Metro Detroit teacher-parents’ back-to-school op...

Metro Detroit teacher-parents’ back-to-school options leave them scrambling and stretched thin

"I'm terrified that I will bring home sickness and harm my family. I don't want to be in the position of choosing between my school kids and my family."

Metro Detroit teacher-parents face difficult options for their jobs and kids' schooling. Image shows young girl receiving virtual instruction at a laptop.

Stock photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

This story comes to you from The Blend, a digital magazine from the Detroit Women’s Leadership Network and Detour Detroit, for Detroit women to find inspiration, advice and resources. Sign up here.

Hamtramck High School special education teacher Selma Agic has been working from home since March. She says the pandemic reminds her of her family’s struggles after fleeing the Bosnian War in 1992 when she went without formal education for years. 

“As a war child, I know many kids who missed out on a couple of years of proper schooling– and they are all successful. Let’s look at this online learning as an opportunity to grow new skills that will help them become successful adults.”

As schools scramble to determine virtual and in-person options, with many decisions still up in the air just two weeks before reopening, Agic said her biggest concern is finding childcare for her 5- and 2-year-old before October. As of now, her school district will be virtual in September, and she and her husband are considering drastic changes. 

“Many people tell me I’m lucky to be a teacher, but they don’t understand that after trying to teach and contact students all day, I will not be the best teacher to my child,” Agic told The Blend.

“I do not have babysitters for my kids until my in-laws come back from Bosnia. My husband and I are considering selling our house and moving in with them to have extra help. I am worried about the workload and keeping up with my job duties, my students’ needs, my children’s needs, household needs and, most importantly, my mental health.”

Hamtramck High School special education teacher Selma Agic
Hamtramck High School special education teacher Selma Agic. Courtesy Selma Agic.

As parents navigate the uncertainty of school, life, work and sanity this fall, one group — parents who are also teachers — are getting hit doubly hard. The Blend reached out to several teacher-parents to get their takes on what they’re facing this September, and how they plan on managing.

When your kid’s school plan could put you out of a job

Like Agic, Jennifer Woods*, a teacher in Bloomfield Schools, is concerned about keeping up with her 9-year-old son after work. She says her husband will be taking care of him during the day while she teaches online, but he’ll have to be self-sufficient while his dad works. She enrolled him in a virtual academy as she sifts through her options. (*Not her real name; Woods asked to remain anonymous due to fears over losing her job.)  

Right now, she’s waiting to hear back if she is accepted for a virtual teaching position. Otherwise, she can take a leave of absence without pay and benefits, which would jeopardize her status for the next school year. 

“If a position is not available for the ‘21-’22 school year, I’ll be out of work,” she said. Even if she does get a position, she’s worried she may get relocated to a “poorly ventilated building” or to a different grade.

Woods also worries about the uncertainty of what learning will look like in the upcoming year.

“I want to see kids in person, and … I miss teaching them!” she said. At the same time, family concerns are top-of-mind. “I am terrified that I will get sick and end up not being around for my child. I’m terrified that I will bring home sickness and harm my family. I don’t want to be in the position of choosing between my school kids and my family.”

With a hazy future, teachers spent their summers prepping for virtual learning — but it has limits for younger students 

Reem Abou-Samra is a 7th-grade social studies teacher and the middle school student government advisor at The Roeper School in Birmingham. The private school is planning on in-person teaching unless the governor issues a stay-at-home order, said Abou-Samra, but some families can opt for virtual learning. Abou-Samra expects to teach both in-person and online simultaneously. 

“Rather than give the best to each of these students, a robust online program and a robust in-person program, it [may] lead to a lukewarm, watered-down set of lessons that do not offer them what they need,” she said.

Reem Abou-Samra, social studies teacher and student government advisor at The Roeper School in Birmingham. Courtesy Reem Abou-Samra

Abou-Samra taught virtual university courses before switching to secondary education. She says developing quality online courses takes eight to 12 months. She says while students in universities are expected to work three to four hours outside of class, at Roeper, they are not.

