Mother of three considers what changes could come to education, parenting and work-life balance

There is no denying that the prospect of schools reopening (or staying closed) has been at the forefront of nearly every parent’s mind for the past several months.
Sleep family in front of home
Photo by Lanza Photography
Pictured clockwise from back left, Alisa Sleep, husband Joe and their three kids, Nora, Jacob and Ava are navigating a new normal at home.

By Alisa Sleep

There is no denying that the prospect of schools reopening (or staying closed) has been at the forefront of nearly every parent’s mind for the past several months. Most students have been away from school since early March, and most parents can agree that distance learning was difficult to juggle on the best of days and a complete disaster during the worst of days. Distance learning is just plain tough. It’s tough for teachers, it’s tough for administrators, it’s tough for students and it’s tough on parents.

I am the mother of three school-aged children. I have twins who will be entering first grade and another child who will be a second grader. Overnight I went from being a full-time work-from-home mom (I own to working full time while trying to care for and also help educate my children full time. The fact that I have it easier than most is not lost on me — I have the ability to work from home and the flexibility to do my work before the sun comes up and long after the sun goes down. I also have a spouse with a stable career who can help me out — we are fortunate. And yet I am struggling with a million different emotions all at once. I am overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious. Sadly, I know that I am not alone with these feelings.

The last six or so months have certainly raised a lot of questions about the intersection of parenting and education. And I can’t help but wonder what impact this will have not only on the future of education, but also on the flexibility that employers will offer their employees. Perhaps the tide is shifting. Remote and flexible work arrangements are becoming increasingly common in careers and fields where working from home is a possibility (yet there are still many jobs where this is not an option). Startups and new companies have that mindset baked in from the start — company leaders recognize that employees can be productive from home and that there is a possible cost savings associated with working remotely. And the next generation of employees entering the workforce are seeking a move away from the prosaic desk-culture of yesteryear. All that momentum is forcing companies to rethink their structure and to adjust their expectations of in-office work.

I hope that we will continue to move in a direction that values families first and gives workers the flexibility to construct their own schedules. COVID-19 has exposed the very difficult and unsustainable balancing act that many parents are faced with. And while this year has brought so much stress, heartbreak and hopelessness, it’s also brought an opportunity to reimagine in-office work and the future of education.

The education that our children were provided last spring was referred to as “crisis learning.” We were all put in very challenging positions and everyone was doing the very best they could in order to get by. It was survival mode for many. This was brand-new terrain for parents and educators alike. Now that some time has passed and our school districts have had the opportunity to reinvent what virtual learning looks like, I am confident that it will be enhanced with longevity in mind.

Is it possible that virtual learning is going to become a permanent part of a future approach where schools offer some sort of hybrid option to students or for families in unique circumstances for whom virtual learning is optimal? I am not suggesting that it should (or would) become the primary method of learning, but it could be an appealing option on snow days or for kids who need an extended absence from school for whatever reason. It is interesting to imagine what education may look like in the years to come. Educators are now doing the challenging work to figure out how to cultivate a brand-new learning experience for students.

While these changes are both intimidating and exciting, I am hopeful that there will be equity in access to a quality virtual learning experience for all students. Instead of widening the disparities between populations in our community — which I fear virtual learning has the potential to do if equity is not prioritized — we need to come together and do everything we can to bridge that gap. We can start to do that by supporting political and school board candidates who will dismantle exclusionary practices in public schools. If you don’t have children enrolled in the public schools, you can still make a difference by donating your time, money or resources to your local schools (or to nearby schools with fewer resources). We can help by ensuring that every student has access to the materials from the school and by including marginalized students in cohorts or groups.

In a year that’s been defined by COVID-19 and the importance of racial equality, it’s become clearer than ever that we are all stronger together. And it’s also clear that this is the year of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. So while “normal” life seems like so long ago, I am doing my best to embrace what lies ahead. And while normal life was good for many, it was not good for everyone. Perhaps the changes that are heading our way will be better for everyone. Here’s to brighter days ahead.