Lakisha Windle (right) stands for a portrait with her kids, Kyla (left) and Nathan (center.) Windle is a single mother and full-time nurse working for Le Bonheur and has three children in elementary school. Photos by Brandon Dill for MLK50

The decision to reopen Shelby County Schools virtually only on Aug. 31 was made to protect students, staff members and the community while the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, said Superintendent Joris Ray.

But that choice creates a major interruption in the lives of some families and a crisis for many others, according to some parents.

In the midst of a public health crisis and an unprecedented economic downturn, parents find themselves scrambling to find a balance between their livelihood and their children’s education.

There are more than 100,000 students enrolled in Shelby County Schools. This is a look at four families’ stories of uncertainty, frustration and resilience told through their voices. Part II on Friday will focus on four other families.

Left | Edith Ornelas, a community organizer with the Mariposas Collective, a grassroots coalition of volunteers that provides support to immigrants in the Mid-South, reflects on how to best serve her family, including her 9-year-old son Isar, and her community.

Right | Starla Emery and her partner, Tyler Brown, who both work at Memphis Made Brewery, initially wanted in-person education for Finn, 7. With cases continuing to rise as the school year approaches, they face questions about how to provide the education that Finn needs.

Left | Tiffany and Pierre Blackman are unable to work their jobs from home and wonder how they will be able to keep their son, D.J., 16, on track with his schoolwork.

Right | Lakisha Windle, a nurse at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, tries to navigate the anxiety that comes with being a single mother with three children under age 10 and a demanding full-time job.

Edith Ornelas, a community organizer with the Mariposas Collective, and her son, Isar, 9, who is a fourth-grader at Idlewild Elementary School. The collective is a grassroots coalition of volunteers that provides support to immigrants in the Mid-South.

Edith Ornelas and Isar at the Mariposas Collective supply warehouse.

Edith: The impact [of virtual/online-only education] is pretty big, especially with my work in the community… A lot of these families don’t have access to food. But my husband is going to school at the same time. We’re brainstorming: How are we going to manage?

So many migrant families that are released from detention centers call me on a daily basis, mostly during school hours, between 6 in the morning and 4 p.m.

Once you help them out, given that they don’t really have anyone else to talk to or to guide them, you kind of become a social worker. In the last four months, all these moms have shared their personal struggles and their stories about what they’re currently going through. It devastates me to think of what can happen (when) I’m not around.

If I have to facilitate doing food deliveries, being in these meetings, and supporting these families that have just been released from detention centers, how are we going to homeschool Isar? If I have an emergency in the community, and (my husband) is in classes all day in his doctorate program through Harvard… How are we going to juggle?

Also, having a child that is very social, it’s going to affect him as well. We’ve been able to keep busy because of the work we do through Mariposas. He’s social, but now he’s social with just adults.

I feel like he’s losing his innocence because he’s constantly surrounded by adults and having adult conversations rather than being with his friends and talking about Beyblades and Minecraft or whatever they’re into at that moment.

I’ve already cried enough. I either have a choice to keep crying about what’s going on in the world or… create a more positive environment for all of us.

Starla Emery and her partner, Tyler Brown, both work at Memphis Made Brewing and are raising her son, Finn Emery-Hopkins, 7, a second-grader at Peabody Elementary School. Starla recently changed her work hours so her shift begins after school.

Tyler Brown and Starla Emery with Finn at Memphis Made Brewery.

Starla Emery: Tyler still works full time at the brewery so it’ll just be me at home with Finn, trying to get him to do his lessons. I am very anxious about it.

During the end of the school year when we had to do just the Microsoft teams meeting with the class twice a week, getting Finn to sit in front of the computer for those meetings was like pulling teeth. All day, at our home? If it was a different environment maybe he would be able to do it, but at home, there are too many distractions.

I’m also really curious as to how they’re going to be graded. Do I give the conduct grade? We can’t really catch something that learned teachers can catch; whether a student’s not getting something … just that intuition, and be able to go from there and be able to help out in a certain way.

