“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school

“I’m the security guard, a mother, a father, a teacher, I’m everything.” Parents and children reflect on a year of remote learning and its impact on their finances, mental health, and family.

Morley Musick   ·   January 20, 2021
Chastity Esquilin (mom), Jada Esquilin (fifth grader) and Scarlett Figueroa (baby) | Illustrator: Gaby Febland

As coronavirus positivity rates rise, debate has reignited on whether to again shut down New York City’s school system. In search of a more textured understanding of the long-term effects remote learning has already had on families, New York Focus interviewed parents and children shopping at the Bronx Terminal Mall about their experience of school shutdowns so far.

Most were mothers with their children, most were in a rush, and many—even those who preferred remote learning to the dangers of in-person schooling—had lost or quit their jobs to support their children. With their income stripped away, they stood at the intersection of multiple collapsing systems: reduced unemployment and food stamps assistance, faulty unemployment providers, closed courts, unreliable wifi, and New York City’s Administration of Child Services (ACS), which teachers have to call when children do not appear in school at the appointed time repeatedly.

Kaylee Breiding, mother of Aubrey Cambillo, Grade 5
Kaylee Breiding (mom) and Aubrey Cambillo (fifth grader) | Illustrator: Gaby Febland

Kaylee: In the beginning, online learning was really tough for Aubrey. Aubrey was coming into my room and we were doing things online together. She was a little distracted and discouraged and I didn’t want to make her feel alone. She does live classes now. She does better with live classes. She’s doing a lot better now, she’s really on her own, she’s really on point with that one. I’m glad she’s older.

NYF: And did the transition to remote learning affect you?

It did. I actually lost my job nine months ago. The day that I got fired the school closed. So it was like hand in hand. And recently I was called back in to go to work, but I had to decline because Aubrey has remote learning. Nobody is really willing to watch anyone with the kids because of COVID. My mom has a lot of pre-existing conditions, diabetes, mental illness, so right now at this particular time, she can’t be any help.

My sister ran a daycare and she had to shut her daycare down. If she had kept it open, I could have worked there or Aubrey could have gone there when she wasn’t in school. And she lived right next door, the daycare was in her apartment. So now it’s just like I lost the potential of more money and a babysitter.

But yeah, mentally it’s horrible, for me, as a mom. I get bored, I can’t do anything I used to. I feel like I’m lonely, sad, I don’t interact as much. Financially, unemployment definitely helped with the extra 600. But it stopped, and now I just have to do what I have to do with the government. I feel like they messed up my life, so now I’m gonna take advantage. So that’s what I’m doing right now until everything figures itself out.

I do have a boyfriend that does help me, so I’m not doing it by myself. Had I been doing it by myself, I would be more panicky.

Aubrey: Hey Mommy.

Kaylee: I always sensed something bad is gonna happen.

Aubrey: Mommy, are you going back to work?

Kaylee: I’m not going to work right now.

Aubrey: No but I mean like, ever. You’ll go back to work eventually.

Kaylee: Yeah but not right now.

Aubrey: Can I have a brownie?

Kaylee: No.

NYF: With unemployment set to expire, what’s your plan for the future?

I have no idea.

I actually was pregnant when I lost my job. Because of the pandemic I didn’t continue the pregnancy. That was in March. I didn’t have any money then. I was scared. I didn’t know what was gonna happen, you know, the hospitals were shutting down. Now I just feel like you can’t control everything. I don’t want to be that person that always wants everything to be perfect and then it doesn’t. I’m just gonna let God figure it out. If something happens then it happens. This is God’s way.

Ryan Bailey Sr., mother of Ryan Bailey Jr., Third Grader
Ryan Bailey Sr. (mom) and Jr. (fifth grader) | Illustrator: Gaby Febland

I fucking hate remote learning. My son has dyslexia, so homeschooling is hard for me because I have to physically help him with all his assignments. So I have to wake up, turn on the meeting for him, enter the meeting, read his questions—I’m basically doing all the work the teacher should be doing and I’m not getting paid for it. I help my kid from 8 to 3:30, the whole school day.

Then the iPad isn’t always working and sometimes the teacher doesn’t see him, so he gets marked absent from school. I see him and he’s ready, willing and able, but if the teacher doesn’t see him because the iPad isn’t working, he gets marked as absent.

And it took three months to get his iPad from the DOE [Department of Education]! He was using his phone all that time. But the phone screen is so small. You can’t do certain things on your phone.

When the DOE iPad isn’t always working properly, I have to give him my work iPad. But I can’t keep giving him my work iPad because then I’m not getting my work done. If I don’t get my work done, I’m gonna lose money. Where does that leave me to pay my bills? It’s already hard paying my bills.

I’m just ready for this to all be over with. I owned a nail shop and I would physically see about 20-25 people a day. I had to close my shop. Now I just go see clients in their own homes, and I see about five a week. I miss one client, I’ll owe part of my rent.

By sheer luck, I started getting unemployment, but it’s only gonna last for so long. I don’t know what happens after that. At this point, I don’t know. Even if I was in another field, and wanted to go to work, I still couldn’t, cause I have to be there with my son.

I’m also 8 months pregnant. So I also have to go to doctor’s appointments because I’m due in the next 35 days. So it’s hard. I can’t leave him home by himself because then I’ll catch an ACS [Administration of Childhood Services] case. The doctor’s office says you can’t bring anybody with you — so what am I to do? I can’t leave him home by himself. What am I to do?

