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With Schools Closed, Parents Must Juggle Educating Their Kids And Keeping Food On The Table

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The COVID-19 pandemic is posing a particular challenge for many families

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing a particular challenge for many families, as parents face the task of educating their children at home while, in some cases, trying to work at the same time. Other parents may have lost their jobs and are trying to put food on the table.

One couple in southern Maine is taking care of four kids — all under the age of six — and wrestling with the economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

Erin Gilman of Saco always believed that teachers had a hard job, but she's recently developed a new appreciation for them.

"Just so you know, on the record, teachers are underpaid and underappreciated," Gilman says. "Because it is insane how much they do. I just couldn't do it for a living, that's for sure."

Gilman and her husband are now at home with four kids — ages six, five, four, and five months.

"It's been difficult," she says. "Because I used to have time when I'd get my house cleaned, when they were at school. And now it's just all kids, all the time. It's crazy.”

She says the weekdays are now a whirlwind of screens and Zoom video meetings, with barely a break. The video calls are for Gilman's 6-year-old daughter Kayleigh, who has autism and normally attends a special-purpose private school, where clinicians work with her on occupational, physical and behavioral therapy. But since school buildings are closed, that's all now done by video chat, with Gilman alongside her daughter. One Zoom session starts at 9:30. Another at 10. Another one at 11:30. Then one at 2.

"And then after that, I'm done with Kayleigh's therapies. And then I'm on to Mackenzie's work," Gilman says. "Reading, she has to read 15 minutes a day, do her math, her art, her music.”

Despite the rapid-fire schedule, Gilman says academics have gone well. But her 5-year-old daughter Mackenzie is struggling more with the loss of human connection.

."She's lost all the social interaction," she says. "My little girl literally cries daily, she misses her friends so bad. And I can't fix that. There's nothing I can do."

And, like many families, Gilman and her husband are facing financial challenges. She was laid off from her job as a travel agent a few weeks ago. While the family has some savings, she says, most of their current income is coming from the Social Security assistance that her daughter receives because of her disability.

"That has had to feed my whole house, and pay the bills and everything. And it's not enough to do it. It's been pretty hard. Keeping the internet on and stuff like that, because the bills don't stop. My landlord's calling me right now saying, 'Hey. Rent. You've got to pay rent'" she says. "It's really difficult. It's overwhelming."

Saco School Department Superintendent Dominic DePatsy says the economic and social challenges created by the pandemic are being felt by parents and children across the state. He says it's why Saco, like many districts, quickly set up a meal program and even launched a food pantry.

"Parents that have lost their jobs, and things like that, if we know about that, then we definitely want to hook them up with the services we, at least, can help them out with, and within the city," he says.

Many school officials say stressors at home are part of why they're being cautious about how much they're asking of children and families. DePatsy says teachers and other school staffers are playing an expanded role, as they reach out to make sure that families are all right.

"They're really acting as social workers, I think, at this point," Depatsy says. "Really looking out, making sure that the kids are doing okay. We have our assistant principals and some of our staff going door to door, actually, just to check on kids that we have not heard from. So we're trying to make sure that they're accounted for, as well."

Gilman says while the stress has been overwhelming at times, she's been thankful for her children's schools. One sent home an iPad. Another distributed equipment so Kayleigh could continue her therapy. Gilman has also turned to social media, where she can talk with other parents in similar situations. And she does have some help at home: her 24-year stepdaughter and her husband, who takes care of the baby.

"If I need a break, I need to go and run on the elliptical for an hour, you guys got it? And they'll do it. No problem," she says. "So I do have that time where I need to get out of my own head and get into my better space. They're good with it. But it's a lot."

And while she's grateful for those supports, Gilman is particularly concerned about whether six-year-old Kayleigh, who has autism and is supposed to transition to a public school next fall, will be ready. School officials, meanwhile, say they're developing plans to provide needed supports once kids can come back — which, based on the state's recommendations, is not likely to be until summer or fall.