A Snapshot of Boston Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic

There’s no doubt that these are trying times. For many of us, including me, our patience and faith are being tested and our resilience is wearing thin. I’m fortunate to have a job and be able to work from home. As the Director of Community Engagement for Boston Children’s Museum, I’ve been trying to maintain contact with my community – the nonprofits that work with families daily, the school system, and the families who are also struggling during this time. Here is what I have learned from them about how they are coping during this crisis.

What is it like to have to adhere to the stay-at-home order?

It’s different for every family, but there are common threads I’m hearing about in Boston neighborhoods. One is that this pandemic has not diminished our capacity to care for others.  In addition to caring for their own families, parents I talk to are also staffing Boston Public Schools’ food sites, personally delivering breakfast and lunch to families who can’t leave their homes, putting together emergency activity kits with art supplies, and dropping diaper packages on porches for families with very young children.  

What are some of the challenges that we are dealing with? 

If you are lucky enough to have all your basic life needs met – food and safe housing – the biggest challenge I’m hearing about is trying to parent and work at the same time. One parent I spoke with expressed, “My biggest challenge is never getting a moment to breath; between working, volunteering, kids school work, trying to keep some kind of order around the house and not have my kids stuck in front of a screen all day, the only time I really get to stop is when I’m getting ready for bed and some days that’s at 12am.”  

I’m fortunate that my one child who is in 8th grade is largely self-directed. In fact, I usually only see him when he emerges from his cave-like room in search of snacks.  Some parents I’ve spoken to have three children at different schools and they are sharing technology to do their classwork. Some have children with a special need that can only be addressed with in-person services. Yet another has four-year-old twins.  Yet others are living with another family some of whom are essential workers who are potentially exposed daily to the virus. There are some situations that we haven’t figured out how to deal with yet, leaving many to feel helpless.

What can we control?  Maybe that report doesn’t really have to be done by tomorrow. Maybe something has to give, and flexibility has to be the new normal.  Families I spoke with are stressed out about their capacity to work and homeschool even with adequate resources. When talking to families I emphasize all the everyday things their kids are doing that they are learning from even if it isn’t in Google classroom: cooking, making, talking about things you see on your walk. Though your child may be in front of a screen more than you would like, having a conversation with them about what they’re watching counts as learning. 

What resources are families finding helpful? 

In my conversations with families, Khan Academy Kids, ABC Mouse, Boston Public Library and Boston Children’s Museum activities were mentioned (yay!), as well as the newsletters from various neighborhood organizations that families connect with weekly that provide updates on things like what to do if your landlord is demanding rent that you can’t pay right now. Families are finding Facebook groups targeted to specific needs very helpful and some neighborhoods have created WhatsApp groups to keep in touch. Thank goodness for social media!  Once the bane of my existence, it is now a lifeline.  I worry about families who don’t have technology.  One of the moms I talked to has created flyers with resources listed and gone door to door to make sure people in her neighborhood know where to get any help they may need.

How are families staying connected to other family members and friends?  

Once again, the technology that can sometimes be overwhelming comes to the rescue! Families are texting and video chatting.  One family I know has a video Shabbat on Friday nights, and one family described a video dance party.   Some are even writing letters! Whoa!  I remember fondly the days of pen pals. Is that even a thing any more?   Writing letters or making cards are good ways to practice your writing skills and exercise your creative muscles.  

How are schools connecting to families?  

This varies with the system and the grade. There don’t seem to be any standards just yet.  A few parents I spoke to felt they aren’t getting any help from their child’s school, but the majority are.  Some teachers make calls to families once a week, some principals have a Zoom morning meeting with Pledge of Allegiance, some classes are offered on Facebook Live, and some kids pick up assignments on Google Classroom.  But again, if you have multiple children in multiple grades trying to share technology for their classes, keeping up with school can be daunting. Technology is still a big barrier.  A parent reported to me that her child receives assignments that have to be printed out and the completed worksheets scanned and sent back.  What if you don’t have a printer or a scanner?  How will your child keep up with the class? How is this equitable?  Everyone is still figuring this out.  For me, I worry most about my child missing the socialization that comes with school. There is so much that kids learn just from being together that can’t be replaced by Zoom meetings. 

What are some tips families have for staying sane in this weird world we’ve found ourselves in?  

Advice from some of the parents I talked to ranged from finding time to spend alone and watch your favorite show, to reading, to taking a bubble bath.  Periodically, I sneak away for some alone time in my parked car to belt out Broadway show tunes. Windows up of course.  One mom emphasized to me how important it is to take care of ourselves right now, otherwise, we are “no good to anyone.” 

Another piece of advice I heard from several families is to practice gratitude, because though it is difficult now there are still things for which to be grateful.  One family has created a new dinner routine where each person shares one good thing that happened during the day. My one good thing for today is that my teenage child sat down next to me on the sofa, which I know is a signal that he wants to talk as usually he is sequestered in his room. We talked about conspiracy theories and how to critically judge news sources. Parenting win!

And what about silver linings – can we see any? 

Families are spending more time together which can be a good thing depending on your situation. It’s important to acknowledge that not all family spaces are safe.  “Find joy in that time together,” said one parent. “Have conversations, watch movies together, read a book in the same room, get to know your family again.”  

Family dinners also seem more frequent these days, and families report cooking more which means saving money. One family shared that they do a “fancy” dinner once a week where they get dressed up and drink out of wine glasses. But family dinners can be a stress on a family who lives in a food desert or struggles to keep up with the appetites of growing kids. There are a number of places families can get free food or meals but it means they have to leave their homes which could put them at risk. Some families I talked to are delivering food to their neighbors from food pantries. 

Someone shared with me a change in perspective that has helped her: “Look back at the weeks we’ve already made it through, rather than count down the days until May 4th (when school is “supposed” to open). We have made it through four weeks being at home with our kiddos, so we can make it through one more.”

I think my favorite quote from a parent was that “the simple things become awesome again.”  Yesterday I sat on my stoop and watched birds collecting twigs and flying away, then coming back to get more. I’m sure they were making a nest somewhere. I can’t remember the last time I watched nature so closely – probably not since my son was little and thought everything was interesting and I had an excuse to stop to watch with him. Time to observe IS awesome.

Stay safe my friends.

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