‘You can only play Candy Land so many times’: The pandemic from the perspective of local parents

Betsy Baertlein and her son Alan. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“I will Venmo you to keep my kids an hour longer.”

“I became the only socialization. You can only play Candy Land so many times.”

Speaking with local parents about their experiences over the last year, a few themes resonated: resilience, struggle, anxiety and an intense desire for some kind of return to normalcy. Also a determination to simply do “the next right thing,” as Anna sings in Frozen II.

It’s been over a year since most area schools shut down. When the kids went home for spring break on March 16, 2020, many of them didn’t return to the school building until the following August, or even later. Parents struggled to keep the kids occupied, engaged and educated, while attending to their own jobs and responsibilities.

LaTasha DeLoach and her twins, Nathan and Lauren. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

I’m sorry you have to be 12.

That’s what LaTasha DeLoach thought as she set her 6-year-old twins, Lauren and Nathan, up in their virtual school studio. Although it may not have felt age appropriate, she needed to depend on her kids to get themselves to their school lessons while she worked on another floor of their home. DeLoach is the director of the Iowa City Senior Center, and she was busy making sure the center was fully operational during historic building renovations, not to mention a historic pandemic, while her kids were busy learning how to navigate first grade.

LaTasha summed up parenting during the pandemic as “I wanted to cry, to scream, to just laugh.” Her family lives several hours away and can’t really help with her kids. At the beginning of the pandemic last March, she had the mindset that they could do this for a while. It would be like summer vacation — a trying time for many parents, but one with a definitive end.

Unfortunately, what began as a “flatten the curve” lockdown has turned into over a year of parents struggling to balance their own working lives with their kids’ social and educational needs. Due to underlying health issues, LaTasha chose to keep her children home, attending virtual classes through Grant Wood Elementary. Her house is not a school, of course, but she has done what she can. For P.E., the kids roller-skate in her basement. Her living room is an art space with an unexplained hot glue stain on the carpet.

Her kids have been struggling with the loss of friend groups and socialization, a harder experience to recreate at home. She’s grateful that they are twins and playmates for one another; although, of course, they don’t like to play the same games. Sometimes she needs to separate them, LaTasha said, because they “need to miss each other.”

When she finally allowed her children to visit a friend’s house after she had her first vaccine shot, LaTasha was so grateful for the reprieve from 24-hour parenting that she joked about sending the other parent a bribe over Venmo just to keep the kids a little bit longer.

One of the challenges she faced during the last year was what she described as “losing her kids to YouTube” — suddenly, they were hearing things that, although not really inappropriate, were certainly for children older than 6.

“They got hip to hashtags,” she said. So she restricted the computer to being used only for homework. It’s difficult, because screen time can definitely help when a parent needs to work, but she reported that after implementing this restriction she “got her kids back.”

For all its drawbacks, there were advantages to Lauren and Nathan not going to school in person. They were able to dig into things that interested them: storm-chasing and tornadoes for Nathan, who has the uncanny ability to duplicate the sound of a tornado siren. A Black History Month calendar on their fridge gave her kids subjects to research, which turned her first-graders into little historians. Lauren was especially obsessed with Harriet Tubman.

Another advantage LaTasha observed was that, while learning from home, her Black children were not subject to the systemic racism of being in the school system.

Nate Sullivan with his sons Aaron and Charlie. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Nate Sullivan of Iowa City is the father of Aaron, 10, and Charlie, 5. He and his ex-wife made the decision that Aaron would attend school at Shimek Elementary in person. With two working parents, they didn’t feel they could give their sons the attention they would need if they attended school from home. Fortunately, he and his ex-wife came to this conclusion together.

Nate observed that since the pandemic began, the boys have been more volatile. They’re more easily upset, and it takes more time to talk them back from the edge of the upset.

“Going anywhere with the boys in the car has become a real landmine of emotions because they’re forced to sit close to each other in an enclosed space,” Nate said. “If either of them says anything, the other will tell them to be quiet, which sets off a chain reaction of both of them telling the other to be quiet or leave them alone until I have to step in and try to simmer them back down. It’s a real headache, and because it’s usually right after the stress of getting them ready for school, it can lead to some testy mornings.”

Cara Picton and her sons, Autzen and Holden, where they’ve spent the 2020-2021 academic year. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Cara Picton of Cedar Rapids is a mother of four: Aurora, 15, Logan, 13, Holden, 8 and Autzen, 7. Cara is an adjunct at two different colleges as well as a substitute teacher in Cedar Rapids schools. Her younger two children attend Arthur Elementary, in person. Logan attends Franklin Middle School, also in person, although the double whammy of the pandemic and last August’s derecho delayed his return to school until January.

