As the final month of summer has commenced, and the coronovirus is still far from under control in the United States, local families have become increasingly consumed with thinking about and planning for the fall, and what school will look like for their children in September.
School officials have been at work and in contact with the community trying to craft plans that will allow children to return to in-person schooling, at least part of the week, while keeping the safety of both students and teachers at the top of the priority list.
While parents unanimously agree that in-person schooling is better for their children and makes it much easier to manage their own jobs and careers, they are tasked with often impossible decision-making around how to balance the necessity for childcare and their duty as parents to keep their children safe. That calculus varies greatly for parents, dependent on a long list of variables, from the ages of their children, to the flexibility — or lack thereof — that their jobs offer, to their specific financial circumstances.
The Express spoke last week to several families from the East End, asking them to provide a window into their decision-making process, the factors that are driving their choices, and the ways in which the pandemic has altered their family dynamics. Here are there stories.
Springs residents Megan and Tony Long personify many of the specific challenges facing parents who are essential workers. Ms. Long is a nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, who worked in the COVID ICU from March through May, while Mr. Long is an East Hampton Village police officer working day shifts. In those spring months, when the virus was raging and schools and most businesses were shut down, caring for and homeschooling their children — Gavin, 11, entering seventh grade in the fall, and Caitlin, 8, going into fourth — was an almost insurmountable task, Ms. Long said, adding that she even briefly considered sending her children to Vermont to stay with family members for a few weeks.
Ms. Long took on more night shifts because her husband had been assigned to work during the day, but after the exhaustion of working overnight with COVID patients, Ms. Long understandably did not have much energy left to facilitate remote learning.
Ms. Long is back to her regular nursing duties at the hospital, still busy as the hospital is now playing catch-up with all the elective surgeries that were postponed, and her attention has turned to what the fall holds. The Springs School is planning to start the year with a hybrid model that combines some in-person instruction and remote learning, and like most parents, Ms. Long has conflicted feelings about a plan the potentially puts students and teachers at risk. Like many other parents, she’s also trying to prepare for the real possibility that schools will have to shift to fully remote learning again at some point.
“I’ve looked into homeschooling, and some online schools that could fill in the gaps,” she said. “But I’m not a teacher. I’m terrible at that. I work 12-hour shifts, and it’s stressful on top of everything else.”
If schools must return to a fully-remote model, Ms. Long said she is trying to consider how that could work, but none of the possible solutions are appealing — having a live-in au pair from another country, which the Longs did when their children were younger, isn’t an option right now. Ms. Long said she’s thought about trying to find a college student taking a gap year who could potentially stay with them and help. She’s also given some thought to starting a “pod” with a few families in her neighborhood, but said, “I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that.”
Ms. Long’s mother-in-law is around to help, and it’s less stressful relying on her when cases stay low, and Ms. Long’s own parents are around now as well, although they will return to their home in Florida when the weather changes. But if there is an uptick in infections, Ms. Long won’t feel comfortable asking grandparents to come into their home.
“This is obviously not an ideal situation,” she said, with a sigh. “I guess we all just have to do the best we can.”
Many families are leaning toward making a decision they hoped they wouldn’t have to make — choosing to keep their students learning from home for at least the start of the school year in the fall.
Sag Harbor residents Steve and Jordana Sobey are one of those families. Dr. Sobey is a urologist working in Southampton, while Ms. Sobey is an attorney who provides in-house counsel for a California-based tech company and is a member of the school board. They are parents to Shoshana, 10, entering fifth grade, and Ammiel, 8, entering third grade.
Ms. Sobey said that while they are still not 100 percent certain, they will most likely keep their children home, even if Sag Harbor offers a hybrid model of in-person and at-home instruction. Ms. Sobey said the decision is two-fold: she isn’t convinced that the exposure risk is low enough for social distancing measures to be enough, and she also feels that her family came up with a workable, if not ideal, model for remote learning during the spring.
Still, she admitted it will be far from easy, and like in many two-income households, the bulk of the adjusting falls on the mother. Ms. Sobey said that her job offers the kind of flexibility that her husband’s does not. Because most of her work is based on the West Coast, she uses the three-hour time buffer in the morning to devote her energy to helping her children with their distance learning, and anything they don’t get to, they try to address in the evenings, working as a two-parent team to tackle that leftover work.
Ms. Sobey said she’s also been fortunate to have the help of her mother, who typically lives in New York City, but relocated to Sag Harbor in recent months and has been able to help out.
In order to survive, Ms. Sobey said she’s had to relent in certain areas, a refrain that’s familiar to many parents.
“Before the pandemic, we were very anti-screen time — we only allowed them to watch TV on the weekends,” she said. “But that’s changed just by the nature of us all being home all the time.”
