Olivia Fish, 9, left, and her sister Nora, 5, of New Vineyard go on a scavenger hunt Oliva created for Nora’s birthday. Submitted photo

Across the state parents are trying to balance home schooling, taking care of children, work and their own studies.

Schools have been closed to the public since mid-March and students are most likely going to continue remote learning through this school year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Some parents have adopted new schedules to try and keep structure in their children’s and their own lives.

Imaginations are working overtime.

Five mothers share what is working and what is not working.

Leigh Ann Fish of New Vineyard

Leigh Ann Fish of New Vineyard is the mother of Olivia, 9, a third-grader, and Nora, 5, a preschooler. Leigh is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Farmington at Maine.

She is normally somewhat resistant to schedules. But that has changed.

“If someone in the family has an interest in animal tracks, we’ll go outside to find some and then research in guidebooks or online what they might be,” Fish said.

She finds having some type of schedule helps her plan daily options, and provides routine and stability for the children.

“Of course I still leave room for spontaneity,” she said. “The routine has actually been a great way for the kids to take on more personal responsibility, like making beds in the morning. We just never had time for that in our old daily rush to work and school.”

Some days she throws the whole routine out if she senses they are tired of it.

“To feel suddenly responsible for educating your kids at home can feel overwhelming,” she said. “I try not to remind myself that this is emergency education, not a replacement for their regular school routines. This is also not a true reflection of what homeschooling can be.”

Teachers and staff in their schools are making an incredible effort to provide educational opportunities and to “check in with our children,” she said

“We’ve had a variety of activities come home that have evolved over time: first, packets of printed worksheets; then websites we could visit or videos to watch; now the addition of online class meetings and weekly activities. It’s been heartwarming to see the smiles and how excited the kids are when they are able to connect with teachers and classmates online!” she said.

Fish tries to balance the activities teachers have given her kids with other interests to keep learning fun.

It feels helpful to remember learning isn’t done in isolation, she said, and that having children help make a new recipe is a wonderful way to integrate math, science and reading.

“We’ve been trying to get outdoors every day and we’re fortunate rural Maine has a lot to offer,” Fish said. “We’ve made several nature-based scavenger hunts, started some new collections, and observed signs of spring.”

But at times “mom guilt” creeps in.

“I feel I’m falling short as a home educator right now,” Fish said. “Having been an elementary teacher, I live for teachable moments and I’m familiar with curriculum and pedagogy. I should be ‘rocking’ this whole home school gig. I’m not.”

While she is grateful to maintain her employment situation from home, she finds it impossible to work 40-plus hours from home each week, keep up with managing a home, and also be responsible for her children’s full-time education.

She feels fortunate her children do well academically, enjoy learning, have their basic needs met, and have at least one parent who can work from home.

“I know that isn’t the reality for every family and I worry about families who are struggling with poverty, unemployment, lack of access to technology, quality child care, and other hardships,” Fish said. “I especially worry about families with children who have special needs.”

When Nora missed out on a planned birthday, the family put an “at-home party” together. It was just the four of them with extended family calling or videoconferencing.

“In some ways it might have been better than planned, testing the limits of my cake-baking abilities and encouraging the whole family to pull together with creative ideas,” Fish said.

Olivia created a dinosaur-themed, outdoor scavenger hunt as a birthday party game complete with treasure.

At-home learning has become a daily part of their lives.

“It’s more like work-life triage: What is the priority in the next few minutes or hours? Who needs to be fed? Whose Zoom meeting is next, and are we late? Which emails do I read now and which can wait until after the kids are in bed? It’s exhausting; I’m certainly burning both ends of the candle,” Fish said.

Fish tries to give herself the same advice she gives her students and her children: “‘Be kind to yourself and to each other.'”

While this experience is trying, it’s comforting to know it is a shared experience, despite physical isolation.

“We’re all going through this monumental, life-changing experience together,” Fish said.

Amber Lewis of Auburn

Amber Lewis’ children, Aubrey, 13, an eighth-grader, and Jaxon, 11, a fifth-grader, attend Auburn schools.

Every parent is in a different situation at this time, all trying to do what is best for their children and each grappling with challenges of the new normal.

“I can say for myself; I am a hot mess!” Lewis said. “I always wanted to be the stay-at-home mom that had it all together, the ‘Pinterest mom’ if you will. However, I’m the ‘Pinterest mom fail.'”

When the pandemic started, she was in the third month of her final semester of nursing school taking four classes, two clinicals and a bachelor of science nursing class, just coming off from her spring break.

Her husband, Larry, was going into his second semester of his technology degree when remote learning was announced.

It brought a lot of changes because not only do “we now have to do classes online, we also must take our exams and finals online and I must take them with a webcam for proctoring,” Amber Lewis said. “This makes it super fun when you have kids running around, screaming at Fortnight, and music playing all while you are taking exams.”

