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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Londyn Lewis’s first-grade teacher in Birmingham City Schools starts the day with a little exercise for her students.

“We’re going to get up and do a little moving to get oxygen to our brain,” the teacher’s voice echoes through the computer speaker.

On cue, 6-year-old Londyn stands up from the chair she has been sitting in at her grandmother’s dining room table, pushes it back and starts swinging her arms to the music.

A video has now replaced the teacher on the computer screen.

As Londyn sways to the fast-paced song with a techno beat, a male voice sings these lyrics to the tune:

London Barber participates in a dance break during virtual learning (WIAT Photo)
Londyn Barber participates in a dance break during virtual learning (WIAT Photo)

“The alphabet is filled

with consonants and vowels.

We write them.

We read them.

Each letter makes a sound.

While we start with A-B-C,

 we go all the way to Z.”

Londyn dances across the table from her 8-year-old sister Lyric, who is getting her lesson off a smartphone. 

Birmingham City Schools are teaching students remotely for the first nine weeks of the school year. Londyn and Lyric’s mother, Dewanna Barber, worries about the impact the remote learning will have on her children’s education. The girls had been out of school since March before classes resumed online on Sept. 8. 

Lyric was an honor students before the pandemic and her mom worries whether she'll be able to continue (WIAT Photo)
Lyric was an honor student before the pandemic and her mom worries whether she’ll be able to continue (WIAT Photo)

“My oldest, she was in the gifted class and stuff and I don’t really feel like she is, like, as hands-on really,” she said. “Like I said, I really feel like it would be a different outcome if they were face to face with the teacher.”

Remote learning comes with its own schedule, too.  Londyn and Lyric begin online school at 8 a.m. Monday through Thursday. The morning session is for three hours, then there is a break from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then class resumes from 1-3 p.m. There are no classes on Fridays.

The schedule does not accommodate working parents like Barber, who has to take Londyn and Lyric to their grandmother’s house before she heads into work. 

“It’s hard. I have to be to work extra early,” she said, adding that their grandmothers work too, and “when they’re at work, I have to call off to stay home with them. So, it’s kind of frustrating, kind of hard.”

  • Londyn Barber sits at her grandmother's kitchen table to do her virtual schoolwork (Courtesy Audrey Lewis)
  • Lyric Barber attends online school at one of her grandmother's homes (Courtesy Audrey Lewis)
  • Londyn Barber participates in a dance break during virtual learning (WIAT Photo)
  • Londyn and Lyric study together at their dining room table (WIAT Photo)

Millions of families work, but need help with care

She’s not alone. In an article called “Parenting Through the Pandemic:  Who’s Working, Who’s Caring for the Kids, and What Policies Might help” published in the Rand Corporation’s “The Rand Blog” in April, authors Kathryn A. Edwards, Grace Evans and Daniel Schwam looked at data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Current Population Survey.

According to the Rand analysis:

  • There are 26 million workers who have children 14 or younger but do not have in-home care options.
  • 3.75 million are single parents
  • 22.1 million individuals are dual-earning couples
  • .5 million are grandparents

Rachel Olis and her family are among those who immediately felt the strain of working and schooling from home when the pandemic hit. 

The Olis family learned and worked together at home (Courtesy Olis family)
The Olis family learned and worked together at home (Courtesy Olis family)

“It was quite challenging because we basically had zero notice from when my kids were in school full time and I was working full time, to when we were all home together,” Olis said. “Two working parents trying to work at home, also trying to home school our kids.”

It was difficult to keep everyone on schedule, she remembered.

“The other challenging part of it is my son, who is in seventh grade — there’s a 5-year difference between him and my second grader, so it was very different curriculum, very different virtual platforms that we were working with and very different schedules and learning styles.”

Olis is still working from home because of COVID-19, but her children have returned to traditional, in-person school in Helena five days a week.

That’s not the case for Birmingham City Schools and the parents of the more than 22,000 students who are still juggling work and supervising their children’s online learning.

Employer steps up to fill a need

The University of Alabama Birmingham, the state’s largest employer with 23,000 employees, started addressing the working parents’ struggle by providing safe, supervised spaces for their children to learn when schools first closed due to COVID-19 back in March.

“Early on in the first month of the shutdown, we formed a childcare taskforce,” said Project Director in the UAB Office of the President, Emily Wykle. “People were already faced with, ‘What do I do with my kids? I’m still having to work.'”

The UAB School of Medicine conducted research through a survey and got more than two thousand responses in the first two hours.

“There is not a lot of surveys where you get that kind of response so quickly,” Wykle said.