Chastity Esquilin, Mother of Jada Esquilin, Fifth grader
Chastity Esquilin (mom), Jada Esquilin (fifth grader) and Scarlett Figueroa (baby) | Illustrator: Gaby Febland

NYF: What’s the best and worst thing about doing school all online?

Jada: In the pandemic, basically, when you’re going to online school, you have to maintain different things, like your social life, you have to maintain your mental health, and you also have to do your school work. You have to get that turned in on time. There’s also the strict teachers that don’t give you no extra time. Sometimes you go to turn in your assignment, and you press “Turn in,” but for some reason it doesn’t go through and then they say you never turned it in, but you just are sitting there, like, “I did.”

But the best part is getting to figure myself out, how I want to be, what I want to do. As to how I want to develop myself. Before quarantine and everything, I was like, one of those girls, that’s chill and laid back, but then I could get rowdy really quick. During quarantine, I realized there’s no purpose to doing all that. You should try to figure out how who you wanna be before you completely settle with who you are. My attitude changed this quarantine. I started watching anime, I started skateboarding.

Chastity: You know, when you’re at school, you try to fit in sometimes. So I think that time spent away from school has changed her as a person. I’m proud that she’s changed, but it’s still an issue coping.

And yeah, for me, the best thing, I love staying home and spending time with my babies. When they’re at school, I was always at work. But now I can spend time with them, hang out, have movie time, make TikToks.

The worst thing is I just haven’t been able to go back to work. My job closed down, so it’s been hard to find another job. And I’ve been behind on my bills — rent, [Jada’s] medicine, WiFi, credit cards. Trying to buy stuff for them to wear for the winter. It’s hard. I have unemployment, but it’s only $140 [a week]. I really can’t do anything with $140. It doesn’t even cover my phone bill.

My mom works, and there’s no one else to watch them. But I’d rather max out my credit cards and make sure they have everything they need than make them go without that.


I got four kids. The two twins are 14 years old, in high school, and one who’s eight years old, and one who’s a baby. It’s only one room—we live in one room. So it’s not like they have their own rooms to do their work. I cannot work at all. I can’t work because I have to be in the house to make sure my kids are online and doing their work. I can’t get family members to help because they’re all in the same situation, my brother got kids… they all have the same problem. I’m a single mom.

Especially the teenagers, I have to watch when they go out, you know. I’m the security guard, a mother, a father, a teacher, I’m everything. And I got other things to do at home, like chores, make food, I can’t pay attention to them all the time. You don’t even got time for yourself.

They used to have daycare and I would work then pick up at their schools. I was working at the beginning. Then when they decided to go online, everything got complicated. April was the last month that I worked. I do miss my work, I don’t want to be home all day. It’s sad to be at home all day in the four walls. I went out today to buy stuff for them—ah, I feel relief!

Maybe they should just shut down school, and just open when everything’s ready. It’s less stress for both sides. The teachers get stressed cause they want everyone online. Sometimes the internet doesn’t work and my kids get marked absent, absent, absent.

We argue with the kids to make sure they go online, but my eight year old doesn’t want to go online. He goes to sleep while he’s online.

The teachers call me all the time from four different schools—“they didn’t log in, they didn’t log in, they didn’t log in.” I can’t live right. My mind cannot be settled.


It’s hard for my son to pay attention. It’s his first year in school. He just started kindergarten, so he never had the experience of a classroom. When he goes onto the iPad and stuff, he doesn’t really pay attention, or he’s, like, looking… I feel like he’s a little behind on certain things. And it’s kinda hard on me cause I have another baby. So when he’s on, I’m chasing the other one around. They have to sign off and on four times. And they’re on for fifteen minutes at each time. So it’s not like real school. For me, it’s like a job. I’m the one that has to submit the work.

NYF: Has this affected your work at all?

With my work, I had to take a temporary leave of absence. I’m a flight attendant and when COVID first started they instituted travel bans and stuff like that. I can’t work right now due to him not being at [physical] school. I don’t have anyone to stay home and take care of him. My mom would help me before, but now she has to be online with my younger sisters and there’s three of them—and she said, you know, “I can’t take on the responsibility of taking on all of them and three younger kids.”

NYF: Without work, where does that leave you in terms of income?

I don’t have any—and it’s been hard to get a hold of the airline because they still owe me money for back pay. I qualify for unemployment, but when I went to apply for it, they didn’t give it to me for, like, two months after I applied. I was going through a lot. I couldn’t get food stamps, I couldn’t get anything. I couldn’t go in person, I had to fill out [the food stamp application] online. It was taking forever, like a month and a half. During that time, I was going to food pantries. It was bad.

And with the courts being closed, I can’t go put my children’s father on child support. He’s a professional athlete, and before COVID he was helping me – but the courts have been closed since March, and he hasn’t given me a dollar since.

My friend sent me two hundred dollars. I tried to make it last. But I was sometimes spending a hundred dollars a day, basic life, you know. I remember having to wipe their butt with a towel cause I couldn’t afford toilet paper and stuff.

I don’t know how I’m getting by (laughs). I mean, look, I don’t even have socks for my kids right now. I’m kinda going through a little depression with everything that’s going on right now, you know.

That’s affected my kids a little bit. If I’m stressed out, and I’m depressed, I wanna sleep, I’m not in the mood for anything, then it’s like, that affects my children.

It’s started getting cold outside — I can’t afford to pay for a jacket. So I have to get jackets that people give to me. But you see how big that jacket is on him, and on him? Maybe they don’t notice it, but it bothers me. It affects me. I want them to have their own jackets.

Morley Musick is a contributing editor to New York Focus and the founder of Mouse Magazine.
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