Elana Zabar, a junior at the University of New Hampshire, studying at home in Swampscott.

North Shore parents try to maintain normalcy in abnormal times

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North Shore parents try to maintain normalcy in abnormal times

Elana Zabar, a junior at the University of New Hampshire, studying at home in Swampscott.

On a recent day, Rachelle Dubow had an eight-hour board meeting through the online platform, Zoom. During a 10-minute break, she ran outside to the driveway of her Swampscott home to shoot hoops with her two boys, Jake and Charlie. She then ran inside to get back to her meeting.

“Before this crisis, that never would’ve happened,” said Dubow, an attorney who usually works long hours in Boston and is now working from home alongside her husband, Jonathan  who works in the now-tumultuous foreign exchange and risk management field and their sons. “Now I’ve got to figure out a routine for making the quantity of time I have with my kids feel quality.”

As the coronavirus is forcing parents and their children under the same roof for an indefinite length of time, many North Shore families are facing similar challenges as they navigate uncharted waters. While private schools, such as the Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead, quickly transformed to virtual classrooms, public schools have been slower to move online. 

Parents need to figure out how to keep their children learning and occupied using technology and modified lessons that are themselves brand new. They also need to figure out how to keep their children sane and reasonably optimistic when they can’t see their friends for the foreseeable future. And they need to do all of that while they deal with new work environments and their own anxieties.

“I’ve found it very hard to keep up with my very full-time job and entertaining the kids, and keeping track of what’s happening with school,” said Laura Shulman Brochstein, a clinical program director at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, who has a sixth-grader and a fourth-grader at Epstein Hillel. A week ago, the school launched a remote learning program that provides daily lessons in all subjects, even art and music. Some of the work is accessed through online platforms like Google Classroom, while other lessons are live with teachers and friends using software like Zoom.

Since the mass hibernation began just two weeks ago, this vast experiment is still new for everyone. As schools continue to fine-tune what virtual classrooms will look like, parents look for ways to impose structure.

“The Marblehead public schools have sent out distance learning for every subject. It’s a lot for the kids to do so I’m grateful to have assignments for them,” said Renee Sidman, whose 11-year-old Caleb and 7-year-old Micah attend public schools in the town, which will be closed at least through April 6.

“We tried to have the kids have 30 minutes of reading, and 30 minutes of writing, and it was somewhat successful, but it wasn’t hugely successful, and by lunchtime it had kind of fallen apart,” said Sidman. “We’re trying day by day to learn from the day before to figure out what the special sauce is.”

Dubow said she and her husband take turns supervising their kids, who attend the Epstein Hillel School and the Tower School in Marblehead. He sits by them and checks in the morning, while she does it in the afternoon. Dubow has crafted a detailed schedule that carves out time for academics, creative pursuits, chores, and watching educational movies. Dubow said that she found many resources online from the millions of parents who suddenly find themselves in a similar situation and share best practices on sites like accidentalhomeschooler.com.

Parents need to keep their children busy, but also need to keep them calm. Raizel Schusterman, the rebbetzin of Chabad of Peabody, suddenly has nine children under the same roof wondering what will happen next and when they’ll be able to return to school and see their friends again.

“I’m not sharing with kids anything they don’t need to know, but I try to stay positive, and I always tell my children, ‘It is difficult times, so as long as you’re kind to your siblings, and do tzedakah, and do your prayers, all of our morals that we have, I encourage them to do that as a way to brighten the world,” she said.

Many children are struggling with new social distancing norms. “Their big thing is why can’t we see our friends … [one of my sons] seemed very angry, saying he wanted to punch coronavirus, and I just have to be honest that this is very unfamiliar to everyone,” said Shulman Brochstein. “I think a balance of acknowledging that it is scary and unknown, but that adults are doing their best to keep them safe. I’m not going to lie to them and say that everything’s gonna be OK, because I don’t know that to be true, but I think it is true that people are doing their best to keep them safe.”

In the meantime, parents are setting up virtual playdates with friends the same way they’re setting up virtual classrooms. Sidman said her kids spend time chatting with their friends through Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Xbox Live.

But the vast majority of time is now spent with the nuclear family, and that can be a beautiful thing. Alex Shube of Marblehead has enjoyed playing board games with her 14-year-daughter, Jasmina. In addition to quick basketball layups, Dubow plays lacrosse with her kids and takes walks to the nearby beach, where they recently collaborated on drawing a giant maze in the sand. Sidman has enjoyed taking bike rides with her kids and sprinkling the day with useful bits of home economics, like how to make two-ingredient bagels.

Rabbi Nechemia Schuster-man of Chabad of Peabody has appreciated spending time with all of his nine children, noting that all of the family is usually not home except during the hustle and bustle of Jewish holidays.

“It does require extra patience to be more tolerant of the kids, try not to be extremely rigid with the rules, but also keep basic rules, like you gotta get up in the morning, you gotta get dressed, you gotta make your bed, day has to be day, and night has to be night – it can’t just be one long pajama-fest,” the rabbi said. “But it is definitely nice … There’s a part of you that never sleeps completely at ease when your children are not under your roof.”

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