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Lessons from one Tampa Bay “mommy school” during the work-from-home era

A busy editor is suddenly also teaching kindergarten on her own all day.
Ellen Clarke's 5-year-old son works on a program assigned by his real teacher in St. Petersburg.
Ellen Clarke's 5-year-old son works on a program assigned by his real teacher in St. Petersburg. [ ELLEN E. CLARKE | Times ]
Published Apr. 7, 2020
Updated Apr. 7, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, on the first official day of work from home, it was also my 5-year-old son’s first day of learning from home. I was leading a new team of journalists and suddenly also a kindergarten teacher.

I told my super-smart and super-uninterested little dude that the first rule of mommy school was “don’t be an a-hole while mommy is on a conference call.” I then told him that “a” is for aardvark, but I’m not sure he bought it.

What follows is a chronicle of the first two weeks as recorded by my social media venting, texts to my public servant husband who still has to go to work every day and messages to friends.

Day 1

He slept until nearly noon and woke up cranky. Being a 5-year-old teenager is exhausting work.

My boss encourages me to write a column about working from home and parenting since so many are living through it. I saw her message right after I heard the keyboard tapping and found him writing “lolol poooooooooooooooooooooo” in the #coronavirusbreaking channel on the newsroom Slack. There may be material here.

Day 2

He’s up at 11. He negotiates for 30 minutes of Minecraft videos for every block of schoolwork accomplished. This works well for my meeting schedule.

During our evening walk, he showed me how much the coronavirus is weighing on his mind by asking me to buy him something after the virus is gone.

Day 3

We continue our routine of doing his school “enrichment” work with videos after he rolls out of bed, setting alarms on our Amazon Dot to keep us honest. In reality, he asks for 10 more minutes every time and I give him 20 so I can finish editing a story.

Later in the day, I ask one of my reporters not to go to a strip club for journalism. It’s a story that can be reported remotely. As I relate this story to my husband in the evening, the kid asks “what kind of club?”

Day 4

He wakes at 9, also the time of the daily morning news meeting, and I’m devastated to consider that this may be a new trend. My dude emerges during another meeting at 11 and says, “Mom, I heard little voices,” then makes a video appearance on demand. He meows at the colleagues who wanted to see him.

Day 5

Ellen Clarke's son built this Lego dinosaur on his own. Quietly. She worked through the whole thing.
Ellen Clarke's son built this Lego dinosaur on his own. Quietly. She worked through the whole thing. [ ELLEN E. CLARKE | Times ]

He rises at 10 and we take our only car ride of the week, to pick up a pantry box from a local coffee shop and a Lego toy from Target driveup. I am horrified that Target still wants me to sign their little device and Clorox wipe the bag before handing it back. The little mister spends a solid two hours building the Lego dino and I work uninterrupted the whole time! Miracles do happen.

(The weekend is nice. We clean out closets. We wonder if people still want donated bedding in The Now.)

Day 6

This is the first day of real lessons from school, though all can be done at the kid’s own pace. There are virtual classrooms in Microsoft Teams for his kindergarten class, art class, music class, gifted class, physical education. I am overwhelmed and he is, you know, 5.

It is also a very hard day at work, as the Tampa Bay Times announced that the pandemic has forced us to shift to a Sunday and Wednesday print schedule and that many of our colleagues in other departments will be furloughed for eight weeks.

If you have never tried to lead a crisis management team meeting via video conference while your child bounces on a Bosu ball behind you singing “This is the neeeewwwwwws,” well, good for you.

This is also the day that schools were officially closed until May 1. Everything was bad, but this is the first time I cry.

Day 7

He has a tougher workload but manages it better. I share with my colleagues his P.E. lesson, which has you spell your name with an exercise assigned to each letter. I did it with him, which was oddly cathartic despite having to bear crawl twice.

One of the physical education assignments the Clarkes did. It's fun!
One of the physical education assignments the Clarkes did. It's fun! [ ELLEN E. CLARKE | Times ]

His writing assignment is to make a sentence with an “-et” word. He scrawls:

“Are we done yet?”

Clarke's son did his schoolwork, even if he wasn't happy about it.
Clarke's son did his schoolwork, even if he wasn't happy about it. [ ELLEN E. CLARKE | Times ]

Bedtime has stretched later as he sleeps in, which has been a lifesaver. But tonight’s late-night soul searching is about what’s real in the world. He has some thoughts about the Easter Bunny and Santa.

Day 8

Hardest workload yet, but he’s been doing the computer requirements solo like a champ.

He’s also paying more attention to my meetings and it’s leading to more interesting conversations.

I end another call and yell across the house, “You’re putting clothes on today!” He does not.

During his science lesson, he explains to me that the pupa stage of a butterfly’s life cycle is named such because it’s “like the butterfly gets pooped out of the cocoon.” I decide this is fine.

Day 9

He demands chocolate pudding and bacon for breakfast. I decide this is fine, too.

As I walk across the house, I briefly lose connectivity during a team meeting with my department because I realize it has been an hour and I’ve not heard a peep. Thank you, Minecraft Legos, for keeping my child so happy. Thank you.

Day 10

My son alternates wildly between being a pure joy and a complete pill. I have to end a call because I was pacing and he tickle-attacked me.

During an afternoon meeting, I set him up to write his sentences with sight words. He is particularly vexed by the fact that another editor sounds like he’s in a tunnel and tells me I’m making it hard for him to work.

I volunteer to take a Sunday editing shift for the next few weeks so I can give my son my full attention on Fridays, at least. This life is hard.

• • •

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