show that students could return to school in the fall with less than 70% of the typical learning gains in reading and just 37% to 50% of the usual progress in math.
But the losses won’t be evenly distributed.The group said the top third of students actually might post gains in reading since the COVID-19 outbreak closed schools in the spring.
Any potential for increased disparity resonates deeply in Franklin County, where studies in recent years have found high levels of economic inequality and broad gaps in childhood opportunity.
“I was on a call the other day and there were so many community members in tears — in tears,” said Danella Hicks, founder of the after-school program All THAT (Teens Hopeful About Tomorrow) on the city’s East Side.
The conversation was among mentoring organizations, Hicks said, and participants were acknowledging their worries about all that needs to be done to assist families, children and teachers.
A Columbus schools spokeswoman said this month that nearly 1 in 4 students, 22%, did not participate in virtual learning in the spring after school closed, and many others were engaged on a limited basis.
“How do you provide structure in an unstructured environment? Our job is bigger, and more important, I’d say,” said Hicks, whose program is committed to providing intensive services to about 160 students in the coming year.
Child-serving nonprofit organizations are stepping up, but they need support, too, so that they can serve more families, said Doug Wolf, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Ohio.
“We are seeing a lot of increased stress and we’ve had to adapt a lot of our programming,” he said. “Now more than ever, we need to work effectively with our partners. And to put the kids at the center and wrap around them.”
Finding structure when there is none
Sibling rivalries. Overwhelmed parents and grandparents. Bummed-out children and teens.
Laurise Johnson knows what she’s up against when area schools resume remotely. Determined and relentlessly optimistic, Johnson is a prevention specialist at Directions for Youth and Families who focuses on education.
She and her colleagues quickly shifted their outreach when buildings shuttered in March, kept it up during the summer and are ready to go again.
“Just the transition can be such a stumbling block,” Johnson said. “The kids used to wake up, go to school, and that was a safe space for six or seven hours. Everything’s changed.”
Johnson routinely monitored three laptops at a time this spring so she could provide academic help to as many students as possible. Grownups sometimes needed a hand, too.
“I had a third-grader and a fifth-grader living with their grandma, and it was so hard for them trying to log onto Zoom,” Johnson said. “She was just like, ’I don’t know how to do this.’’’
So Johnson created a step-by-step video, complete with images of each keystroke, to get Grandma going. That was one problem solved. Johnson knows that too many remain.
Lack of resources for at-home education should not be among them, she said. “When you know that there are funds out there that could change these things? It’s frustrating. There’s no reason a laptop or desktop computer isn’t in every home.”
Matheny, who will have four kids learning from home in a few weeks, said she’ll do her best, rely on her faith and hope the virus subsides.
“You can’t compromise safety, so I can’t blame the schools, I can’t blame the governor and I can’t blame the public health officials,” she said. “This is a new thing. And none of us asked for it.”