October 27, 2020

Remote education a balancing act, especially for women

After closing all K-12 schools last spring during the statewide shutdown, the continuing danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic has led most Illinois school districts to move learning online this fall. That’s keeping kids at home, and as a result, many parents—mothers in particular—are struggling to meet the needs of both their children and their jobs.

Four in five parents don’t have anyone at home to help, according to a recent New York Times survey, and more than half are supervising school work while also working at their regular jobs. Mothers have taken the brunt of this unprecedented situation, according to federal data. Likely due to the enormous wage gap between men and women, more mothers than fathers have left the labor force since the pandemic hit the United States in March and the trend continues in this school year.

The gender wage gap is smaller for women in unions, and employers are more likely to provide flexible work arrangements where collective bargaining agreements are in place. AFSCME is working to reach agreements with employers that will allow more employees to work remotely and expand rights to flextime, schedule changes and family leave.

These advantages are helping AFSCME members navigate this incredibly challenging time. Here, three hardworking union members and mothers share their story.

Jessica Taylor, AFSCME Local 1274
Hill Correctional Center, Business Manager

In March, when school was first out, my youngest was in day care and my then 14-, 11- and 7-year-olds were all at home. I asked my warden if it was possible for me to work remotely because I was able to do nearly everything from home. That request was denied. So, I decided I was going to take a leave of absence because my 7-year-old needed me. But AFSCME went to work. I started my leave on Thursday, April 9, and by that Monday I got a call saying you can work from home.

I set up at the dining room table so I could work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. while helping my kids with school. It was really stressful—there were plenty of days where I worked after 3 p.m. to finish up—but it was good to be able to be home with my kids to guide them.

Now I’m back at work again but this fall the expectations are higher. The kids have to be online every day. They have assignments, they’re graded, they have [virtual meetings] with their teachers. They do have a program through my YMCA helping kids with e-learning, however it costs money and I’m a single mom with four kids, one in day care.

My plan is to have my 8-year-old home with his brothers, but I worry they’ll probably end up fighting and I’ll get calls at work. I’m anticipating spending my evenings on school work, having check-ins with teachers. I’m hoping I can [work from home] again. But either way, you know what moms do. We make it work. One way or another.

Chaelecia Cooper, AFSCME Local 1989
Northeastern Illinois University, Space Administrator

As parents we’re trying to coordinate every aspect of the schooling piece, the health piece, the nutrition piece, making sure they’re mentally OK and making sure they’re safe. You struggle with all of this. Especially me as a single parent trying to juggle everything.

E-learning is made for people who have a super-huge house. I’m in a two-bedroom townhouse and I’ve got an 18-year-old, 14-year-old, 11-year-old and 9-year-old. One son is downstairs, one son at the kitchen table and the two girls up in their room. 

My kids aren’t used to being on a computer all day. My two youngest have IEPs and part of it is they can’t sit still. Every hour I have to check to make sure they’re still in class and paying attention. I have to print out the schedules for every kid so I know who is supposed to be in which class at which time and check in with all of them to make sure they’re doing what they are supposed to be.

In the meantime, I’m trying to do work myself while trying to get them situated. I’m nervous about losing my job. Everybody is worried.

Melinda Barrett, AFSCME Local 2060
Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Victim Witness Supervisor

It’s so hard to find this balance of work and watching kids. My husband is self-employed and I go into work on different days each week. I’m very grateful that I’m flexible in that respect. Usually my husband is home when I’m at work, and the days I’m home, I’m working and watching my son. There are times when both of us are working and I’ll get my cousin who lives in our building to watch him.

When I’m working at home, it can be challenging because my son has special needs and he’ll act up if he sees me on the phone or preoccupied. So I try to make certain phone calls when my husband is home. I find myself doing as much as I can before I clock in and after I clock out to make up for the time that I’m helping my son. Sometimes he’ll drop away from his Zoom class and I have to bring him back and help him focus. He’ll hit his head on the table out of frustration sometimes because he’s non-verbal, but he’s making strides. I’ve thought about taking some mornings off. I don’t want him to be even more delayed because we can’t spend the time.

My co-workers and supervisors are all in the same boat. I feel better knowing I’m not the only one. It’s hard, but we’re working through it and doing the best we can. We’re going to have good days and bad days, but we’ll know we tried our best. That’s what keeps me going. 

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