Like many parents across Allegheny County and beyond, Rochelle Leeper is balancing a lot.
Between her final semester of completing two master’s degrees, her internship as a school social worker, preparing meals and snacks each day and facilitating virtual learning for her three children, she’s exhausted.
“My support keeps saying I’m strong,” she said, “But it’s not about being strong at this point. It’s like I’m juggling and I have to pick which battle needs to be fought, but that is also with the knowledge and the anxiety of understanding that there’s a battle that’s not being attended to right now.”
As a parent facilitating learning at home, she says the gig goes well beyond making meals. It can mean checking that your child hasn’t walked away from the computer, helping them to finish assignments, occupying them during a short break or advocating for your child with the school if learning barriers arise.
“If I had to work a full eight-hour job,” she pondered, “how can I actually effectively do my job to feed my family, and it’s little things like this in the way?
She said she and her children — JuNise, 10, Jamar, 6, and Jamier, 3 — have each struggled in different ways with the pandemic.
Jamier is at their North Side home full-time after Leeper pulled him from an early education program following COVID outbreaks in the facility in the fall. JuNise and Jamar are in virtual learning at Young Scholars of Western PA Charter School.
“… there’s a battle that’s not being attended to right now.”|
JuNise tells Leeper she’s depressed and wants to be in class. The 4th grader, who has a speech impediment and corresponding individualized education plan [IEP], has regressed over the year, Leeper said.
“The tools that she would normally get in person, they’re not really able to get them,” she said. “And again, I see the teachers doing the best they can to improvise, but some things just need to happen in person.”
While some resources work virtually, like mental health counseling, Leeper has found it impossible to address the IEP plan. “I feel like there’s still so many barriers because everybody’s learning and then it’s like while you’re learning as the adult, you’re asking the child to actually learn as well,” she said.
Leeper said she partly wished this year could have been taken as an opportunity for some students to catch up, to build on knowledge already there.
“I just felt like they didn’t give the parents enough grace,” she said.
Her son Jamar is “just over it.” She feels bad for him. To spice up his kindergarten days, he wears a different superhero costume mask to his virtual school each day. Sometimes it’s Iron Man, sometimes Spider-Man or Batman.
Her little boys are constantly bursting with energy, wanting to run and play, jump and flip around the house.
One thing she’s especially grateful for this year was the chance to learn her kids’ learning styles up close. It will make her a better advocate.
As the education community, or “village,” moves forward, including parents, teachers and state legislators, she said it’s imperative that we have a plan. Though some students thrived, others fell behind, so instead of focusing on some success rates, schools should create overarching policies and plans “for if, and when, this happens again.”
She also sees this moment as an opportunity to reframe what kind of education is provided to children.
“The whole idea of the way the school is going right now, they do need to reconsider it for everybody,” Leeper said, “because my kids are getting the same education as I got and times have changed.”
Written by TyLisa C. Johnson
For Rachel Masilamani and her 5-year-old son, Malcolm, the pandemic has only further highlighted the flaws in the nation’s systems for child care and flexible working environments for parents.
“I think we as a nation need to resolve our lack of a national childcare system,” Masilamani said.
The opportunity to work from home has only strengthened her opinion that companies can be more accommodating to parents.
“We as a country have not been here for parents when we should have been,” Masilamani said. “I know my personal situation is not terrible, but it’s not easy either. I can’t make progress or do anything right now. I’m just trying to take every day one day at a time.”
In terms of her son’s education, Masilamani applauds the teachers and staff who made virtual learning possible and consistent for students with special needs. Masilamani’s son receives occupational speech and developmental therapy.
“I watch Malcolm’s teachers and his special needs teachers do amazing work with really just their voices and faces,” she said, “and they’ve been able to build relationships and skills to create an environment that I’ve really been impressed by.”
Written by Punya Bhasin.
Be sure to check back with PublicSource on March 22 for the next installment of reflections.