Professors balance remote teaching with childcare as Massachusetts schools close

Following Gov. Charlie Baker’s March 15 order for schools across Massachusetts to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some faculty at the College has had to contend with caring for their children in addition to restructuring curricula for remote learning. School closures were initially set to expire on April 6, but an extension ordered by Baker will keep public and private schools and non-emergency daycare programs closed until at least May 4.

The Children’s Center at the College, which serves the children of Williams faculty and staff, has been closed in accordance with the governor’s order. In place of regular childcare services, the Center now aims to keep children and staff connected. “Our teachers reach out to families each week offering many ideas to engage children and keep relationships growing,” said Carrie Gagne, Children’s Center director.

She cited some examples of the thoughtful and personal communications provided by teachers: recipes, video recordings of teachers reading stories, music for dance parties and photos of family trips. Some teachers even dropped off materials for a seed-planting project at families’ homes.

“We know this is such a difficult time for our families and hope the ideas we share help to support them in their work,” Gagne said. “We all miss seeing each and every child and family at the Center and will do our best to keep our relationships strong even though we cannot be together.”

Assistant Professor of Statistics Xizhen Cai used to send her son Benny to the Center three days a week, but she now cares for him at home. “I am lucky enough to have my parents here to help watch Benny during the day,” Cai said. “I can imagine it would be much more difficult to do this alone while making adjustments to remote teaching.”

At 2 years and 8 months old, Benny is very energetic and misses the social environment of daycare, according to Cai. “Since I live in an apartment,” she said, “working at home makes it not easy to attend meetings and record video lectures with your kid singing in the background.” They have used activities, songs and videos shared by the Children’s Center, in addition to taking part in several virtual meetings.

“We were all very excited to see everyone,” Cai said. “All the kids were showing off their new toys to their peers.”

Milo, the son of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ben Thuronyi, just turned 3 a few days ago. Despite the closure of the Children’s Center, which he also used to attend, “He’s been having a great time,” Thuronyi said. “He misses his friends from daycare, but I think having Mom and Dad around all the time is making him really happy.” They have explained the COVID-19 pandemic to Milo in surface-level terms, but Milo is not yet old enough to be anxious about it.

Professor of Chemistry Ben Thuronyi and their partner are juggling teaching with caring for 3-year-old Milo. (Photo courtesy of Ben Thuronyi.)

For the rest of the family, though, school closures have brought over-packed and stressful schedules. Thuronyi has been taking care of Milo at home with their partner, a high school English teacher who is also grappling with the shift to remote learning. “Up until yesterday,” Thuronyi said, “we were just taking turns and trying to squeeze stuff in, and it was fairly awful… Taking care of your kid is not exactly relaxing.”

“Even when you have work time,” they added, “you just kind of have to have one ear open all the time because at any moment there could be wailing, or he could need a diaper change, or just come and engage you with something. And that can be great, but it also is just hugely distracting.”

For the next two weeks, Milo’s grandmother will be staying with them, providing some much-needed – albeit temporary – relief. “The week after I have no idea what we’re going to do,” Thuronyi said. “I don’t know if we’re going to ask her to stay longer, since her husband is home by himself now, and it’s a lot to ask of her to look after a 3-year-old full time.”

They added, “I don’t think I would have the job I do if I were expected to do it in general without childcare. It’s not possible to do a good job of it without childcare.”

Now that the Children’s Center is closed, Thuronyi reflected on the lack of formal childcare assistance from the College. “It is a supportive posture and sort of informal offers of support,” Thuronyi said, “but there’s nothing institutional at all.”

Thuronyi acknowledged that their family has been better off than many, supported by two salaried jobs, with access to grandparents and living in a rural area. “As frustrated as I am about stuff,” they said, “I don’t want to be too ungrateful for all the advantages I have”

Steven Miller, professor of mathematics, has a middle schooler and an elementary schooler at home. His son Cameron is in seventh grade, and his daughter Kayla is in fifth. Prior to school closures, “I would wake up at 6:30 a.m. and start getting things ready for the day,” Miller said. He would wake up his children, have breakfast with them and take them to school. At the end of the school day, Cameron and Kayla would often have other activities to occupy them — activities that have now been canceled.

Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller works on keeping his kids engaged now that Massachusetts schools are closed. (Photo courtesy of Steven Miller.)

“As others are experiencing,” Miller said, “it’s hard to be cooped up without outlets. We are fortunate that … we have a backyard so we can do some sports and run around.”

Though Miller does not face the wailing and diaper changes unique to younger children, his greatest concern is their education. “In classes like math, you can’t lose one-third of the material,” he said. However, he said he was grateful that his kids are still able to cover the material at home. “Not every kid will be in a family situation where that is possible, or where there will be good internet access to resources,” he said.

Miller has been recording his classes for the past five to six years, so it’s been easy for him to move online. “I told my class, ‘We’ll just watch the videos from 2018!’” He also posts a coronavirus-related math lecture every day on Facebook and on his website. Miller has used the extra time to work on math enrichment for his own kids and for schools in his district, as he serves on the regional school committee. “Like many parents, we are working on ways to keep them learning and engaged,” Miller said.

Some faculty with greater childcare responsibilities have created cooperatives to share the burden, but others have noted concerns about spreading the virus. Associate Professor of Geosciences Phoebe Cohen was originally planning to do so with another family after Bennington Early Childcare Center, where her 2-and-a-half-year-old son Wilder used to go full-time, closed. However, a member of the other family came down with a cold, causing Cohen to wait out the next few weeks before deciding whether to proceed. “It’s definitely a good idea,” Cohen said about childcare cooperatives, “but also breaks down quarantine because kids can’t keep away from each other. It just depends on what your level of comfort is.”

For the first week following school closures, Cohen hired one of Wilder’s regular babysitters to help out. “Now it’s just my husband and me,” she said. “We’re both working from home, basically sharing each day, working out our schedule ahead of time.” They have also had to continue paying a portion of their daycare tuition in order for the teachers to continue being paid.

“I just have half as much time to work,” she said. “I’ll be teaching two courses, but with only three to four hours a day, unless I work after he goes to bed. I haven’t had any time to do research or anything else like that.” Cohen said she hopes to have her husband’s parents stay with them to help out in a few weeks after they have self-quarantined from a recent trip to Florida. Like Miller, she reflected on how she considers her family fortune, with the help of grandparents and job security, along with their physical surroundings. “We have a lot of space, we can be outside, living in a rural area, so we’re not inside all day. But you know, some days are easier than others.”