Like many Colorado parents, Tina Carroll and Natalie Perez were nervous about their sons starting this school year enveloped in the coronavirus pandemic. But each held out hope.
In the intervening months, however, reality — their kids’ frustrations, their families’ financial fears, even COVID-19 — has hit home.
Carroll’s son, Chase, who just turned 7, has done three different versions of first grade in the last three months. For the first few weeks, he went to a daycare where staffers watched over his remote learning. Then there were a few happy weeks back in his actual classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest before rising COVID-19 rates forced its closure.
Now Carroll, a single mom with a full-time job, hires college students to watch Chase as he logs on through the school day.
"I think for the first time in my career, of having a child as well, I called my mom and I was like ‘Mom, I'm drowning,’ ’’ she said.
Roman Ortiz, 9, is enrolled at the same school as Chase. The plan for Natalie Perez’ son, once the options for the fall became clear, was always for him to do fourth grade remotely. Several days a week that’s from his family’s Mexican restaurant, Barbacoa El Oso.
His mom thinks Roman’s doing OK academically, but the isolation has taken a heavy emotional toll. Seeing his teacher through a screen and not being able to respond because he’s muted frustrates him and sometimes brings tears.
“I'm just seeing a side of him that I had never seen before,” she said.
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Roman will start seeing a therapist soon. Even that needed help isn’t shielded from the effects of the coronavirus. While he won’t be able to go as often as he would have pre-pandemic, he’ll still get an in-person visit once a month.
“That's our first step for now,” Perez said.
Through the difficult months, both moms have had parenting wins.
When Perez, her husband and Roman all came down with COVID-19, Roman recovered more quickly than his mom and helped take care of her.
“He would bring me soup and he would ask me, ‘do you need anything? Are you OK? How do you feel today?’ ” she recalled. “Just having moments like that with him, where I get to see him grow and get to see his personality develop. I think that's really special.”
For Carroll, she said Chase has become her ‘mini-me,’’ watching his own school schedule, even calling her to check on when he needs to be ready.
“He’ll be like, ‘well, I’m already on, I’m sitting here and waiting for someone to let me in the room,’ ” Carroll said. “He’s just really taken ahold of it and run with it, so that’s been exciting to see and I try to celebrate those moments.”
The school day doesn’t entirely end for Chase when he logs off. In the evenings, Carroll coaches him.
“I'm coming home. I'm going over (vocabulary) words. I'm trying to still validate what he's doing, what I think he's doing in the classroom, at home at night.”
As a result, work emails often wait till the very early hours of the morning. Carroll is the associate director of housing and dining for a local university. Her boss reassures her she’s doing fine at work but it’s a constant juggling act, and paying college students to oversee her son’s studies is tough.
“I'm at the place now where I'm managing penny to penny,” she said. “I put the minimum payments on bills. I am just keeping my head above water at this point.”
Natalie Perez and her son’s lives are dictated by class schedules too.
Roman wakes up in the morning, eats a light breakfast and logs on to school from home at about 8 a.m. Several days a week mom and son get in the car at 9 a.m. and head to the restaurant.
“I connect the internet to my phone and he'll do school while we're in the car,” Perez said.
At the restaurant, Roman logs on to his computer from a table in a relatively quiet space — but within Natalie’s line of sight.
Perez doesn’t mind watching Roman and working at the same time “I like to have my mind occupied and being at work is kind of like therapy for me,” she said.
But the restaurant’s future is uncertain. The family had to close their food truck and the restaurant dining room, all they can do now is sell carryout.
“Right now I don’t know what next month will look like,” she said.
“There's been points in our life where we've lost everything and we've been able to get back up so at this point I'm like, if we lose it, we lose it and we'll just figure it out from there. I think right now worrying about that — I don't really want to worry about anything right now. I just want to live in the moment.”
There may be a reason for renewed hope. Gov. Jared Polis has appointed a task force to look at how students can return to their classes soon and safely. Do they want their kids back in school?
Carroll lets out something like a quiet cheer: “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Perez is just as quick to answer. “Yes. I think he’s ready.”