Summer staycation: A Miami mom weighs the cost of keeping her kids cooped up

Over the last three months of distance learning, Miami-based mother of two Norma Schwartz compared her duties as a caregiver, parent, and “mean lunch lady” to that of Andrea Sachs — Anne Hathaway’s character from the film The Devil Wears Prada.

Every weekday morning, Schwartz would run around the house sharpening pencils, making breakfast, and printing out workbooks to be ready by 9 a.m. sharp, just in time for her children’s daily Zoom calls.

“I’m like an assistant,” laughed Schwartz. “Every day I would wake up and think, ‘I have to make sure the breakfast is there!’”

Like many caregivers across the country, Schwartz’s role as a mother changed drastically mid-March. As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools for the rest of the semester, with no plans to reopen as of yet, parents like Schwartz have had to quickly adapt to being quasi-educators as well as providers.

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homework learning from home

As an educator herself, but for adults, Schwartz thought she had it in the bag.

“There was this false sense of, ‘Oh, I know how to do this!’ and I may even be in a position to help these teachers out,” she said. “But I fell flat on my face within the first 48 hours.”

Juggling both of her children’s thrice-daily Zoom calls for English, math, language arts, and science, began to become a burden, not only for Schwartz, but for her family’s available technology. Both Schwartz and her husband work full-time and made it a point to schedule meetings and computer work after their children’s virtual school days were over, at 3 p.m.

“We were taking turns in the family, but then we realized this was going to be long term,” said Schwartz. “The school district was giving out devices for families that needed [them], at first we thought, ‘We aren’t one of those families,’ but we quickly did become one of those families.”

Educating at home

Even after the technological hurdles were crossed, Schwartz said her children’s course loads, as well as multiple hour-long Zoom calls were still demanding. So she emailed their teachers to tell them her kids would no longer be participating in elective courses, like Spanish, music, and art.

“I basically went rogue and said we are not doing electives on Zoom,” she said. “I am only logging my kids in for the core stuff, if they get an F in art for not logging into Zoom, so be it. The teachers were flexible and figured out pretty quickly which parents were not going to log in.”

And as the school year wore on, from inside her home, Schwartz soon noticed how differently her children responded to the change in their education.

Schwartz’s 8-year-old son Max loves technology. He’s an avid player of the online game Roblox and would volunteer to stay on Zoom calls during the week just to see his friends and teachers.

“One teacher started offering to stay on an extra 15 to 20 minutes just reading, and they really responded,” said Schwartz. “My son was like, ‘I really missed her voice.’”

“Just the simple task of attaching things to emails, or hitting save on a Word document made her have a harder time.”

But for her oldest, 11-year-old Izabella, coursework was harder and came with more responsibilities. There were a few times when Schwartz would get an email from Izabella’s teachers alerting her of missing assignments.

“I could feel her stress level,” Schwartz said of her daughter. “And just the simple task of attaching things to emails, or hitting save on a Word document made her have a harder time.”

Max and Izabella, who both attend Palmetto Elementary School, officially started summer break on Wednesday — after Izabella’s fifth grade carnival-themed car parade in the school’s parking lot.

Like many schools, fifth graders on their way to middle school have many traditions, like signing yearbooks, dances, and promotion ceremonies. This year, things were a lot different.

Schwartz said parents of fifth graders raise money for the “5th Grade Fund” all year, preparing for the year-end festivities. This year, parents raised $10,000. But since COVID-19, parents had to find a socially distant way of celebrating their graduates.

So on Wednesday, when the Schwartz family drove to school for the car parade, they were greeted with carnival performers, on stilts and unicycles carrying colorful balloons, spraying confetti, and blowing bubbles. The whole thing lasted about three minutes.

A summer indoors

But now that it is summer, and daily Zoom calls have been put on pause for the foreseeable future, doesn’t mean Schwartz gets to take a break. She still doesn’t know if Izabella and Max will return to a physical campus in the fall. And neither does the Miami-Dade Public School District.

Before the coronavirus, Schwartz’s kids would typically go to summer camp and the family would take a vacation. Last year they took a cruise to Alaska.

Understandably, plans this year have been halted. Schwartz said some summer camps in the area are opening, but she doesn’t feel comfortable sending her kids anywhere other than the couch.

Summer camps in the area are opening, but Schwartz doesn’t feel comfortable sending her kids anywhere other than the couch.

“When they did go to camp, they would pick up a rash or a cough,” said Schwartz. “And when we would go to the doctor, there was medicine for that. But with COVID that isn’t the case. So I let them be little couch potatoes.”

The coronavirus weighs heavily on Schwartz’s mind when it comes to her children’s health. But she is also worried about how at such a young age, the pandemic has already pushed her elementary-age children into being dependent on technology for both their entertainment and education. She wants her children to know how to navigate human interactions and have emotional intelligence.

“They’re already a very technologically dependent generation, but it’s important to me that they learn how to be a good human,” she said. “I always tell them that when you grow up, you are probably going to have to sit in front of a device for eight hours, so now is the time to not do that.”

And as distance learning and virtual classrooms become more embedded in children’s lives, Schwartz believes the window to just simply be a kid is closing quickly.

“A little 7-year-old was not designed to sit in front of a computer screen for three to four hours,” she said.

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