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Single Mother Juggles Demands of Distance Learning and Employment

When Freedom’s Journal, our nation’s first Black newspaper, was founded in 1827, it proclaimed, “We choose to plead our own cause. For too long have others spoken for us.”

Word in Black is an initiative of the Fund for Black Journalism, a collaborative of 10 independently Black-owned newspaper publishers that are reimagining the strength and impact of the Black Press while seeking resolutions to the Race Crisis in America. This is the first in a series of articles focusing on key issues affecting the Black community. For more information, visit Fund for Black Journalism at https://bit.ly/2GCcJb5.

For the time being, students in the District’s public and public charter school systems have been relegated to their homes where they will continue to learn on virtual platforms, much like what they endured during the latter part of last school year when the coronavirus pandemic brought all social and economic activity to a standstill.

While the novelty of this experience has tapered, and many families, with the help of school administrators, have risen to the occasion, this ongoing situation continues to raise the issue of how long some parents, particularly those with children across various grade levels, can sustain tending to their young one’s academic needs while working full-time.

Angel Johnson, a single mother of three who works in the federal government, said that question has been on her mind since August when, after accepting a new full-time job, she learned that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced the launch of a wholly virtual fall term.

“It’s hard for a working parent because you have the summer when the adolescent child can help babysit the other children but now he’s in school so you need someone else there with them, and they have all of these personal needs so it’s complicated,” said Johnson, 33, an operations manager with eight years of experience in the commercial real estate industry.

In April, shortly after the start of regional stay-at-home orders, Johnson lost her job. In the months that followed, she said she struggled to find a new source of income while tending to the laptop and Wi-Fi connectivity issues that prevented her youngest son, then a kindergartener, from navigating his virtual learning platform.

James Johnson, a 10th grader at a public charter school, helps his younger brother Asahai do his virtual classwork. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
James Johnson, a 10th grader at a public charter school, helps his younger brother Asahai do his virtual classwork. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

That’s why Johnson, who’s due to start a daily commute to her office in late September, said she has spent several weeks planning for the fall term. That endeavor included securing new laptops, setting up a workspace in her living room for her first-, fifth- and 10th-grade sons and enlisting the help of her aunt who will eventually work closely with the young ones, especially the first grader.

In the meantime, many of Johnson’s mornings consist of sitting next to her youngest son and helping him maintain focus during online lessons, as encouraged by his instructor who asked for parental involvement. One week into the new school year, Johnson said she has often had to call her son’s teacher to solve log-in issues that sometimes caused him to fall behind.

Despite the challenges she’s encountered, Johnson said she relishes the opportunity to see her children learn in the comfort of their home.

“I get to see how my children are and they are focused,” Johnson said. “I know my kids work better with one-on-one time. This is a big learning experience for my youngest. He’s getting a hang of virtual learning but first graders have little patience.”

Angel Johnson (left) with her three school-age children Asahai, Khalil and James (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Angel Johnson (left) with her three school-age children Asahai, Khalil and James (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

In the weeks leading up to the launch of an all-virtual fall term, teachers throughout the D.C. metropolitan region have participated in professional development sessions where they’ve mulled over how best to assist families in situations like Johnson’s.

While formatting varies across school districts, students’ time is split between lectures, group work and independent study. Teachers have also been encouraged to maintain various modes of communication including texting, email and social media while making themselves available during unconventional hours that better suit families’ schedules.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s three children, James, Asahai and Khalil, count among the thousands of youth who are increasingly familiarizing themselves with Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and other virtual learning platforms this academic year. In preparation for this undertaking, the D.C. government allocated $17 million – a combination of local and COVID-19 stimulus funds – toward the purchase of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots. Officials in the D.C. Public Schools central office have also set up a website and hotline to assist parents.

James, a 10th grader at a local charter school, said he has relied on relationships with his teachers and his growing embrace of computers as an academic resource to help him make the transition to virtual learning. Though there’s less opportunity for in-person interactions with classmates, he’s been able to keep in contact with friends through other means.

Last spring, after a few setbacks in the beginning of his high school career, James regained his footing while learning virtually and has since developed a strategy for success that requires greater focus. And while he works next to his younger siblings, the demands of his schoolwork often prevent James from actively watching them and providing his mother with some relief.

“At first, I was rushing to go back into school but as we started the process I thought it was okay to stay at home,” said James, a student at KIPP DC Somerset College Preparatory, as he explains his daily routine of waking and freshening up, eating a light breakfast and logging on to his virtual learning platform.

“Some negative parts about distance learning are being late to class and teachers not being able to repeat what they said,” he continued. “It’s been good keeping up with the lessons. It’s easier to learn in person but I can handle this.”

Earlier this summer, before fall academic plans coalesced, District teachers expressed concerns about the health risks of physically engaging students in closed spaces during a pandemic.

On the other hand, the Trump administration embarked on a crusade to corral students, teachers and school personnel into buildings through threats of funding cuts and more recently with the declaration that teachers are classified as essential workers.

Parents concurrently facing the demands of home and work in the age of COVID-19 held a bit of a nuanced view on the matter.

A Gallup survey released at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year showed that more than half of parents wanted in-person learning in the fall. While parents have increasingly embraced virtual learning amid a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, more than one-third of respondents who participated in another survey last month said they preferred a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

Regardless of the circumstances, Johnson said that continuity in her children’s education is key – so much so that she will go to any means to ensure that they receive it.

“I pray every day that we continue to be the way we are because some children aren’t even getting the proper education and nutrition,” Johnson said.

“I wish there was a better way. It’s risky getting the kids back in school but they need small groups or something. A lot of people are switching over to homeschooling. I thought about it but it’s a lot as a single mother,” she said.

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