Virtual Work, Virtual School: How Northwoods Families Juggle At-Home Pandemic Life

Oct 29, 2020

Leanne Vigue Miranda's daughters, Phoebe (left) and Luna, work on virtual school projects at home.
Credit Leanne Vigue Miranda

Several times a day, one of Leanne Vigue Miranda’s daughters taps on her shoulder while she’s in a Zoom meeting.

Phoebe, a fourth-grader, or Luna, a kindergartener, has a homework question or computer issue.

“I constantly feel like my focus is being shifted every five to ten minutes,” Miranda said.

Miranda is the registrar at Nicolet College, and she’s been working from home since the pandemic started. Sometimes, her days include ten virtual meetings while her daughters learn virtually nearby.

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Interruptions, internet problems, and kids stuck in front of a screen are all issues parents are facing this fall if they chose to have their children learn virtually.

When those parents are trying to work from home at the same time, those challenges are doubled.

COVID-19 concerns led families to choose the virtual option for 28 percent of children in the School District of Rhinelander this fall. That’s 680 kids, each in a family working to balance home-learning.

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Miranda knows the juggling act. For example, few weeks ago, Luna kept asking for help while her mother was in a work meeting.

“Finally, she came over to me and she said, ‘Mom, your kid is way more important than your computer.’ I paused and I thought, you know what, she’s totally right,” Miranda said.

Because of people with health issues in the family, the girls’ parents decided to keep Phoebe and Luna learning virtually this fall instead of sending them to school in person.

It was a difficult decision.

“Very, very tough,” Miranda admitted. “We’re still not sure that we did the right thing, and probably never will know for sure.”

A fourth-grade math class at Rhinelander's Central Elementary School.

Also in Rhinelander, Shelley Watz wrestled with the same choice for her kids.

Payten and Trevor, both in fifth grade, were desperate to go to school.

Instead, Watz kept them home, concerned for her family’s health.

Like Miranda, she now has to balance their school with her work under the same roof.

“Sometimes, it’s kind of chaos,” Watz said with a laugh.

Watz is a medical referral coordinator for Ascension, working largely from home.

She usually wakes the kids up during one of her Zoom meetings, then puts them on a Zoom meeting of their own for virtual class.

“My kids, when they need help, I’m like, okay, when I’m done with this call. Let me just finish this paperwork up and then I can help you,” Watz said. “It’s all day.”

It’s an exhausting balance, Watz said.

Shelley Watz's fifth-grade son, Trevor, in a virtual class.
Credit Shelley Watz

From time to time, Watz’s son Trevor meets with Central Elementary School teacher Cathy Rogich to work on math.

Rogich is a special education teacher who, nowadays, never sees the classroom. She’s fully online. Rogich volunteered to be a virtual teacher, and she said it’s going better than she could have expected.

“At the beginning, it felt kind of disjointed. Everybody was kind of reluctant to log on and all that,” she said. “Now, I feel, really, a sense of community with the groups. It’s really cool to see as time has gone on.”

Rogich believes the virtual option actually provides a better learning experience for some of her special education students, especially those with social or attention struggles.

“I’m finding I’m having a much easier time getting a lesson across one-to-one or in a small group on Zoom than I can in a classroom setting sometimes,” she said.

Rogich enjoys it so much, she’d like to stay a virtual teacher even after the pandemic ends.

Teacher Cathy Rogich works with Shelley Watz's son, Trevor, on math homework.

Back in the Miranda house, the girls were showing off their project of the day. It’s a comic book. Luna does the drawings, and Phoebe writes the story.

It’s work done away from a screen. Hours on screens, of course, are a necessity of virtual learning, which bothers their mom, Leanne.

“There’s a lot of guilt that comes with that, because I don’t even know if that’s okay. I don’t know,” she said.

Meanwhile, Miranda has no option but to stick to her screen all day, as a full-time worker, full-time mom, and frequent homework helper.

“I still feel high level stress all day long. You have to be on your game. You can never let your guard down,” she said. “You’re always thinking, what’s next? What’s next?”

Working from home, learning from home, the interruptions, and the stress might not change for a long time if the pandemic persists, as Shelley Watz told her kids.

“I told them, which they weren’t happy, I said, there is no certain answer. You may be doing this for another whole year at home. I said, I’m sorry, but this is the reality of it,” Watz said.

Both parents told us they appreciate spending more time with their kids at home and like having a better understanding of what they’re learning in school. For Miranda, though, the only way to stay composed is by taking a short-term view.

“I live day by day. Because, otherwise, that prospect of, oh my gosh, I have to continue this for eight more months is super scary and intimidating.”

Leanne Vigue Miranda's daughters, learning virtually.
Credit Leanne Vigue Miranda