‘I don’t know how to do this’: 3 families on the trials of virtual learning

The U.S. education system is not created equal—especially during the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke with parents about remote school, infection risk, and how they’re managing work during lockdown.

‘I don’t know how to do this’: 3 families on the trials of virtual learning
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This story is part of Fast Company‘s Reinventing Education package. As millions of students begin school during a deadly pandemic and global recession, we’re highlighting the ongoing efforts to keep children safe in the classroom, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift. Click here to read the whole series.


When the novel coronavirus began sweeping through the nation in March, many called it “the great equalizer,” believing that the illness would affect people from all socioeconomic groups equally. It quickly became apparent that COVID-19 did anything but that. During the pandemic, social and economic differences have only been magnified, especially in the American education system. As kids of all backgrounds left classrooms and started learning from their homes, their differences—the size of their houses, the technology available to them, their family situation—were amplified. It quickly became clear that online learning shortchanges some students more than others.

With the 2020-2021 school year beginning, some schools are returning to in-person education. Other districts, especially in California, are starting the year fully remote. And in New York City and elsewhere, parents have been given the option of blended learning, both in-person and remote.

Families across the country are now wrestling with difficult decisions regarding their children’s education. Those with means are considering private schools, private tutors, supplemental after-school activities, and learning pods. But many Americans have no other option than their local school. For them, the start of the school year means weighing the importance of their children’s progress in the classroom against their paychecks and their families’ health. We spoke to three families in very different situations about how they are handling their children’s education.


Guillermo and Yulisa, parents of Cesar, age 7
San Leandro, California

Guillermo was just getting ready to send out his résumé in February. For five years, he had put his career in nonprofits on hold to care for seven-year-old Cesar, who was diagnosed with severe autism and is nonverbal. With his son finally attending school full-time, Guillermo had been hoping to return to work. Those dreams were deferred when the pandemic hit: Guillermo once again became a full-time caregiver, while his wife, Yulisa, the secretary treasurer of labor union Unite Here, worked from home.

Before the pandemic, Cesar was one of the 7.1 million children with disabilities in the United States who attended specialized education programs. In school, a teaching assistant was dedicated to helping him. Outside of school, he had additional appointments: Every week he attended adaptive behavioral, speech, and physical therapy.

Three weeks before lockdown was put in place, Guillermo and Yulisa decided to take Cesar out of class. “I am in the at-risk population for getting the coronavirus. It was pretty apparent to us that the school didn’t have a plan,” Guillermo says. Another factor in their decision: Because Cesar is nonverbal, he isn’t able to tell his parents when he doesn’t feel well.


Even before COVID-19 hit, the family’s situation was not ideal. The elementary school near their house had a special education program. “But the special-ed kids were systematically removed from the school,” says Guillermo, and sent to a school miles from the family’s home. When Cesar began attending that school as a first grader in the fall of 2019, he had to ride a bus.

When the school was shut down, the family says it initially didn’t receive any communication about how to proceed. “The school didn’t do anything during the spring. [After some prodding] they sent me a link to a Google drive with some papers with exercises that we could print out, but there was no explanation to go with them. I’m not a teacher. I don’t know how to do this,” Guillermo says. Because the family does not have a printer, he had to copy the worksheet exercises by hand onto paper.

Guillermo and Yulisa signed Cesar up for an extended school year, which was a little more structured. During that extra month of school, Cesar checked in with a teacher in the morning and did exercises with his father. The structure of the school day—the process of logging on and off and seeing other kids on-screen—was helpful to Cesar, who needs a strict daily routine.


No one is looking out for children with special needs. They are not getting any extra support.”

Guillermo, father of 7-year-old Cesar

Even so, Guillermo still feels that Cesar’s schooling effectively ended when the pandemic hit. “It just feels like kids with special needs got left behind,” he says. “We had one or two sessions during the spring with the para educator and the actual classroom teacher, which was useful, but not much else. I understand that teachers are overwhelmed, but no one was checking in with us.”

Cesar’s remote therapy sessions have also been difficult. “He’s doing things like learning how to use tools and pick things up. We’ve been trying to move the camera so that the therapist can see his hands because it’s meaningless if they don’t observe it,” Guillermo says. Progress has been slow.

To make matters worse, the family has hardly left the house due to Guillermo’s at-risk status. “There’s no release,” he says. “I’m trying not to lose control and maintain a positive attitude, but it gets harder the longer this takes.”