Aubrey Lewis, 13, of Auburn, is the daughter of Amber Lewis. She is in the eighth grade. Submitted photo

So, for two weeks while she figured out a good system for her classes, the kids played a lot of Fortnight and watched “The Office” reruns.

“Once I found a good rhythm with classes, I decided that if I was going to have to finish school this way, then we were all in nursing school,” she said. “When I listened to lectures, they either read or listened along. This worked well for my oldest because she already liked to listen to med surg lectures, especially when they were going over content she was learning in school.”

The kids like helping her with her homework and got pretty good at the easier questions after she talked the question over with them.

“One time, Aubrey helped me with a clinical assignment about triaging patients in the emergency department,” Lewis said.

Her husband involves their children in his schooling when he is putting together projects. He also is having them help rebuild “my mom’s old desktop,” she said.

In an effort to help her focus on studies and work, she set up a work space for her children and herself.

“I bought us all desks so that when I was doing homework, they could sit in my room and do homework with me, theirs, not mine, but that hasn’t worked yet because I am constantly going between homework, lecture, exams and work,” she said. “I try to get ahead so we can do things together as a family and then sometimes it puts me behind.”

Jaxon Lewis, 11, of Auburn, is the son of Amber Lewis. Submitted photo

Jaxon would rather play on his Xbox than do work. He reads and enjoys it but that only goes so far, she said, especially when he is cooped up in the house and the weather is bad.

He will zip through his work, say he is done and then hop on the Xbox and play, Lewis said.

His teachers have been “awesome” and put together paper packets, which helps Jaxon stay off the electronics, she said.

“In all honestly, I don’t think I am doing the balancing thing very well because I have not found the time or the ability to sit down with my kids and do a ‘school day’ with them. I see pictures of people on Facebook with their kids sitting at the table reading, doing activities, baking with them and that’s just not me,” Lewis said. “Every minute I’m awake I am on my laptop with a book in my hand and notes being taken.”

On top of being a full-time senior nursing student, she also works 12 to 36 hours a week at St Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston as a behavioral technician in the emergency department.

Her schedule has changed significantly since remote schooling started.

“The only difference between now and then is I am doing everything at home while they are home with me, so I guess its kind of like taking summer classes except the weather is still kind of junky and we are banned from the beach,” she said. “However, I always feel like I am letting my kids down by not setting up ‘school’ at the house or setting up a curriculum for them but I know that my school isn’t going to be going forever and that I still will have time when I am done to play school teacher.”

She has plans for outdoor, nature-based learning.

“I just have a different timeline for them,” Lewis said. “Now with the possibility of school being out until fall, I can take the summer to also incorporate school into things between working,” Lewis said.

“Hopefully after corona(virus) leaves, we can have field trips to the beach and learn about the tides, animals we might find and the clouds that we see,” she said.

But for now, school is different types of seizures people have, how to preform CPR, the acceptable amount of urine per hour your body should put out and how to successfully deliver a baby along with how to do an appropriate head to toe on an infant, she said.

(Since this interview Lewis successfully completed nursing school.)

Yvonne Billian of Farmington

Yvonne Billian has home-schooled daughter, Anna, 9, and son, Eli, 4, for five years.

Anna attended public school for two years to participate in art, music and gym.

Anna Billian of Farmington learns about world geography by playing Continent Race. Submitted photo

“I have taken full responsibility for the rest of her education. In the past two years, Anna has not attended public school for any specials, we have used the community as a means to meet these requirements. We chose to home-school for many reasons, we felt that we would be able to provide opportunities for enrichment that the public school was not able to offer,” Billian said.

“This time is very hard on all of us and my greatest fear is that home schooling will be looked at in a negative way because of this situation, but truly this is not what home schooling really looks like,” she said.

Billian said she has been seeing many posts on social media and throughout news outlets about “home schooling” and now how everyone is doing it.

Typically, home schooling and making the choice to home-school your children is a choice and a really wonderful choice at that, she said.

Yet, all through social media and news outlets are complaints along with negative notions about how today’s children will forever be damaged by this sudden need to home-school, Billian said.

She considers home schooling to be engaging with the world around the child, exploring their community by visiting libraries, stores and other points of interest.

“Home schooling is being social,” she said. “It is an important part of their education.”

This means engaging with people of all ages, not just peers the same age and learning how to be respectful to other adults, she said. Home schooling does have spontaneous moments.

When it is nice outside and children are suddenly fascinated with shells, so you take a trip to the ocean.

Or maybe a child has been working on mastering some tricky math facts and finally they get it, she said. So you take a trip to the local ice cream shop. That is what home schooling is, she said.

She believes what people are experiencing now is “quarantine” or “isolation” schooling.

