Virtual school is hard enough. It’s even more chaotic for a family of 9

A newspaper editor and mom of seven shares her family's new normal.

Houston Chronicle editor Jennifer Radcliffe with her seven children. Courtesy of Annie Mulligan

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During the coronavirus pandemic, families across the country are trying to figure out how to work from home, manage childcare, and adapt to virtual school. Jennifer Radcliffe and her clan are no different—except perhaps in terms of scale.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, families across the country are trying to figure out how to work from home, manage childcare, and adapt to virtual school. Jennifer Radcliffe and her clan are no different—except perhaps in terms of scale.

Radcliffe is an assistant city editor at the Houston Chronicle and a mom of seven. With kids in the house from ages 2 to 13, in preschool through seventh grade, school-from-home is a different beast. While Radcliffe is still heading into the newsroom (with journalism considered an essential job during the crisis), she is at home during some of the school day, while her husband, an advising manager at Houston Community College, works from home full-time.

Radcliffe talked to Fortune about what working and studying from home during a pandemic looks like for a family of nine.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: What is your family’s normal, pre-pandemic school routine like?

Jennifer Radcliffe: On a normal day, I get up at 5:45 a.m. to pack lunches, make breakfast, brush hair, find shoes, load up backpacks. We are out the door by 7:30 a.m. at the latest. My five oldest are split between two public schools, and the two youngest are in preschool part-time.

I don’t miss this part at all! Preschool drop-offs are done around 8:45 a.m., and then I head off to teach at the University of Houston or work at the Chronicle. I leave to start pickups at 1:40 p.m. There is lots of time spent waiting around in carpool lines. We would get back home around 3:45 p.m. For the most part, outside of a bit of nagging, they handled their schoolwork themselves. My husband and I are swamped just with housework and basic daily maintenance, like laundry and cooking. I’ll quiz for a spelling test or double-check a math worksheet, but I am too busy to micromanage.

What’s it like doing school for seven kids at home now?

Online classes started in our district on March 31. The second schools shut down, though, my social media timelines filled with all sorts of “helpful” tips on how to teach kids from home. Pretty soon, you feel like you need to be logged on to all the sites, printing all the worksheets, ordering workbooks, listening to podcasts, and making a plan to get them into med school or Harvard or both all on your own.

And then the district sent its plan, which is full of Zoom meetings, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classrooms. There’s Living Tree, Remind, Ready Rosie, Flip Grid. I had to make a Google Sheet with passwords and links. It’s a lot—a lot of websites, a lot of passwords, a lot of videoconferences for adults who are also trying to care for younger children, do real jobs at home, and live a very different type of life than we are used to. But, at the same time, I get that you have to figure out a way because your kids have to learn to read and do division and identify continents. So it’s a problem everyone is struggling with and everyone is trying their hardest.

There was a huge learning curve. It definitely was not easy. I think I finally have all the passwords and websites stored now at least. We started to get into a decent groove—I was spending about an hour a day helping the kids one-on-one and feeling pretty good about it all. We even finished a color-wheel art project that had been assigned to my kindergartner. But when I went back over the teachers’ to-do lists, I realized we had missed way more assignments than I thought. We didn’t do any of the desert habitat lessons. We skipped a bunch of math. I’m pretty sure the teachers will be super flexible and forgiving. They are just trying to get their feet underneath them too.

One of the harder parts is, with everyone home all day every day, there is considerably more housework. It’s hard to focus on their academics when there are messes and laundry to deal with. So you add that into the equation, and it’s really a lot. But I know it’s a phase, like all of life, and it will pass. Hopefully soon. The great news is that the kids seem fine. They’re enjoying the extra time at home and as a family. So that’s a silver lining.

What’s the setup in the house like—where in the house are you all working?

We have an office with two computers, and the new rule is that you lock the door if you can’t be interrupted. We have a dining room table covered with laptops and schoolwork too. We’re trying to be more careful not to walk behind anyone who may be Zooming and not screaming while someone may be on a call, but the little kids don’t really get that. And the dog doesn’t really get that.

There’s just not enough quiet spaces for all the things that need to be done in the same window of the day. One day last week, I had a work call, two Zoom sessions with teachers, and a gymnastics lesson all overlapping. I tried to set up various laptops and phones in various places and we somehow made it work.

What are the teachers asking you, as parents, to do? Are those asks manageable for a family with so many kids at home, versus a family with one or two kids doing virtual learning?

I think the teachers understand that our 2-year-old has plenty of company at home and doesn’t need to see her classmates. Our other teachers are very kind and tell me to just do what I can. In fact, one teacher recently told me that while going through the homeschool scenarios, she kept thinking, “But how would Jennifer be able to do this?” They were sort of testing their scenarios against whether a family like mine could be successful. But you also may have families with one child and more downtime who may really need more specific schedules and want a heavier workload to keep busy.

Are there any other families in your kids’ schools who have as many siblings? Or does it feel like your family is in unique circumstances compared to your kids’ classmates right now?

I definitely have friends with four and five kids. Just managing two or three can be hard in this circumstance. And, honestly, I feel bad sometimes for families with just one child right now because, while they have less to juggle, those kids can sometimes be a bit lonely and the parents have to do a lot more to entertain them, while also trying to do their real jobs from home. I’m sure that can be draining too. My kids can stay busy all day without direction from me. I may need to referee from time to time, but they don’t need me to entertain them.

How do those at-home learning and childcare responsibilities affect you and your husband?

I think the hardest part about what’s happening now is that it really hurts your ability to compartmentalize. Kids did school things at school. Mom and Dad do work things at work. Just having enough devices, enough one-on-one attention, and enough peace and quiet is impossible. No one has that bandwidth.

Do the older children help with the younger kids’ school at all?

Sometimes they play school with the little ones and that’s really helpful. You take for granted that someone will teach them their letters and shapes. That they will learn by osmosis. Sometimes they set up stations around the dining room table. One will be responsible for a math class and one for an art class.

What is your own work like right now?

I have been working from the newsroom still. There’s a skeleton staff here—we are considered an essential job—and I have enjoyed the peace and quiet. But our jobs as journalists are busy and grim right now. So being weighed down by that reality, while trying to parent, teach, and operate a homeschool and manage a big household is a lot. I teach three newswriting classes at the University of Houston too. They are all online-only right now, which is very manageable for me, but it does take time to grade and connect with students.

In reality, my everyday life was busy and somewhat unmanageable. And now I’ve traded prepping lunches, rushing to school, and waiting in carpool lines for this new, hopefully temporary, reality of overseeing academics at home. I didn’t have the old system perfected, despite years of practice, so there’s no reason to expect that I would be good at this new one yet either. I know we have to be gentle with ourselves and our families right now, and I definitely keep that at the front of my mind. I am in so many ways enjoying this extra time I have with my family and trying to make the best of it, while also ensuring that they don’t fall behind or forget how to read or something.

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