Look in the index of any child-rearing or parenting book, and you won’t find anything referring to raising children during a pandemic. Every family in California is experiencing “sheltering in place” in different ways. In every case, it has upended routines, created profound uncertainties and placed extraordinary demands on parents. We asked Zaidee Stavely, EdSource’s reporter on early education, to keep a journal of her — and her family’s — experiences and to share it with our readers.

May 21 – I have a confession to make. Distance learning is not working well in my house. My fifth-grader is not finishing all of her assignments. And I’m not forcing her to, even in this last week of classes in Oakland Unified.

Don’t get me wrong — my daughter’s teachers have done an outstanding job. Her Oakland Unified dual immersion school sent home two novels for her to read – “Esperanza Rising” in English and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in Spanish. Her math teacher recorded a video explaining how to multiply fractions with such patience and clarity that I understood in a different way than I ever had before. Her social studies teacher is asking her students to write “making history journals,” describing what their lives are like during the coronavirus pandemic. My daughter completed several entries, eager to leave a record for others in the future. For one entry, she shared a photo of our family with masks on and wrote, “This photo is important to future historians who will study this period because it shows how families have to wear masks while going outside and how hard it is to live through a pandemic that seems to last forever.”

But online learning makes my daughter anxious. She’s happy — even excited — to learn on her own, doing science experiments and reading as many books as she can get her hands on, trying to identify birds in the backyard with a book her grandpa sent her. As soon as she had actual assignments from school, though, with due dates, the pressure caused some very intense emotions in our house. The absence of grades didn’t help. The Google Classroom platform, where she can see all the different assignments she has for any given week, makes her feel overwhelmed in a way that in-person learning did not. Seeing herself on video during Zoom class times makes her uncomfortable. I know from talking with other parents that she’s not the only one.

My daughter is hurting. She misses school. She misses her teachers. She misses her friends. It’s scary to live in a pandemic. I can’t help her much with schoolwork while working full time. So I’m not making her finish all her assignments. And I don’t plan to.

A couple of weeks ago she turned 11. I donned a mask, picked up a tres leches cake from a local bakery, and added an edible photo of a drawing of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater that I ordered online — a nod to my daughter’s fascination with Shakespeare plays. We broke a piñata in the backyard — just the four of us: my husband, me, and our two daughters. And we invited her friends to come by, say hi, and draw on a big piece of paper for her — from a distance. They all had to bring their own art supplies — colored pencils, pastels, and pens — so they didn’t have to share. I had each friend sign up for a time, so they wouldn’t overlap. We put the paper on a table on our steps, about 10 feet from our front porch. It was great to see friends, albeit with a mask and from a distance. The resulting birthday art is a beautiful reminder that people care about my daughter. I hope that’s what she remembers.

April 7After my 2-year-old daughter’s preschool closed on March 13, her teacher is holding “circle time” online every morning. My daughter sits on the couch in front of the computer and her face lights up when she sees her beloved teacher appear on the screen. The teacher reads books aloud to them and they sing together, draw pictures and share what they are doing at home. She’s also encouraging them to do offline activities — one day they all planted beans and other seeds in plastic bags with paper towels and water and stuck them to their windows to watch them grow.

It’s beautiful. It’s also heartbreaking.

My daughter started preschool in February. Her older sister attended the same preschool years ago, and the director and lead teacher is now a good friend of mine, so my little one has known her since she was born. This teacher has a gift with children — what I call her magic. She listens to children, encourages them to share their opinions and learn by exploring and investigating. As soon as my daughter started going there, her vocabulary blossomed into thousands of words and complete sentences. She began telling us stories about her new friends. She was eager to go there every day.

Now, almost every morning she asks me if she is going to her preschool. When I say no, she nods her head and accepts it. But she doesn’t understand why we are staying at home, or why she can’t go to her school, hug her teacher, play with her friends. No matter how much we try to re-create the preschool experience for her at home, making homemade Play-Doh, planting seeds or doing science experiments with milk, food coloring and dish soap, it’s not the same.

It’s not the same for my 10-year-old either. She’s in fifth grade at a public Spanish and English dual-immersion school in Oakland Unified. She cried when she found out she wasn’t going back to school this year. I held her. I told her I was sad, too.

Playing with milk, dish soap and food coloring. Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

These last three weeks of sheltering in place have been a whirlwind of emotions for me. It’s difficult to get work done and at the same time play with my children, help my 10-year-old work on the homework packet her teachers sent home or go online to do math games or practice typing. My husband and I are taking turns spending time with the kids and working. It’s an impossible juggle. I’m overwhelmed.

