SEATTLE — On any given morning, before anyone else wakes up, Nikeya McAdory steps onto her elliptical machine and starts moving.
If she's lucky, she doesn't think about anything,
But for the last several mornings, McAdory has been fretting about how she is going to navigate the new school year with her three children: Virtual learning, homework, follow-up, free time, meals, bedtime. Repeat.
"I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm trying," McAdory said from her home in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood, where she has set up desks for her two older children, 14-year-old Dennis, a freshman at Cleveland High School; and 11-year-old Dylann, a fifth-grader at Graham Hill Elementary. McAdory has made a smaller space for her 6-year-old daughter, Karter, a first-grader at Graham Hill.
"I know once school starts, I am not going to be OK," said McAdory, a single mother who is taking time off from her dental-assistant job to tend to her kids. "I'm sure I am going to be overwhelmed."
There's been a lot of discussion about how kids are managing the so-called new normal; whether they are learning anything, or if this period in their educational history is a total wash. And there are the social setbacks. Missing friends, activities, and the traditions that shape the school experience, and their lives.
But parents, too, are suffering; trying to balance loving and raising their kids, serving as teachers and support staff, setting up classroom spaces, monitoring learning, checking homework and urging them to stay on track. All this, while also working and running a home that feels a little smaller every day.
If parents are going to succeed, schools need to step up their game. In a recent, national Gallup poll, parents and students said the most important thing they need from their school is clear expectations. About half of all students said they will need help catching up after remote learning in the spring. That's a lot of pressure.
"I cried for quite a while when I learned our school district would be doing remote learning," said Kari Hammett-Caster, a philanthropy director for a nonprofit who works from her home in Black Diamond, where she lives with her husband and two children, Camryn, 8, and Callen, 3.
"How am I supposed to work and teach and manage all of this?" she asked last spring. "It was hard enough when I was just maintaining her education last year. Now I am supposed to teach her?"
She was able to focus on her job this summer, when she put her daughter in a day camp that kept groups small and outside. But then she got a letter saying that Black Diamond Elementary would continue remote learning.
"That's when I lost my mind," Hammett-Caster said, adding that she and her husband, a district manager for a storage corporation, had been "just maintaining," by making sure their daughter was keeping up with her math.
As school kicked off, though, Hammett-Caster was "terrified" of her ability to teach her daughter while keeping up with Zoom calls and other work duties.
"I'm worried about being responsible for my kids' learning," she said.
She might enroll her daughter in a facilitated learning and day-care center, where staff would oversee her daughter's schoolwork. But that, too, has drawbacks.
"I worry about trusting her education with people who are not teachers," Hammett-Caster said of the day-care center staff. "It's analysis paralysis. There's no 100% good option. I cried for a day because I just thought, 'This is not good for her, or for me.'"
But she and her husband are great partners, who parent equally, walk every night, and occasionally connect with friends online to ease stress and worry.
Migee Han co-parents her 6-year-old son, Dylan with her former partner, and works full-time as the chief development and communications officer at Washington STEM, a nonprofit that, through partnerships and policymakers, expands education in science, technology, engineering and math.
Han is grateful to be working, to be able to do it at home, and strives "to fashion a day around breaks when I can spend time with my son," who is starting first grade.
Han worries, though, that these months at home with Dylan — playing the role of mother and teacher, disciplinarian and timekeeper, with less time to just be — have changed the dynamic of their relationship.
"I have the utmost respect for teachers, and I love that they do what they do, so I can do what I do," she said. "But it's hard for family members to teach their own children. Teachers are uniquely positioned to teach. They're skilled. They're not related."
Children act differently when parents teach them, Han said.
"It's a different setting, a different environment and a different person," she said. "I don't know what my responsibilities are. It's all the roles."
Shelley Rousseau was ready for that. This was the year that she was going to go back to teaching, after being a stay-at-home mom until both her children — Jack, a sophomore at Ballard High School, and Emme, a freshman — had reached ninth grade.
But COVID-19 changed all that, "And now I am teaching at home," Rousseau said.
She knows her family is lucky to have her husband's income (he works for a boutique design firm), a home and good health.
"But I still feel a profound sense of sadness for my children," Rousseau said. "So much of high school happens outside of the classroom, and those experiences that they are missing out on makes me very sad."
Jack, who plays trombone, just made it into Ballard High's celebrated jazz band, which will now practice online. Emme, an extrovert, was excited to start at a new school.
Now, Jack plays his PS4 with his friends, and Emme hangs with hers on FaceTime and has redecorated her room. They both run daily in the hopes of a spring cross-country season.
Rousseau is increasingly avoiding her laptop, where she "doom scrolls." She digs around in the garden, tends the chickens and bunnies they keep in the backyard or just sits and reads in an outdoor room they created. The New Yorker. Elinor Lipman's "Good Riddance."
Her husband runs every morning and has enrolled in graduate school, "which has given him hope," Rousseau said. They eat lunch together as a couple, and dinner as a family.
She and the kids cleaned out their bookcases and stuffed the nearby lending library, participated in a neighborhood puzzle exchange and sewed masks.
"As a family of four that is spending as much time together as we are, we are holding up pretty well," Rousseau said. "We're truly, very blessed. We are going to get through this."
Sometimes, though, she wonders.
The other week, she took Jack for a back-to-school haircut, a simple vestige of another time. It felt like tradition, a normal thing to do.
But this year, they had to make an appointment in advance. Fill out a form. Jack had to have his temperature taken and Rousseau had to wait for him in the car.
While she sat there, Rousseau looked up at the brewery across the street. People were outside, drinking and laughing. No one was wearing a mask.
It made her sad — and unusually angry.
"If you could have seen," she said. "No social distancing. Pandemic? What pandemic?
"It really got to me," she said, "because we are doing everything that is expected of us, just to get to some sense of normalcy," she said. "At what point are we going to make kids a priority?"
McAdory has done that for months now, so as the new school year begins, she feels confident. To avoid the chaos of last spring, she will set a schedule for her kids, go for walks, and get up before everyone to ride her elliptical, sweat and breathe.
"As long as they have what they need, we're going to make it work," she said of her three. "I wasn't prepared in March, but now I feel like I've got the hang of it."