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How parents cope when home is also a workplace, a school and a daycare center

Across the country, parents are adjusting to a new normal.

School and office closings mean that everyday education- and work-related activities, from business meetings to math lessons, now take place at home

As of March 19, at least 95,000 U.S. schools have been closed or are scheduled to close in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak, according to newspaper Education Week, affecting at least 43.9 million school students.

Parents are finding out it's possible to work remotely and stay productive while still being present for their kids.

While colleges and universities are offering some classwork online, younger children may be home with a work packet. It's up to parents to supervise and make sure the spelling drills get done.

Get on the same page 

Communication is key, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert with resume-writing service TopResume who is also managing a young child at home in Bay Shore, New York. 

Working from home sounds ideal, yet many are finding out the reality is quite different — especially if you are not used to it. "It really is a lot of discipline and a lot of organization," Augustine said. Add in the kids, who are taken out of their usual routine, and that gives parents an unusually full plate.

Now's the time to have a frank conversation with your boss, Augustine says. "Set expectations and understand the expectations of your manager, what you're expected to accomplish." Augustine says she's heard generally positive comments. "No one's yet said, 'My boss doesn't have kids and doesn't get it,'" she said.

A schedule with fresh air

Angie Soliman-Abbassi, 36, keeps her kids to a schedule of activities with plenty of fresh air.
Source: Angie Soliman-Abbassi

The first full day that many people across the country stayed home together, March 16, was chaotic. "I didn't know how I'd handle being on the phone," said Angie Soliman-Abbassi, 36, a learning manager for a pharmaceutical company. 

Pre-coronavirus, her two young girls, 4 and 6, had after-school activities and she had time to hit the gym or grocery shop before picking them up.

Now Soliman-Abbassi runs her meetings on Skype with doctors and pharmacists from home in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. "A lot of time my headset is on, and the kids are running in and out," she said.

Her advice: A schedule should include as much outside or recess time as possible. "It's huge for me, tiring them out, getting that sun," she said. The family's deck serves as a play area for snacks and coloring. Let kids sleep as long as they want, she says.

Tech support

Alice von Simson, 37, says parents need to cut themselves some slack during an extraordinary time.

"Friday [March 13], we got an email saying schools would shut," said Alice von Simson, 37, author of "Secrets I Learned by Sleeping with My Financial Advisor." Turns out, her dread outstripped the reality.

 "Two days in, it's a mixed bag," she said. "We have had some great moments.

"But most of the time because I'm trying to work, they're high on iPads and sugar."

One happy surprise, von Simson says, is the extraordinary amount of resources online. She uses Khan Academy, Virtual McArt Studio and Facebook groups, where families on lockdown exchange tips and share their schedules.

There are also tons of free art sites, like Skillshare and art stores with free videos. Free academic content is available at e-learning for kids or Learn at Home from Scholastic Books, which has daily projects and courses at a range of grade levels.

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Unsurprisingly, TV is probably going to be called on more often than people might like in ordinary times.

When her kids were young, Ann Kenney, 66, set them in front of the TV from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. "That's the witching hour, when everyone is going crazy," said Kenney, a retired physician in Hillsboro, North Carolina. It's also a high-need time when dinner prep is going on.

A work in progress 

Augustine does not yet have a good schedule in place. With five hours a day of childcare, she uses that as her head-down time to get everything done. "I don't expect to have anything resembling a standard calendar till next week," she said on March 18. "It will be an evolution."

You have to test things and see how they work: Perhaps one day you get up 30 minutes earlier. Another day, you might let your child choose their own schedule, how to slot activities and assignments into their day to give them a greater sense of control. 

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Slow the pace 

Growing up in a pre-iPad age, von Simson says, her generation learned to accept boredom. Kids went out with a ball and tossed it around, she says. Don't dismiss simple activities, like a bubble bath with toy boats or plastic measuring cups.

Pivot activities

Have a backup plan for when kids get stuck on an assignment and parents are on the phone.

Decide in advance if they can do some artwork or play in the backyard, Augustine says. Older kids might get their screen time.

Stay cool

"These are crazy times, but we'll get through it," von Simson said. Keep in mind that it's a starkly memorable time, "and children will remember how we rise to the occasion."

Von Simson's advice: Cut yourself some slack as a parent. Your kids might have a very different opinion of what you see as "failing," she said. "When I was struggling to finish my book, we'd have chicken nuggets for dinner, and they loved it."

Work smarter

Everyone is being forced to be more productive with the time available, which could help you figure out what truly needs to be done, or ways to work more productively, Augustine said, "when things finally get back to some semblance of normalcy."

Use all the great technology we have to rethink "what needs to be done, what doesn't need to be done," Augustine said. "What can be done with an e-mail?"

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