Like almost every student in California, Cesar has resumed school remotely. Guillermo remains skeptical: For most of the summer, there wasn’t a plan in place for his son’s education, and it seemed to him as though Cesar wasn’t a priority for the school. “No one is looking out for children with special needs. They are not getting any extra support,” says Guillermo. “They have a legal right to an education like everyone else, and that’s not happening.”

Hear more from these families in a special Reinventing Education podcast mini series 

Alfredo, father of Eleni, age 13
Brooklyn, New York

Alfredo didn’t get any time off when the pandemic hit. Working as a mechanic for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority throughout the spring, he heard of many deaths, including two of his colleagues. Members of his team got sick. He was scared.


His family took precautions: Alfredo used a separate entrance to get to his room when he returned from work each day. He then immediately removed and washed his clothes and showered. He sequestered himself from his family. For months, he had little contact with his daughter, Eleni, who had been attending middle school at a charter school in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

More from Fast Company‘s “Reinventing Education” Series:

“I was wearing a face mask all day at work, and then wearing one inside. I wanted to protect my family, so I quarantined myself,” he says. He counts himself as lucky because his wife, a stay-at-home mother, was able to care for Eleni. And their daughter is something of a self-starter who works hard in her classes. “Eleni is very involved in school and talked to her teachers when she needed help with schoolwork,” he says. That eased the burden on the family.


When the MTA introduced a schedule that allowed employees to work for one week on, then one week off, Alfredo became more comfortable spending time with his family again. Today, he’s back to his regular hours, but with the COVID-19 infection rates low across the city, he doesn’t feel the need to isolate himself from his family.

He’s wary of cases spiking again in the fall just as people resume taking public transportation, which would force him back into self-isolation. As a result, he says he doesn’t want schools to reopen: He and his wife opted for Eleni to attend school virtually this fall. “[Schools] need to stay closed for at least a few more months,” he says. To him, the risk isn’t worth it—even if it increases the burden on parents.

Araceli, mother of two sons, 11 and 13
Bronx, New York

Araceli, who has worked as a nail technician in the Bronx for the past 11 years, was out of a job when New York went into lockdown. In some ways, this made her life easier because she could stay at home with her sons without worrying about childcare. (Araceli and her sons’ father are separated, and the boys usually live with her full-time.)


But that was the only upside. Money was tight: Araceli’s labor union, Workers United, was able to give her $20 a day until she could return to work. All of it went toward putting food on the table.

Though Araceli was home to supervise her kids, who were enrolled in public schools in the Bronx, she couldn’t help them with schoolwork because she doesn’t speak English, their language of instruction. She is an involved parent: She attends every parent-teacher conference, where they often have interpreters. But when her children struggle with schoolwork at home, there is little she can do. [Editor’s note: We translated her quotes into English.]

“When they don’t understand something, they have to talk to their teachers, because I can’t help,” Araceli says. She worries that if her sons fall behind or are unable to complete their schoolwork, she has no way of knowing. “I tell my sons to try really hard to learn.” An added problem with remote learning: troubleshooting the tablets her sons learn from. “I also don’t know much about electronics, so if they have technical problems I can’t help.”


I’d rather have a son who is an idiot because of remote learning than a son who is dying in hospital.”

Araceli, mother of two middle-school-age boys

Araceli returned to work in early July, but her shifts (she is paid an hourly wage) have been reduced to four days a week, instead of her usual six. And though her nail salon has adopted safety precautions, she is still worried about catching the illness and bringing it home: She does not have health insurance, though her sons do. “I go to work because I have to, not because I want to. I need to put food on the table,” she says. “If I could work from home on a screen, I would.”

She is also concerned about her children getting the coronavirus from their father, who works in a restaurant. When she goes into the nail salon, her sons stay with him.

Despite her concerns over whether her kids are learning enough, she isn’t comfortable with the idea of her sons heading back into the classroom in September. “Knowing kids their age, [I think] it will be difficult for them to maintain social distancing,” she says. Asking them to wear a mask all day is onerous. What’s more, her sons would have to take two city buses just to get to their school. (They’re now in the same middle school.) She opted to have them learn remotely this semester.


On tougher days, Araceli reminds herself that things will eventually return to normal. In the meantime, she is taking every precaution. “I’d rather have a son who is an idiot because of remote learning,” she says, “than a son who is dying in hospital.”

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