I was hoping to be able to choose the in-school option just for the benefit of him (Finn), but I was hoping most parents would choose the virtual options so maybe the classroom sizes would be like five kids. And I know Mrs. (Melanie) Nelson (the principal at Peabody Elementary) would take things very seriously and keep everybody safe. Ideally, having a classroom with five kids would be great. They would get more attention. They could be separated, socially-distanced well.

Seeing the (coronavirus) numbers rise, I knew it was going to happen. My initial decision was to keep him in school, but after seeing the jump in the numbers I started to get more nervous about it. It’s going to be hard with the virtual learning but I’m not complaining. Because it’s going to keep the faculty safe, our teachers safe, our kids safe, us safe. I’m not mad about it.

The other day Finn told me he missed his friends. I just looked at him and go, “I do too, buddy.”

Tiffany Blackman, an environmental health and safety specialist, and Pierre Blackman, a wholesale supply manager, with their son, D.J. White, 16, a junior at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences.

Tiffany and Pierre Blackman with their son, DJ.

Tiffany: Basically, we have to work. So we can’t stay home or we’ll be homeless.

I think they (school officials) take for granted that because your kid is in high school they can watch themselves, but I mean, this is different. He’s expected to stay on task and basically sit at a computer for eight hours… How do I know that when he’s online he’s paying attention?

We work Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m. It’s basically going to put the responsibility back on him (D.J.) to stay on task. We can’t take him to his elderly grandmother’s house.

I wish the federal government would provide some sort of stipend for certain parents to take leave so that they can school their kids from home.

Pierre: Just being able to stay on task and stay focused is one of our biggest concerns.

There are a lot of parents who are upset who have special needs children. My son needs a special type of learning environment. He has ADHD. He has a 504 plan (educational support plan for students with disabilities), so what do I do?

I’m hoping they give them more project-based assignments where they’re making PowerPoints and presentations. To me that is demonstrating what you’re learning versus just turning in a sheet. (The students) could just share answers and everybody gets an A.

D.J.: I just want everything to go back to normal. It’s like the apocalypse.

Lakisha Windle works full-time as a nurse at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. She has three children, all Peabody Elementary students: Isaac, a fifth-grader; Kyla, a fourth-grader; and Nathan, a first-grader.

Lakisha Windle with her children Kyla (center) and Nathan (left.)

Lakisha: I’m very overwhelmed. My anxiety over this past week was very high. Because I do have to go to work every day. If I don’t go to work, I won’t get any pay, and I won’t be able to take care of the needs of the family. But it’s such a struggle, because I don’t know how I’m going to manage having three children (learning virtually). They’re all 10 and under, different grades.

You know, who’s going to watch them; that’s another challenge. Then you have to add on, ‘I need you to watch them, but also, you’re going to have to make sure they’re doing their work and you’re going to have to kind of teach them.’

Should they be staying at home doing all this, or do I need to go find a facility? Maybe they can go to a daycare, but then they’re still going to be put at risk for COVID-19. I just don’t know.

I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to afford to pay for three children in a daycare or something. … It will be like all my pay.

Then having the grandparents do it; I feel guilty enough because they’ve already been watching the children this whole time, and that’s hard on them. They want to be relaxing, taking care of their house; they might want to go fishing, go to the doctor. Now they’re having to see the children every day and also help with the technology and also make sure they’re doing their schoolwork, and that’s going to be a lot to ask of grandparents.

They’re intelligent children, but I feel that they’re not being stimulated enough and they’re going to lose what they’ve learned, or maybe they’re going to lose that desire to learn. That worries me. They’re just going to be kind of getting by, or getting away with stuff … and then they’re just going to slip away, their brains just going to Jell-O.

I know there are so many people, families that are affected. Where are all the children going to go? What are they going to do? Who is going to help these families? What if all the places that we can go get overfilled, overbooked? I’m scared because I feel like I’m running out of time and there’s no one helping to give you some direction.

I’m just very anxious because I don’t want them to be lacking in anything. So I feel guilty about that because I’m their mother. I’m the one who should be doing that. I wish I could be with them. It makes my heart sad that I can’t be there to help them.

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