First, the libraries closed, then many local shops, next museums, community centers, gyms, playgrounds, movie theaters, and the stay-at-home orders came out.

“While the family is the heart of home schooling, we truly do rely on the community and other home-schooling families too! Yes, I guess you can say many believe in the ‘it takes a village to help enrich a child.’ I know that is not the exact wording but I like the way it sounds and what I  feel it entails, better,” Billian said.

This is not to take away from the parents working hard to make sure their children keep up with their academics, she said.

“But those of us who have been home-schooling for some time understand that it is much more than just academics,” she said. “One of the many reasons we chose to home-school was to give our children the opportunities public school did not offer and right now because of the current events that (is) not even possible for us. This requires some adapting because I will not force my kids to sit at the table and complete worksheets.”

Under the restrictions, “our community outings have been taken away. No more activities outside the home at church, the community center, or library,” she said.

There are no more play dates with fellow home schooling families, which is a great time for the kids but really a nice time for moms as well.

“Instead, we replace these play dates with video calls, which is OK but still, it lacks the use of imagination, creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution,” she said.

She is thankful it is spring and not winter.

“We at least can go outside, dig in the dirt, ride bikes in the yard and build fairy houses. My 4-year-old is having a hard time understanding why we can’t go places, he is convinced the library is NOT closed,” she said. “He loves going out in the community, especially the local libraries. We are spending more time around the family table reading our Bibles together. This is certainly a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss the gathering at church.”

It has been so hard, Billian said, to be missing birthdays, family dinners and just visiting with each other.

“All of this has caused some sadness with my children,” she said.

While Anna understands the reasons, it still makes her sad that she might not have a birthday party with family members and friends.

Eli doesn’t understand and becomes very emotional when he can’t see family members or go to the store with his mother. Instead they spend a lot of time playing and enjoying each other.

Eli Billian, 4, of Farmington, who loves to cook, helps his mother, Yvonne Billian, in the kitchen. Submitted photo

Schoolwork does happen but it is at a much more relaxed pace and mode, which is OK because it is what “my kids need right now,” Billian said.

She doesn’t require her children to sit at the table completing worksheets to fill up the day. Her children go outside and run around the backyard, play in the mud, and just have fun.

“I sit, watch, eat a piece of chocolate and maybe read a few pages in a book,” Billian said. “I have decided to not put an immense amount of pressure on myself during this time. I feel like there is a lot of  pressure on parents right now to not fail their children. I think this is unfair for all parents to be feeling this in an already stressful time.”

 

Meg Ouellette of Jay

Meg Ouellete of Jay has always home-schooled her daughter, Elliana, 9, in fourth grade, daughter, Emmaline, 7, in second grade, and son, Elijah, 5, in kindergarten.

Elijah, 5, Ouellette, left, of Jay and his sisters, Emmaline, 7, and Elliana, 9, go hiking and found a salamander and a spike horn antler. Submitted photo

“When we first heard about the pandemic and how many places were being shut down, we were sad and disappointed because we make weekly trips to the library, the Western Maine Play Museum, and a few other places for errands,” Ouellette said. ”

We were looking forward to visiting playgrounds. We’re home most days, so honestly this experience hasn’t been that different than before. But those few trips that we’re missing out on during the week have hit us hard, particularly the library. We’re used to going to two different libraries and take out around 100 books a week.”

Her daughters are involved in a book club for older children at the Wilton library.

“They miss seeing their friends there and we miss the books,” she said. “The Jay library was fantastic and got books for us for a curbside pickup before they were officially shut down. My kids have noticed the difference and struggle with the changes.”

Elliana often says she’s bored and asks to do more schoolwork just for something to do.

Emmaline is frustrated because her biggest hobby is reading and she is having to reread books. She badly wants something new.

Thankfully, Ouellette said, with spring here they’ve been going hiking behind the house and have found many interesting places to explore.

“We’ve started planting seeds and doing yardwork. Outside time is a necessity for us,” Ouellette said.  “We do mostly online schooling.”

They focus on math and language arts and what they are interested in. Natural science is a big focus for them.

“I work on life skills with them often, like cooking, sewing and gardening,” she said. “The first week of social distancing was hard. The uncertainty and stress of everything got me distracted and stressed. I found all the new online school resources, such as virtual field trips and author read-alouds, and I overloaded our schedule with it.”

It became too much for my kids and she noticed they were on their electronics far too much.

“We went back to our regular routine the following week,” she said, but tweaked a few things to break up the days. They do movie night, video game night, board game night, cooking together, take out supper and other activities.

Overall, things seem back to normal to Ouellette, aside from the three-day power outage in April.

With this regular routine, she can ignore all the craziness going on in the world and just focus on her household, which has been much more peaceful for all of them.