“I know how to create a course online that is effective and impactful, but it relies on the student to take on a heavier burden of work.”

Abou-Samra is a part of the Teaching During Covid-19 Facebook group, a network of teachers who stay up-to-date on regional teaching plans, exchange ideas and share lesson plans. They also share stress management tips. 

“Every teacher I know, at my school and others, has been working all summer long, trying to figure out lesson plans that allow for hybrid learning, enrolling in professional development with online learning.” 

Many are working “triple the amount,” she said.

Pandemic-related anxiety stemming from isolation and changes in routine make learning more difficult for students, Abou-Samra added. They become overwhelmed, and it can take longer for them to grasp virtual learning. She recalls that during the spring, many parents felt that teachers weren’t doing enough. 

She also worries about bringing illness home to her 6-year-old and 2-1/2-year-old. The family has remained socially distanced since March. 

“I am obsessively thinking about creating new family rituals that revolve around their safety and well-being,” Abou-Samra said. “What rituals can be the most hygienic and cleansing, but seem fun and exciting – rather than just another ‘don’t touch’ rule.”

School leaders are also struggling to juggle student and family needs — and working with limited info

Principal Emily Gagnon of Detroit Enterprise Academy, a Detroit charter school, says one of the most notable differences in her school’s fall plan for virtual learning compared to what it did in March is that it will mirror full-day classes. 

For now, she’s planning on an in-person and a virtual model. “We have made a virtual schedule, remote schedule and hybrid schedule, none of which have been approved yet.” 

Detroit Enterprise Academy principal Emily Gagnon. Coutesy Emily Gagnon

So far, scheduling decisions, teaching in-person and online, implementing Individualized Education Programs for students and expanding food services into homes for children who are doing virtual learning are also not finalized. 

“Making decisions during this time is extremely challenging. I am an educator and not an infectious disease expert,” Gagnon told The Blend. “We are inundated with information from several sources: CDC, AAP, [Michigan’s] Return to School Roadmap and health departments.” 

She worries about her family, the students, their families and the larger school community.

“I have made efforts to procure additional items such as plexiglass dividers, face shields and hand sanitizer stations,” she said. 

As a principal, she’s also concerned about getting others sick. Gagnon’s husband is also an educator. She has a 13-year old step-daughter who will be doing remote learning. 

“If I were to become ill, or one of my family members, it could ultimately have a negative impact on my entire school,” she said.

“She is an amazing child but hates that she has to be home alone all day for her learning,” Gagnon said of her step-daughter. “This is a true struggle.”

She’s most concerned about students’ lack of access to the resources they’ll need to succeed in an online environment.

“Some of my parents do not have regular access to the internet. I want to make sure that their child is set up for success if they are learning at home,” she says. 

The new Tech Fund for Detroit Students, which recently created a $1.8 million fund to provide 40,000 charter and private students with tablets and internet services in addition to a previous effort directed at the city’s public school district, may be one source of help.

Gagnon says her school has YWCA childcare on-site for students before and after school, with some options to hash out to meet CDC requirements. Childtime, a daycare located in the Renaissance Center nearby, also has full-day, in-person options.

“The learning environment that my students and staff are brought into has to be safe and clean. These are the decisions that keep me up at night,” she said.

The administration team at Detroit Enterprise Academy. Courtesy Emily Gagnon

Where parents can go from here

Gagnon, Abou-Samra and Woods agreed that parents should communicate their child’s needs early on with the teachers, do what’s best for their families and ask for additional resources. Teachers are usually willing to make accommodations.

“There is no correct choice at this time,” Gagnon added. “Parents also need to be patient with their children and themselves.”

Agic advises parents to motivate their kids to do their best by encouraging daily reading, writing and following a schedule.

“If we can get our kids to be self-directed, motivated and have self-control during online learning, they can learn how to be critical thinkers, communicate in different ways and take on challenges that will make them successful adults.”