September 8, 2020

Tough on moms: Stories of struggle and juggling demands during the pandemic

A domestic worker and mother of four, Olga Santa lost her job because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her daughters, age 7, 11, 13 and 15, are all learning remotely this fall in Albuquerque and will continue to do so for some time; the Albuquerque Public Schools Board voted six to one in August to continue distance learning through the end of the fall semester. 

Like other families, Santa is juggling the stress and challenges of her daughters’ remote learning during an unprecedented pandemic.

That includes worrying that if her husband, who works in construction, tests positive for COVID-19, they have no backup plan. With Santa out of work, her husband’s paychecks must now stretch to cover all of their expenses. When he was sick this year due to allergies and kidney stones, he still had to appear at the construction site because the family couldn’t afford for him to take a day off.

The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) held a press conference last week where its secretary announced that 50 school districts, including APS, meet the state’s criteria and have a state-approved plan to return to a hybrid model that includes in-person learning. Elementary school children will be the first to reenter the classroom, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference last month. 

Young students have shorter attention spans and are still learning educational basics, PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said during last week’s press conference. Also, they are less likely to congregate and socialize with other students than middle and high school students, New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase said during the same press conference.

Related: PED gives update on opening some elementary schools to in-person instruction

A Legislative Finance Committee report this summer said that the state’s students could experience as much as a year’s worth of learning loss due to remote learning. Stewart acknowledged the report during the press conference last week and said digital learning “doesn’t replace that teacher-student dynamic.”

“We think learning loss can happen,” Stewart said.

But, he said, it’s difficult to quantify.

When the pandemic began last March, the Santas lacked laptops for all four of their daughters to log in for remote instruction. They also faced connectivity issues and had trouble logging into the educational software, Santos said.

APS provided tools for all of the Santas children to use, enabling each of them to log into their separate classrooms, but Santas said the process has been stressful and emotionally draining for her kids.

Santa spoke with New Mexico Political Report through a translator provided by the grassroots organization El CENTRO De Igualdad y Derechos. Santa said through translator and communications organizer Sarai Bejarano that learning virtually is not the same as learning in person.

While PED initially laid out plans over the summer for a hybrid learning model during the school year, the state agency also allowed each district and charter school to decide if it wanted to continue remote learning only. Responding to both teacher and parent concerns, the APS Board made its decision in August. There are some additional options for special needs students. Remote classes began in mid August.

But not all parents are happy with remote learning as the only option this fall. Sarah Haynes, a mother from Albuquerque, worries about her child’s mental health because of the isolation involved in remote learning.

Haynes said that because her son can’t return to brick-and-mortar instruction this semester, he is lonely, depressed and his anxiety is higher. 

Haynes has other concerns. She worked remotely before the pandemic began, so she had a home office already established, she said. But, she can’t watch over her son’s remote learning while she’s working. She has to focus on her own job and he is participating in his remote learning in another room in the house.

“If he just decides one day he won’t go on, he can totally choose not to go online and, unfortunately, I wouldn’t know it because I’m working,” Haynes said. “The teacher can tell me (if he’s not logged in), but that would be after the fact.”

Haynes said there has also been a lashing out on social media by parents who disagree over whether children should be learning from home or in a classroom.

“That’s the last thing any parent needs no matter what you believe in,” Haynes said.

Juggling parenting, working and a kids’ remote learning is a struggle for all of the women New Mexico Political Report spoke with. Michaela Gallegos, a single mother living in Albuquerque, doesn’t qualify for state-supported childcare but she can’t afford private childcare either, she said. When the pandemic began, she had to switch from working in an office to working from home just as her children shifted to remote learning, putting them all in the house at the same time. Gallegos found herself catching up on missed work late at night after the kids went to bed. She also found she was not alone.

“There were a lot of us emailing around midnight at work,” she said.

Gallegos said that for her daughter, who is 11, the transition to remote learning made some aspects of school easier. Her daughter has had less anxiety over attending middle school because she is learning from home.

