The Impossible Job of a Parent Navigating Zoom School

A mother of five young kids is considering taking their education into her own hands.

Photo of the Dominguez family
Ilana Panich-Linsman

When Donald Trump took the oath of office on a gray January morning in 2017, he laid out his vision for the United States under his leadership. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease,” he said. “A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.” Nearly four years later, the divide in how we view the consequences of his first term remains large. But the nation is undeniably changed. From family separation, to nation-wide protests and economic volatility, to a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, Trump will leave behind a legacy—whether he’s reelected or not. We are telling the stories of seven individuals living with the consequences of Trump’s first term. You can read the rest of the stories here.

By 9:30 a.m. on August 31, the first day of school, Rebeka Dominguez was already exhausted. Her 13-year-old daughter, Eleanna, couldn’t log into Zoom. Across the kitchen table, Elijah, 17, muted his football coach and distracted his girlfriend, Kyleen, who sat beside him, trying to concentrate on her coursework. Easton, 7, propped himself up on the floor between the two teenagers as his teacher tried to help a classroom of second-graders access BrainPOP, an educational website. Everett, 4, ran out of the room with Elijah’s cellphone. The wifi kept cutting out, and there weren’t enough headphones to go around, so five virtual classrooms stuttered on at once. Eva, 10 months old, cried in her playpen. Like millions of other households across the U.S., the Dominguez family is learning remotely this fall.

In March, the schools in Weslaco, Texas, where the family lives, shut down in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Overnight, all classes moved online. “That whole first week was really chaotic,” Rebeka said. She worked to establish some semblance of a classroom, centered around the kitchen table. “I would be going around, making sure they’re each on their lesson—that Elijah’s not on Facebook, that Eleanna was understanding whatever they were going through,” said Rebeka.

Supervising the education of her school-age children felt like a full-time job.

Easton’s teacher would reach out to Rebeka every day, reminding her to help him log on. “I was like, I have four kids in school right now,” she said. “I can do Easton two days a week, or a day a week, or whatever I can get to, but I can’t do it whenever you want me to.” She negotiated with teachers on assignment due dates and began to divide her weeks. On Mondays and Tuesdays, she concentrated on Easton; on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Rebeka helped Eleanna. Elijah often supervised his younger siblings while in class. When he needed help on his chemistry assignments, he’d have to wait until his dad, Joseph, a nurse, came home from the ER where he worked.

Frantic scenes like this played out across the country, as 50 million kids were abruptly thrust out of the classroom. Families scrambled to adjust to unclear, inconsistent class schedules and requirements. Teachers and administrators rushed to figure out ad hoc solutions for online instruction and school services like free lunch.

Rebeka managed to get her kids through the last two months of that school year, but she had no idea what to expect in the fall.

Scenes from the Dominguez’s first day of school. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

In May, as the school year came to an end, Joseph started to see diagnosed COVID-19 patients in the ER. It put the family on edge. Everett has Down syndrome and is immunocompromised. A normal flu season can wreak havoc on him. They decided that Joseph should distance from the rest of the family.

After each 13-hour shift, Joseph would drive home, put his scrubs in the laundry, shower, and go straight to the couple’s bedroom. The kids left the common area until after he shut the door and Rebeka mopped the hallway. It was particularly hard for Everett not to see his dad. Before the coronavirus, Joseph’s return home was a highlight of his day. The 3-year-old would stand at the front window, waiting until he could give his dad a hug. Now, Everett hasn’t touched his dad in months. “He doesn’t comprehend why he can’t see him,” Rebeka said. “He would always cry at the window when he would see his dad pull up.”

By then, protesters were gathering in cities across the country, demanding an end to the lockdowns. The president, who admitted in interviews with journalist Bob Woodward that he knew the virus was deadly but wanted to “play it down,” responded by supporting the protesters, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” in response to demonstrations there. Through the late spring and early summer, Trump urged governors to reopen far sooner than health experts said it was safe to do so. Texas was among the first to open up almost all public spaces. The push led to praise from the president—and soaring infection rates.

On July 6, the president tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST REOPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” followed by a threat to cut education budgets if districts didn’t offer in-person classes. Republican governors rushed to issue their own ultimatums, leaving the thorny logistics and safety concerns to districts. Texas Governor Greg Abbott mandated that schools reopen after eight weeks online, despite protests from teachers and parents.

Elija, 17, texts his football coach to let him know that his internet is down and he's running late for class. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Now, Rebeka is bracing for a long fall. As of late October, Weslaco Independent School District had started bringing some students back to school on a limited basis. But Rebeka doesn’t think schools are ready to reopen this year. Even if they do, she’s wary of making decisions about her family’s safety based on a haphazard local response and no apparent national strategy. “There’s no way,” she said. “You have COVID and the flu coming—the government’s not ready; hospitals aren’t ready.”

She worries about the effects that remote school is having on her kids. When schools shut down in the spring, none of their teachers seemed prepared. Easton, in first grade, was given kindergarten worksheets. Elijah had a number of teachers who didn’t seem to know how to access assignments online. Eleanna struggles with math, and Rebeka fears that the lack of in-person instruction will make that even harder. She worries about time management for Easton, who is expected to keep track of assignments and due dates as a second-grader. And she’s concerned about the lack of social contact. Elijah is missing his senior year, Easton can’t play sports, and Eleanna has become more withdrawn.

On the first day of the school year, Elija, 17, passes his baby sister Eva, 10 months, off to his other sister Eliana, 13, while they attend classes remotely. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Their classes this year require 90 percent attendance, which means that either a teacher must see a student in class or a student must submit an assignment online or use education software each day. Eighty-six percent of Weslaco ISD students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and the district plans to help with accessibility by giving a Chromebook to every student and creating wifi hotspots across the city. The Dominguezes have taken to turning off the wifi on their phones and TV each morning, but they’re still struggling with Zoom outages caused by too many devices online all at once.

Lately, Rebeka is considering taking her kids out of Weslaco ISD and home-schooling them instead. She reasons that she effectively already has. In June, she enrolled in online community-college education classes. She had already been thinking about getting a degree in education, but the failed COVID-19 response prompted her to start taking classes now.

If she can’t trust the government and the public school system to ensure a safe return to in-person instruction for her kids, she’ll take their education into her own hands.