Mission impossible, part 2: PR pros prep for another semester of homeschooling

Will classes resume? In much of the country, it’s still up in the air. But at least there are lessons learned from the spring.

A full-time job in a demanding industry is stressful enough. Add homeschooling and general childcare while working from home, and the past few months have been mission impossible for many PR executives. Now layer on another level of uncertainty as officials across the country deliberate whether schools will open in the fall. 

With classes scheduled to restart in just a few weeks, it’s still unclear in many regions whether children will resume classes virtually, in-person or via hybrid learning. And even if states do reopen schools, some worried caregivers may opt to keep their kids at home.

Twitch comms head Rachel Delphin tweeted that she has little hope that school will resume in the fall. “Where I'm at is I... can't homeschool tho,” she tweeted. “Well, I can't do that well and have a full-time job and also care for a toddler.”

More than 4 million people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the U.S., with cases rising in many areas. Reuters lists 18 states where new COVID-19 cases increased more than 20% in the past week. Rhode Island was the highest with a spike of 135%. Washington was next with a jump of 71%. Florida, California and Texas had more than 40% of last week’s new confirmed cases in the U.S. 

To be safe, large school districts in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, suburban Washington and elsewhere have indicated they will start the school year entirely with remote classes. Meanwhile, educators in New York City have criticized officials for an “alarming lack of direction” about reopening, according to the New York Post

Other parents echo Delphin’s sentiment. Tara Parsell, director of client satisfaction at Geben Communication, says she is “terrified” about having to continue to manage an ultra-hectic schedule for longer than anticipated. 

Ohio-based Parsell has children aged two and five. Her local school system will have no in-person classes until there are four weeks in a row of decreasing COVID-19 cases. 

“In March, I felt like I had some control; school was just shut down,” she says. “This time it is like, are we going to get three weeks in school and then cases rise? There is no way to plan for what is going to happen or what my schedule will look like if it’s part-time virtual or in-person.”

Kalhorn questions her
homeschooling skills.

Sarah Kalhorn, VP and head of Hotwire’s industrial technology practice, says that if homeschooling becomes a reality in the fall, she will have to hire a nanny to help her three kids. Kalhorn is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where parents won’t find out the schools’ status until July 27.

She has a similar work schedule as her husband, who works in advertising. Although Hotwire has been “super amazing” and even offered child-care support, Kalhorn’s big takeaway from March to June was that it is not possible to manage that and client responsibilities simultaneously. 

“I got up at 5 a.m. and tried to get three good hours of work done,” Kalhorn says. “We were working until 8 p.m., just passing the kids off every two hours. We were not doing very well.”

She adds that while her older son, who is going into third grade, was able to complete school assignments on his own, her younger daughter, a rising first grader, was a “hot mess” who required someone to sit with her at least three hours a day to make sure work got done. 

“She still has about 100 assignments she hasn’t completed,” says Kalhorn. “We are slowly trying to tackle those over the summer.”

Amelia Vierra, director of PR at NetApp, a hybrid cloud data services and data management company, says her employer has also been flexible over the past few months.

“Early on, they introduced pandemic prevention days where if you had to care for someone sick, you were sick or you had young children you had to care for while working, they understood you had to take time off,” says Vierra. “That was a helpful policy.”

However, no matter how supportive an employer is, that doesn’t change the reality that PR is a demanding job. Because of this, Vierra’s husband took on most of the homeschooling duties for their three children.

“The PR industry is demanding and even before COVID, it takes a lot of your time with phone calls, the always-on news cycles and travel,” she says. “With COVID, the travel went away, but none of the other stuff went away. Especially working with global teams, calls can start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m.” 

“Mom guilt” about being locked in her office and not being able to help more with her children has set in for Vierra, who is located in San Jose, California. Her school district will likely have full-distance learning for the fall semester. 

“It’s a struggle, but at the same time, I feel safer having the kids home,” she says. “it’s a dangerous situation for the teachers. It is better for us all to be home right now.”

Lessons learned

This time around, Vierra plans to “strike a better balance” with homeschooling and give herself more breaks between meetings so she can help with the kids.

“I will make sure I am not going overboard and keep a manageable schedule,” she says.

Allison Gillespie, senior brand manager of Maytag, is based in St. Joseph, Michigan, and has a six-year-old son entering first grade. It’s still up in the air whether his school will have in-person or virtual classes. She is rooting for in-school classes to resume, not just for the educational aspect but also for the life lessons from recess and lunchtime that her son is missing.

Gillespie found a creative way to get through the first round of homeschooling. She transformed the back room of her husband’s local mattress business, Rested Pillow, which was closed due to the pandemic, into “school” and set it up with all the materials he would need.

Gillespie's son does his school work in the backroom of her husband's mattress shop.

“It was great to get him in the school mindset and get him out of the house,” she says.

Gillespie says she learned “grace” with herself, her son and her husband and plans to remind herself of that in the fall should homeschooling continue. She adds that Maytag gave her all the time she needed as she mourned her grandmother, who passed away from COVID-19. 

Parsell is also changing her approach to homeschooling while working from home this fall. Initially in March, she and her husband created a Google Sheet schedule that perfectly mirrored her kids’ school day.

“It didn’t work because my husband would be in the middle of something or I would and they would talk to both of us until we did it, even if we were trying to concentrate,” she says.

Geben Communication lets staffers “design their day,” so Parsell was able to work when and where she was most productive, while also being able to homeschool her children.

“I told my boss, ‘It’s almost like I realized an eight-hour workday is weird,’” she says.

This fall, Parsell and her husband don’t plan to be as organized and structured with schoolwork. 

“We are letting the kids be kids,” she says.

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