But, Gallegos’ son, who is 8, is having a harder time, she said. While learning from home, he has his sister, pets and toys as distractions. He “doesn’t understand why every day isn’t Saturday,” she said. 

A self-described “stress monkey,” Gallegos jokingly said she has “ramped up to a stress Great Ape.” She said she feels considerable stress worrying about both her work performance and her children staying attentive to their remote classrooms.

“My son is creative. He can turn on his camera and put something into the chat (box) and then run around,” she said.

And then there is the additional difficulty of acting as a tutor to her kids when they need extra help. 

“I’m not a great teacher,” Gallegos said. “After going through this, I realize I made the right career choice and didn’t become a teacher. I want teachers to get as many millions as possible.” 

Another single mother of one based in Albuquerque, Anamaria Dahl, started a new job at a state agency a week before the pandemic began. 

Suddenly, she found herself working revolving shifts in an overwhelmed, understaffed office while her son had to be home alone, she said. When she worked the afternoon shift, she couldn’t be home to help her son with his homework. She said “we roughed it.”

“I kept saying it’s a nightmare. I know others are in worse circumstances than me. But that’s what it feels like,” Dahl said.

She said she is concerned that her son has suffered academically because of the disruption to in-person learning.

“He didn’t excel in school,” she said, speaking of last spring after the transition. “I wasn’t able to help him. I couldn’t fortify the lessons in school. His wanting to engage with school is not there.”

Dahl has an underlying health condition, so her fears of testing positive for COVID-19 exacerbated her stress and she couldn’t work from home.

“I have more space in my brain, it feels like, when I’m not so stressed and worried. I was new on the job, so I didn’t have sick leave. The financial hardship, the imminent threat (of COVID-19) was all consuming,” she said. 

Dahl said the fact that she could not work remotely meant that her sons’ friends were unavailable for social time. Other parents, who were able to work from home, were afraid of exposure since she could not work from home, she said. The stress of the pandemic itself affected her son.

“He was scared for me. He has a level of paranoia (now). He wears a mask even when it’s just the two of us. He has hand sanitizer ready for me as soon as I get back in the car from pumping gas. It puts undue stress on him totally,” Dahl said.

Another mom from Albuquerque, Cheyenne Stradinger, kept her hours working as a librarian at the University of New Mexico, but her husband, a brewer, lost hours at the beginning of the pandemic. The family hasn’t lost income because her husband has been able to tap into federal and state jobless aid but she is worried about an uncertain future, she said.

But Stradinger, who has two very young children, said one challenge she has faced is a lack of enthusiasm from one of her daughters. Stradinger, who is glad her children do not have to go back to school, said that when she is trying to help her 7-year-old with school work, her daughter might ask, “why do I really want to do that right now?”

“She knows our dynamic, where she wouldn’t say that to her teacher,” Stradinger said.

And even while working at home, answering research questions online for library patrons, she is doubling as her 5-year-old’s preschool teacher.

Her youngest daughter watches what her older sister is learning as well as some educational programming, is curious and interested and is able to recognize words and count, Stradinger said.

“I’m not sure she’s where she’s supposed to be when she enters kindergarten,” Stradinger said. “But it seems like she’ll be OK.”

Although the parents reported that their children get breaks during the day and at least one mom said her child is being encouraged to go running to replace physical education instruction, another problem Haynes sees is that her son needs more physical activity than he’s currently getting through remote learning.

“It’s nighttime and he wants to play a game with us. He’s ready to be active and use his body and move around and my husband and I are ready to go to bed,” Haynes said.

For Stefanie Juliano, the mother of a three-year-old in Rio Rancho and a business owner, she had to rearrange her schedule because her daughter isn’t going to pre-Kindergarten.

Even though she has a very supportive partner and both can work from home, Juliano said it felt as if her family had no summer.

She has watched her daughter turn her stuffed bears into her friends because she can’t play with other children. Juliano said she sees her daughter telling her stuffed bears they can’t go anywhere because of the virus.

Juliano said when she asked her daughter her feelings recently, “She’s like, ‘I don’t know what I feel. I feel sad.’”