The family made a deal with Aurora that she could remain in online school as long as she maintained a B average, but keeping that B has been a struggle. Cara, as a teacher, was frustrated to have a child that didn’t seem to be performing to her potential. She feels that the choice of being online has been detrimental to her child’s motivation. If Aurora were attending school in person, Cara says, “they could harass her” to get her work done.

When Cara’s younger children were attending school from home last year, she would sit them both at her dining room table, herself seated between them. One child would be listening to school on his computer with headphones in; the other child would have the headphones unplugged so Cara could hear what was happening in the class. Since she couldn’t listen to both of the children’s classes at the same time, she wasn’t always able to keep track of what work needed to be done. She also wondered what fueled them when they were in school, since they were in constant need of snacks. (“I know your teachers aren’t feeding you every five minutes.”)

When she was teaching her own classes on Zoom, she would plug in headphones to tune out the noise of her children. Often she would have to wait until her husband returned from work to keep up with her own grading and lesson planning.

Being the only socialization outlet for her children was exhausting for Cara. Without friends, “Somebody has to listen,” she remarked. She tried to limit the kids’ screen time, but “you can only play Candy Land so many times.” Adding to the stressors for Cara was the fact that she deals with her own mental illness, making it difficult to fully function as a teacher and a parent.

When she and I spoke, it was spring break for her children’s schools. She fully admitted to lingering longer at the office to avoid going home.

Sharon Falduto with daughters Samantha and Piper, and husband Matt. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Sharon Falduto of Coralville (reader, that’s me) is the parent of three daughters, Rachel, 20, Samantha, 17, and Piper, 13. I would like to insist that my children are fine, that we’re fine, that everything’s fine — conjuring up the popular image of the little cartoon dog, slowly drinking his coffee, as the room around him is consumed by flames.

I work with students and faculty at Kirkwood Community College, and I have spoken to students on Zoom calls while they bounced a baby on their shoulder. Faculty members report needing to ask students to turn off their microphones because their children are in the background, creating noise and making it hard to concentrate. Access to classes over Zoom has been both a benefit and a detriment to students who don’t have alternate childcare arrangements.

Our daughters have attended 8th grade and 11th grade completely from our house, and their grades aren’t suffering for it. Our oldest daughter returned to college this year, after an abrupt end to her freshman year that left her attending the final few weeks of the last semester from our basement.

“Here’s the thing,” she said at one point last April, “I’m kind of sick of you people.”

My husband Matt and I consider ourselves lucky that our kids are old enough to get themselves to class and that they don’t require constant care. The kids look at their phones a lot, but then, that’s where their socialization happens. Group texts are one way kids are keeping in touch while staying apart. My youngest daughter did recently go to a friend’s house to watch a movie, and if screening Mean Girls in a garage with the door open, everyone in the audience wearing masks, isn’t an apt metaphor for attending junior high during a pandemic, then I don’t know what is.

Betsy Baertlein and her son Alan. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Betsy Baertlein and Theo Manahan of Cedar Rapids are the parents of Alan, 2.5, and Marina, one month old at the time of this writing. Betsy is a professor for English language students at Kirkwood, and Theo is a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. Alan had just begun attending an early learning program and meeting other children when the pandemic hit. When Betsy became pregnant, they made the decision that the whole family would stay home and avoid risk as much as possible.

Because she was teaching from home, Betsy’s second pregnancy went largely unnoticed by students and co-workers. She was grateful for the opportunity to lay down and take a nap between classes, if necessary, when she wasn’t teaching.

After baby Marina was born, Theo and Betsy started to feel more confident in rebalancing the risk/benefit analysis, and realizing that Alan needed to be associating with his peers, a point further driven home when Alan proudly showed his mother a collection of dental floss containers and said, “Look, I made friends!”

Alan will be attending a nature school soon. The program will be outdoors, and the kids will wear masks to help mitigate risk. Betsy and Theo look forward to having date nights again, when they can get a sitter and go out.

LaTasha DeLoach and her twins, Nathan and Lauren. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Most parents are determined to make it safely to the next school year, and to have their children back in school buildings. Alan will be going to preschool. My kids will be going to West High, my incoming freshman noting with some pleasure that some of the sophomores will be just as lost as she is whilst navigating West High on the first day of school. Aurora will be going back to Cedar Rapids Washington to be held accountable.

And when asked what it would take for LaTasha to send Lauren and Nathan back to in-person school, she responded in no uncertain terms.

“Oh, they’re going.”

Sharon Falduto lives in Coralville. She would really like this pandemic thing to wrap up so she can go to the “Happy Together” concert that she bought tickets for two years ago. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.

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