Tonya Reece (center left) and her partner Tui Mataele (right, sitting) with their children at their home. Photos by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Shelby County Schools open virtually only on Aug. 31, a decision made to protect students, staff and the community while the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise, said Superintendent Joris Ray.

But that decision also creates a major interruption in the lives of some families and a crisis for others. The result: Parents scramble to figure out how to work and monitor their children; worry whether this experiment will hinder learning, or cry for less fortunate families who can’t navigate the system or even provide lunch for their children.

This is Part II of our focus on families, who talk about their frustrations, fears and plans in anticipation of the start of the school year.

Left | Tonya Reece and her daughter, Alana Reece-Walker, 16, a junior at Central High School, consider the potential harmful long-term impact of a rushed virtual learning program, such gaps in education that could hinder Alana in getting into college. They live in an apartment along with five other family members, three of them school-aged children.

Right | Tamara and Van Turner are supportive of the move to virtual learning. Tamara is a guidance counselor for Shelby County Schools and her husband, Van, is a Shelby County commissioner. They feel confident that their family will be able to navigate the experience together.

Left | Whitney Sykes, a project manager at a contractor firm, keeps grounded through stressful times by putting her daughter, Bella, 11, first and relying on a village of other parents.

Right | Fatima and Larry Jackson are both essential workers trying to balance their children’s emotional well-being in the age of virtual learning with sports and fresh air when possible. They worry about the kids’ schoolmates who might not have that opportunity.

Tonya Reece, a workshop manager at BRIDGES, and Tui Mataele, an Apple laptop technician, live with their children, Elena Mataele, 15, a sophomore at Central High School; Alana Reece-Walker, 16, a junior at Central High School; and Julian Mataele, 11, a sixth-grader at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School. Tonya’s son, Devron Yancey, 21, lives with them, as well along with his son, Malakai Carrick, 4, a pre-kindergartener at Brewster Elementary.

Tonya (right) and her family hang out on the balcony at their apartment.

Tonya: We’ve taken a financial hit and we’re definitely behind in things. We’re just playing catch up like a lot of people, and trying to … make sure that there is food in the house because now everybody is home all the time. …

I cannot manage my three children in school and my job and attend meetings and do all of that and stay sane. I can work from home; that’s a blessing. That’s not every household. Tui works 60 hours a week repairing laptops.

Alana: I’m really uncomfortable with it (virtual learning). I take mostly AP classes. I feel like with my anxiety, I’m not going to be able to keep up with my classes online. But I also would not want to go into schools because I’m too afraid to get sick.

I feel like they should just push back this year further because I know that they have the power to do that if they really wanted to. And I feel like they’re not thinking about how the youth are going to be affected by this, like if people don’t have a safe place or home or students that have different learning abilities. And if they’re trying to put us all in the same online classes, I don’t think it’s going to work because they’re still not thinking of us as individuals; they’re thinking of us as a mass.

We don’t know if colleges are counting the ACT this year. What if the college I want to go to requires the ACT, requires this, requires that, but I’m having trouble passing it because I didn’t get the last of my sophomore year education correctly and I’m not getting the beginning of my junior year? It’s like I’m missing a whole fragment of time …. I’m really nervous about that.

Tonya: It impacts our mental health. It’s that sense of loss, anguish. Even when it’s not your immediate sense of loss and you’re community-minded, you’re like, this is impacting so many people. We should really, really be investing in social services for communities.

This is messed up. And every time I think about it I have to hold back tears because I feel for people who don’t have the benefits we do. How can I help you? Can I do something? What can we do?

I think so much, and it was so overwhelming that all I could do was cry.

Tamara Turner, a guidance counselor with Shelby County Schools, and her husband, Van Turner, a Shelby County commissioner, with their children, Malik, 14, a freshman at East High School; Masai, 12, a seventh-grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy; and Malia, 8, a fourth-grader at Idlewild Elementary School.

Van (left) and Tamara (second from right) with their children.

Van: I was really disheartened that this issue became political, and we did not rely upon science to resolve this issue. In this instance, it appears that Gov. [Bill] Lee, although well-meaning and intentioned perhaps, really should have listened more to the science and the data and issued stronger policies and executive orders statewide. You know, even to date he has refused to promote or pass a statewide mask ordinance.

He’s also pushed schools reopening statewide. He has not indicated that schools should not reopen. I think what you have is something that could possibly lead to more spread. … We may be virtual here, but in other counties, which we neighbor, they are not virtual. I think that’s why you need statewide action.