As a result, Wykle said they put employees who were working parents in two buckets: Full-time on-site workers who needed full-time childcare and workers doing a hybrid work from home, work on-site schedule, who needed supervised environments for their children if they had to come on-site.

Those buckets proved beneficial when the school year started across Central Alabama. School systems reopened in a variety of ways, most gradually moving from remote learning and smaller student populations every other day, to where we are today with many systems fully open but some still online only while they monitor COVID-19 in the community to decide next steps.

“We have a partnership with Mcwane Science Center where they are essentially providing full-time care in an environment where students can get support completing their virtual learning and also participate in STEM extra-curricular kind of learning opportunities,” Wykle said.

Parents pay a sliding scale fee for their children to participate. This partnership ends Oct. 31, but Wykle said they would re-evaluate the program at that time.

A second option is the Hub at the Hilton and UAB. It’s designed to accommodate the many hybrid learning systems area schools have and the working parent’s day as well.

“That’s really designed for people who, whether they are Birmingham City schools or Jefferson County schools or their school is on a hybrid system, but they just need somewhere a couple days a week, for a couple of hours a day, for their child to be,” Wykle said.

Children can spend 3 ½ hours a day at the hub, twice a week. They bring their own electronic devices and it costs $15 dollars per child, per session. The university did not want cost to be a barrier to any of the programs.

Parents register online for their children to drop in for safe supervised learning with students from UAB School of Education and UAB School of Nursing

According to Wykle, “they’ve also been trained on COVID safety protocols. So, they’re supervising the children in small groups, socially distanced during the day.”

There is also a third option for parents whose children are not K-8 in partnership with Childcare Resources Incorporated. UAB provides a list of providers on its website that have openings and meet the quality of childcare standards Childcare Resources recommends.  Those types of partnerships in the community can help other employers who may not be able to provide virtual learning help for employee children on the scale of the Virtual Learning Hub at the Hilton at UAB.

The Carpenter twins Anna Kate and Lee Ann learn inside the UAB hub (WIAT Photo)
The Carpenter twins Anna Kate and Lee Ann learn inside the UAB hub (WIAT Photo)

Megan Carpenter, who teaches Occupational Therapy at UAB, uses the Hub for her third-grade daughters when she has to work on campus.  They have a family member who is considered high risk for COVID-19.  She says the HUB made it possible for her to choose remote learning as an option for her children’s education during the pandemic.

“I can still go into the office for high-priority tasks, high-priority projects and know that there is somewhere where they can be where they are safe and having fun and they’re getting their school work done, but they are also abiding strictly to the CDC guidelines,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said her children also get assistance with the technology they have to use.

Anna Kate Carpenter learns at the UAB hub (WIAT Photo)
Anna Kate Carpenter learns at the UAB hub (WIAT Photo)

“Mine are 8 years old, and every now and then they still come and ask me a question about Google Classroom or Accelerate Education, and need help putting a text box here or figuring out how to spell check something,” Carpenter said. “They can also help with those things as well, but also help if they can’t figure out a math problem.”

She’s thrilled with the Hub at the Hilton at UAB.

“Not only did UAB offer this, but they’ve done it well,” Carpenter said. “It makes it so easy for me to get online, sign-up to bring them. Drop off is easy. It’s a secure location. My children feel safe. I feel safe leaving them there. Pick up is easy.”

The school will determine the success of the program based on how much employees use it. Wykle said they are already sharing what they’ve learned with other University and Academic Medical Centers. She says what they learned from the research they did with UAB employees is that, “one of the mitigating factors they talked about was perceived support from your organization can go a long way towards making people feel better, more supported, equipped to do their job and handle the kids at home.”

Help for a mom in need

London and Lyric study together at their dining room table (WIAT Photo)
Londyn and Lyric study together at their dining room table (WIAT Photo)

UAB is doing more to get the word out to employees about the virtual learning HUB for their children. It sent out communications via email to staff who sign up to get those messages.

“I hope we can convey this message in your story: there is still space and we really want to encourage people to take advantage of these things,” Wykle said. “We know life isn’t going back to normal anytime soon and we all have to continue to support one another so these programs won’t go away, and we want to make sure that people are taking advantage of them.”

It turns out Londyn and Lyric’s mom, DeWanna Barber, works at UAB and she did not know about the program. 

A spokesperson said the university would work to get the information to Barber.

“If I could send them to that, I’m pretty sure they could help out more than their grandmothers can,” Barber said.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

WIAT’s Sherri Jackson and KXAN’s Josh Hinkle speak with Emily Wykle of the University of Alabama at Birmingham about how the college created learning environments for its employees’ children during the pandemic.