“We prefer real-life experiences and hands on activities more than regular school lessons,” Ouellette said. “We try to find the balance between them. The thing that I hope families will take from this whole situation is that this is not regular home schooling for any of us. While this has not impacted my family too much, this is still not normal. Home schooling doesn’t always get the best reputation and I’m worried this experience won’t help it for most.”

Home schooling is not about being trapped at home, she said. There is so much more to it. Schooling experiences are not limited to the kitchen table or to the computer, she said.

“We learn at the grocery store, playground, parks and lakes,” Ouellette said. “We socialize with our friends or the general public at stores, play dates, and church. They explore, ask questions, and are curious everywhere we go. To have them limited to only their homes has created some boredom issues and frustration, but has opened us up to the opportunity to find new ways to entertain ourselves. I’m determined to have us grow and learn from this situation,” she said.

Erica Spiotta of Mount Vernon

Erica Spiotta has four children, Michaela, 9, Allissa, 7, Nicholas, 4, and Giuliana, 2. She has a degree in elementary education from the University of Maine at Farmington. She completed her teacher certification in 2007.

She was a preschool teacher for three years before she had her first child in 2010.

The Spiotta children of Mount Vernon, Nicholas, 4, left, Michaela, 9, in back, with Giuliana, 2, in her lap, and Allissa, 7, enjoy some outdoor time. Submitted photo

“I love teaching children and I wanted to be home with my first child when she was really young and then the plan was to go back to teaching,” Spiotta said. “However, I had three more kids and decided to continue to be a stay-at-home mom.”

She has had a few jobs over the years and her husband has always worked full time.

“Just being a full-time, stay-at-home mom of four kids is a struggle some days to make sure everyone is healthy and happy. Then to add in sports and homework and everything else you can only imagine how chaotic it can get,” Spiotta said. “It may be chaotic at times but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

She enjoys being there for all of the moments growing up.

Michaela is in the fourth grade and Allissa is in first grade at Mount Vernon Elementary School.

“Both were having a great year at school and really enjoyed seeing their teachers and classmates every day,” she said.

Nicholas enters prekindergarten next year, and Guiliana has a few more years to go before school.

“When we were told on Sunday, March 14, that school was canceled that week due to COVID-19, we were all kind of happy and I was relieved because I thought they would be safer at home and it would be a nice break,” Spiotta said. “Little did we know that what we thought was going to be a week or two off from school then turned into over a month off.”

Initially her approach to teaching them was very structured, she said, and they took it well, listened well and wanted to do their work because it was all fun and new.

“The first two weeks I came up with material and activities on my own in each subject area,” Spiottasaid. “Then after two weeks off from school the teachers got remote learning packets together and we started those on the third week off from school. The packets we received from the school are helpful so I don’t have to come up with everything myself, however, they aren’t very structured and nothing needs to be handed in or documented.”

Some days they stick to a schedule, other days they go with the flow.

“I wanted to keep a schedule and my children quickly taught me that wasn’t going to be possible,” she said. “If they need a break I let them have a break. It’s not worth fighting over a math worksheet. Some days we just stop what we are doing, if needed, and maybe we can pick it back up the next day. Some days we take a break because I need a break as well.”

She considers being well emotionally is more important right now.

“It has been really sad to see my oldest children know the basis of what is going on but not truly understand why we can’t go anywhere, they can’t go into the store or go see their friends,” Spiotta said.

They can’t go to the school playground, play softball and T-ball, attend Girl Scout meetings, take trips, or attend their aunt’s baby shower because it had to be canceled. The list of what they are grieving from goes on and on, she said.

But they can video chat with their friends and their teachers and family thanks to technology.

Allissa’s teacher, Mrs. Hood recently said, “’We can be thankful for the positives but still mourn the losses.’”

“I have been trying to focus on the positives to get me through and right now there is no end in sight,” she said. “My husband has also been laid off for the past three weeks and probably won’t return to work for a few more weeks so that adds some financial stress as well.”

As a family, they have been able to do a lot together since the stay-at-home order started.

“We have movie nights and game nights,” Spiotta said. “We go on hikes and play outside for hours together. We bake and cook together. We are together as a family but we still feel very alone so it’s a very strange feeling.”

When they received the news in mid-April the children would not be returning to school this year, and next year is questionable, her children took it hard.

“It was really hard to tell my children this news,” Spiotta said. “My 7-year-old especially took it very hard and cried. She has found joy in writing to her friends and video chatting with her friends for now knowing that this won’t last forever.

“As a mom and a teacher, right now I feel like my to-do list often seems impossible,” she said. “I have been a teacher but never a full-time teacher and a mom at the same time. This is all new to me. My heart goes out to all parents trying to juggle work and being a parent and teacher which is impossible. We have to remember we can’t always do it all but we can try our best and hope that this won’t be our new normal for much longer.”


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