Tamara: We were given the option to telework, so I will telework. But, of course, when needed or if a situation arises where I need to be there, I will be there at the school. …

My kids are a little older, so you know they’re kind of able to navigate (Microsoft) Teams (the online platform SCS is using for virtual learning), and so we’ve been working and practicing on it. They’re pretty much able to navigate. …

We’re figuring out a space for them; getting things set up where they can have their own individual learning spaces. Just kind of preparing them to know that even though we’re at home, we’re at school from this time to this time. …

In March and April, I would run and get my daughter logged in to her teacher’s Zoom call, and then I would have mine on my phone on mute, and then run and tell my son, ‘Don’t forget your class is meeting at 10 o’clock. You know you’ve got to get on here at this time.’ We actually had to extend our wi-fi this past year. Yeah, it can get a little hectic with everyone working from home.

Whitney Sykes, a project manager for a contractor firm, has an 11-year-old daughter, Bella, a sixth-grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.

Whitney Sykes (right) with her daughter, Bella.

Whitney: Her (Bella’s) fear of the ‘corona’ is kind of heightened sometimes. She thinks, ‘I don’t want to be outside because someone’s gonna cough on me.’ If I cough or sneeze too much she’s looking at me like, ‘Are you ok?’

I think that once it’s safe, I’m not even worried: I’m pretty sure she’ll bounce back to normal. As long as she knows that it’s here and people are getting sick, she in no way wants to be included in that number.

Her preference still was to be there in person, because she’s like, ‘I know me, and I can’t guarantee that my attention will be where it should be online, virtually. … I need to be in a class to get the most out of a lesson.’ That’s how she learns, and I know that about her.

And that’s what me and some of the other moms that I talked to were talking about, and the anxiety that they still have with virtual. Are our girls going to be fully vested in and make the most out of this or are they going to use their wits to beat the system?

Everybody has their issues about why it will or won’t work for them. Even the other parents that do work from home, they’re like ‘Yes, I can work from home, but when I’m at home, I can’t necessarily do my work and make sure that my child is still engaged.’

I work for a contractor that rehabs houses. I make the budget for the rehab, I hire the painters, the electricians as needed. I purchase the materials and I visit the job site to make sure we’re going to make our deadline and that everything’s getting done. I’m a babysitter basically.

Yesterday, me and Bella went to check on a job site. That’s why I was banking on in-person [teaching], but I’m just going to have to make the most of it or make my visits in the evening after school hours.

It’s very stressful, but I have to make it work. Hopefully, I will use my village of other parents and family members to help us get through this.

Fatima and Larry Jackson are both essential workers at the United States Postal Service and the City of Memphis, respectively. Their children are Khadija, 12, a seventh-grader at Bellevue Middle School, and Malik, 7, a second-grader at Idlewild Elementary School.

Fatima and Larry Jackson with their children at Shelby Farms Park.

Fatima: I have mixed feelings (about virtual learning). Healthwise, I think it’s kind of good because it’s hard to get kids to be still and follow all the guidelines (while at school). But at the same time, with me having a 7-year-old boy and with our jobs, it’s challenging.

I had to find someone to be with them while we’re at work. It’s tough. A friend of mine and my mother-in-law are going to help me out.

Both of them are very athletic. … Khadija plays basketball, she runs and she plays soccer. And Malik plays soccer and basketball. Khadija — it’s taking a toll on her, because basketball was her happy place. Basketball was like a fun thing for her.

We have sat both of them down and explained the situation. But a 7-year-old, how much can they process? It doesn’t matter how much we talk and try to convince them, they are not seeing the bigger picture. They’re just thinking, ‘Oh, I want to see my friends. Oh, I want to go to school.’ So it’s kind of hard to keep the balance.

My concerns and questions are about some of these kids, not mine per se. For some of these kids, school is their safe zone, it’s their food source, it’s their livelihood. How are we going to address kids’ mental state? Because that is very important. What about those kids with learning disabilities?

Are we just going to abandon these kids and leave them at home?! What about low-income people? What about the people that cannot afford not to go to work? What happens?

I know a lot of parents are going to have to leave their kids home alone. How are we going to make sure they’re getting what they need, that they’re staying focused in class? It’s a lot of things, and I don’t think they’ve thought about it all the way through.

Larry: Sitting in front of the computer for six or seven hours, I know I’m an adult and I can’t sit like that. I get very fidgety and restless. So I’m just hoping that they still get an understanding and the education they need through the computer system.

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