But the largest, most present emotion for me is grief. Grief that my children aren’t playing with friends, learning from each other and expanding their worlds. Grief that I can’t be near my parents, who live in rural northern California. Grief — and anger — that so many of my daughter’s classmates are struggling much more than we are, as their parents lose their jobs or have hours reduced. Grief that we are all, kind of, alone.

Photo Credit: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

Taking apart a kitchen timer. Photo: Zaidee Stavely/EdSource

And yet we’re not. There are some small and wonderful slivers of hope. We have that online preschool circle time. My older daughter has a regular online video chat with her friends. She’s been writing letters to her friends and her cousins and her grandma. My kids are getting along better. With no other children around, my 10-year-old plays more with her 2-year-old sister now, almost allies in this strange new world.

They both keep growing. I found the 2-year-old arranging blocks in a careful line, something I know from reporting is a pre-math skill. My 10-year-old has a new-found scientific calling. The other day she decided to take apart a kitchen timer, to see if she could put it back together again. She’s writing a play and reading all kinds of books — this week it was “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry,” and a novel in Spanish called “J.J. Sanchez y el Último Sábado Fantástico.” We tried family yoga for the first time. We’re taking it one day at a time.

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  1. Aime Alvarez 2 days ago2 days ago

    Love this- teary.

  2. Jessica Morton 3 months ago3 months ago

    Beautiful, poignant portrait of what children are missing from schools, even in our best version (like what you’re creating) of this isolation – the company, stimulation and pleasure of learning and playing with people different from themselves. Such inspired projects you’re creating, and gifted teachers your girls have!

  3. Kate Lawler 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts and feelings. I have felt and experienced a lot of similar things with my sixth grader and second grader. It is nice to know we are not alone in some of these experiences.

  4. Harmony Negrete 4 months ago4 months ago

    I can relate to this article so much! I work with Early Intervention Families in a Child Development Center Lab School setting. I miss my families, co-workers, and extended family! Being with my children and husband at home is wonderful, but I feel overwhelmed with work and balancing time with them. Thank you for sharing your experience and connecting with so many of us. Your words are encouraging 🙂

  5. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 4 months ago4 months ago

    A beautiful chronicle. Lining up blocks in a row is a pre-math skill? Fantastic. De-constructing a kitchen timer and reassembling it? How did that second part go? Reading "Island of the Blue Dolphins" for the first time? She'll never forget it. I think of this experience as if we were pioneers, cut off from familiar patterns of the past and unsure about what lies ahead - sort of Donner Party people – far from our … Read More

    A beautiful chronicle. Lining up blocks in a row is a pre-math skill? Fantastic. De-constructing a kitchen timer and reassembling it? How did that second part go? Reading “Island of the Blue Dolphins” for the first time? She’ll never forget it.

    I think of this experience as if we were pioneers, cut off from familiar patterns of the past and unsure about what lies ahead – sort of Donner Party people – far from our parents, keeping journals and writing letters, dependent on one another, making do. If we stay well, we will be alright. One day at a time, one foot in front of the other. We need to follow the rules and stay well.

  6. Randi Wolfe 4 months ago4 months ago

    Well said, Zaidee!! It’s always difficult for parents to have to navigate situations for their children that they themselves never experienced. But, of course, in the current situation that’s true to the Nth degree! Thanks for sharing – your words and your sentiments are such a good reminder of so many things!

  7. Nuria Fernandez 4 months ago4 months ago

    Everything you said exactly as you said it. I feel the same.

  8. Jessica Sawko 4 months ago4 months ago

    For your 5th grader, budding scientist and Spanish/English bilingual – she might enjoy some of these resources: https://www.carolina.com/learningfromhome. Not a promotion on my part, just one mom to another. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. Patty Madigan 4 months ago4 months ago

    Zaidee–your article is heartfelt and so moving–thanks for sharing and making our world a better place!

  10. Leslie Hubbert 4 months ago4 months ago

    I am impressed that your kids' teachers were so prepared and ready to do circle time online. As a teacher in rural Northern California where more than half of my students don't have reliable access to the internet, I have been in denial about having to learn how to be an online teacher. As I struggle to keep up with technical demands, I'm also sorry that half of my class won't have access to anything … Read More

    I am impressed that your kids’ teachers were so prepared and ready to do circle time online. As a teacher in rural Northern California where more than half of my students don’t have reliable access to the internet, I have been in denial about having to learn how to be an online teacher. As I struggle to keep up with technical demands, I’m also sorry that half of my class won’t have access to anything that I can’t print onto paper. I also can get really, really sad if I am not careful to keep myself busy. Great job, Zaidee, reporting on a crazy time.