Ms. Sobey said she’s tried to use screen time as a reward for finishing school work or for staying calm and quiet while she’s on a work-related phone call.
Full Homeschool Circle
Michele Liot and Jason Dacuk are another family who have made the difficult choice to homeschool their children in the fall. Like Ms. Long, Ms. Liot was in the thick of the action in the spring, working as a labor and delivery nurse at Stony Brook Hospital until May, when she finished her master’s degree. She is now working in private practice, predominantly as a homebirth midwife. Mr. Dacuk is a landscaper who was able to work through the pandemic and has tried to maintain a small staff to minimize exposure risk.
They are parents to two young children, Dax, 6, entering first grade, and Aurora, 3, who is eligible for pre-kindergarten.
Ms. Liot said she and her husband decided they were simply not comfortable enough sending their children to school, mainly because she feels that at such a young age, it is not reasonable to expect her children to comply with the necessary social distancing measures, and does not feel the country has made enough progress in containing the virus.
Ms. Liot said her family has benefited from some outside help. They had an au pair before the pandemic started, and while she is scheduled to return to her home country of France in September, the family has also been able to rely on consistent support from Ms. Liot’s mother-in-law, who typically returns to her home in Florida in the fall, but has committed to stay.
“We recognize fully how blessed we are,” Ms. Liot said, adding her husband can often bring the children to work with him. “We make it work.”
There are still plenty of challenges to navigate. She has reservations about homeschooling her children, despite having been a product of homeschooling herself from sixth grade to her graduation from high school.
“I am not in a position to be my children’s educational teacher,” she said. “I might be their life teacher, but I’m not equipped to do their math and science, reading and phonics, music and art. I also don’t have the financial capacity to hire tutors and I don’t have the hours in the day. We are a two-income family by necessity. After all, we live in Sag Harbor and we all know the cost of living here is no joke.”
She shared more concerns familiar to parents right now, while talking about what remote learning was like in the spring, and her fears for what the fall holds.
“Work and school is no simple task,” she said. “My kids accuse us of ‘working all the time,’ which I think has felt more real for them, especially my son, now that he does not have his own ‘job’ of being a student. That line used to work for him, ‘we both have our jobs, you go to school and mama and dada work.’ Now, not so much.”
Hoping For Synergy
For Bridgehampton resident Tameka Pinckney, the degree of difficulty she will encounter trying to balance her own career and schooling for her two children will hinge primarily on whether East End schools adopt similar plans for the fall. Ms. Pinckney works as a teacher assistant at Southampton Elementary School, while her children — Christian, 11, and Makayla, 14 — are entering sixth and eighth grade in Bridgehampton.
Ms. Pinckney said she had her struggles with remote learning in the spring, like many parents, and those struggles were exacerbated by having children on different educational plans, with her daughter having special needs.
“She’s used to one-on-one interaction with her teachers and peers — she needs that to be able to get through the day,” Ms. Pinckney said. “It was hard to explain to her what was going on, hard for her to grasp the concept.”
Despite that, Ms. Pinckney said she managed to make it work, coming up with a schedule that suited her children, and said they finished the year successfully.
Like many parents, Ms. Pinckney has reservations about in-person learning because the virus is still circulating, and she feels there is a real chance fully remote learning will become a reality again at some point. Whatever happens, she hopes Bridgehampton and Southampton proceed on similar paths.
“I’m a single parent, and I’m blessed to have my job because our schedules line up together,” she said. “My kids start school at 8, and I don’t typically start until 8:30, so that gives me a bit of leeway. But if my kids end up in remote learning and they tell me that I still have to report to work, it will be a struggle as a single parent. I’m just praying everyone will be on the same level.”
Ms. Pinckney said she was able to rely on some support from other family members during the spring, but said there is only so much that others can do, especially in a pandemic.
“My family was very supportive, but they have their lives, too, and have work,” she said. “Everybody is on a different schedule.”
Ms. Pinckney said even if remote learning becomes their reality again, she will feel more prepared than she did in the spring, which brings some measure of comfort.
She also said she’s been impressed by the efforts of teachers and schools, doing their best to support families during a difficult time.
“I’d love to praise the teachers,” she said. “Kudos to them for not only helping students, but supporting families with food and other needs. There are a lot of kids and families facing poverty because of this.”
A Full House (And Backyard)
When East Quogue residents Joe and Liz Sanicola welcomed their fourth child, son Teddy, earlier in the year, they figured their timing was good. Ms. Sanicola would be on maternity leave from her job at her family’s construction business, then Mr. Sanicola, an elementary school teacher in East Hampton, would take paternity leave in the spring before having the summer off, and in the fall, all three of their older children would be in school full time at East Quogue — daughter Lena, soon to be 9, entering fourth grade, daughter Maggie, 7, entering second, and son Augie, 5, entering kindergarten.
They didn’t count on a global pandemic.
When learning went remote in the spring, the Sanicola family was tasked with homeschooling three young children, caring for a baby, and trying to manage two jobs — there was also a dog, a cat and seven backyard chickens that required attention as well.
Ms. Sanicola still has not returned to work in the capacity she expected she would, and she also had to hold down the fort when Mr. Sanicola was diagnosed with COVID-19 early in the lockdown and was forced to self-quarantine for two weeks. Still, she acknowledged that their situation could have been worse—and is for many families.
“I have a little bit of flexibility with work, and so many don’t,” she said. “We were able to sacrifice financially and be home with our kids, others don’t have that luxury.”
Dealing with that incredibly challenging situation in the spring, and staring down the possibility of doing it again in the fall, has brought some stark realities into sharp focus.
“It’s my hope that school opens with some normalcy,” Mr. Sanicola said. “If not, childcare will become a huge concern. So many people are being forced into difficult decisions because our society is simply not equipped to adequately support two income families.”
Mr. Sanicola said his children have been forced to learn that they are “part of the team,” and that they play a role in the operation and survival of the household, a lesson which is certainly not a bad one. Because cutting back hours at his job is not an option, he’s had to watch his wife make difficult sacrifices.
“It saddens me that my wife is the one who has had to alter her work schedule,” he said. “Once school starts in September, I will be leaving the house at 6 o’clock, and she will be tasked with managing the children and the morning routine. But if school does not open on schedule, she will have the added responsibility balancing distance learning and her professional life.”
While they have concerns about safety like every parent, the Sanicola family is planning on sending their children to school as long as it is open for in-person learning, and praying schools can remain open safely for as long as possible.
“When I remember the last few months of the [most recent] school year, I shudder to think we could be in the same boat again,” Ms. Sanicola said.
“Parents aren’t made to run at 300 percent capacity for months or even years on end,” Ms. Sanicola added. “We have always strived to simplify our life, work and home, but all of that not withstanding, I feel completely overwhelmed almost all the time.”
Like everyone, they’ve tried to stay positive.
“If I look at this pandemic in broad strokes, I can see some silver linings,” Ms. Sanicola said. “We have spent more time together, which is good and bad, we’ve made more time for one another, we’ve learned to adapt better together, we have banded together with friends and neighbors to help one another. However, I think this has taken a huge mental strain on parents and kids and I don’t know that we’ll see the ramifications of that for some time.”
For some parents of children with special needs, making difficult decisions around schooling is nothing new. For Hampton Bays residents Sherri and Chris Halucha, they’ve even found several silver linings when it comes to the adjustments they’ve made in educating their son Benjamin, 15, who has autism.
Prior to the pandemic, the Halucha family experienced a fair amount of upheaval and uncertainty when it came to finding the best educational environment for their son. In January 2020, Benjamin was enrolled in an out-of-district ABA program called Beyond Boundaries, after years of attending public school in both Hampton Bays and Center Moriches, with limited success. Benjamin participated in homeschooling and attended Zoom meetings hosted by Beyond Boundaries during the lockdown, but was able to return to in-person schooling in May. He will complete summer school at Beyond Boundaries this month before enrolling at another ABA-based school, the Eden Genesis School in East Meadow, in September.
Mr. and Ms. Halucha were able to pivot and work from home in careers that have them in higher demand than usual because of the pandemic. Mr. Halucha is a social worker, while Ms. Halucha is a marriage and family therapist. They are both in private practice, and have been able to do much of their work and appointments online.
Returning to the classroom at Beyond Boundaries in May was helpful for Benjamin, Ms. Halucha said, and because special education has small class sizes by nature, it has made social distancing easier.
“Ben has done very well there and can even tolerate wearing a mask, which is a big deal,” she said, adding she’s optimistic that Eden Genesis, which has been open for summer school, will remain open.
In some ways, raising a child with special needs has prepared the Halucha family for the pandemic in ways that might be unfamiliar to others, and has enabled them to put a positive spin on the situation at times.
“Living through a pandemic has been an adjustment, for sure, but parts of it have actually been a blessing in disguise,” Ms. Halucha said. “There’s a simplicity to life that I personally prefer. I think Chris and I would both agree that having a child with autism is a somewhat isolating experience to begin with. We didn’t have lots of things to cancel as a result of the pandemic. We were able to continue with his special needs community classes, dance and music, on Zoom. Ben has adjusted so well during this time and I credit the incredible work that’s been done through Beyond Boundaries and the help they’ve provided to us as Ben’s parents. It’s been really life changing.”