By Brenda Zuniga, as told to Jennifer Clopton
I’m a college student -- and now, unexpectedly, I find myself also acting as a “teacher.” I’m helping my two younger siblings with virtual school 7 hours a day, 5 days a week … managing my own online schoolwork and working a full-time job remotely.
As the firstborn in my family -- and a woman, at that -- there was never a question that I would be the second in line when it comes to caregiving. This is common in many cultures, and it is something I have long been accustomed to. My parents’ English is not the best. My mother moved here from Mexico in her 20s, and while she and my stepfather both speak English and understand it, they aren’t especially confident in their English skills. Spanish is still much easier for them, and it’s the only language they speak at home with us.
That has long left me in charge of overseeing many things for our family. I am the oldest of four children. One is 18 and already graduated, but two are still in school -- Saul is 12 and in fifth grade and Citlali is 8 and in third. I’ve always helped with pretty much anything that has to do with speaking or writing English -- which is mostly everything. Since I was about 8, I’ve helped make phone calls, schedule doctor’s appointments, return emails, and sort through letters, written correspondence from school, documents related to taxes, and more. I’ve always researched whatever we don’t know or understand to try to figure it all out. Since I was about 12, I’ve always spoken English to my siblings too, to help prepare them for school.
My brother and sister attend public school, and our county went 100% virtual at the start of this school year. My parents and other sister have slowly started to go back to work, which leaves me as the only one to oversee the kids while I work remotely and do online school from home.
I sit with them all day and I am here for them with academic, tech, and logistic support as well as mentally and emotionally supporting them and being their listener -- making sure they’re keeping up with all the teacher is saying and asking of them, and listening to them share how they feel about it all too. I have come to see myself as more of their at-home counselor than just an overseer, and I take that role really seriously.
The kids are trying their best, but this is not easy. The tech is complicated and hard to grasp. There is so much to follow, and I’ll be honest, I don’t always know what is going on.
But you know what? Even so, my siblings and I still think this is going better than we expected. Sure, there is a lot that could be better. But given our circumstances, I think we're doing really well. Saul and Citlali’s number one worry was the schedule and whether they would have any time to just be kids. Their teachers have been amazing so far and provide as many small breaks as they can, something they do not necessarily have to do. So the kids have been pleasantly surprised by that.
I think my biggest challenge is keeping them focused. This is something that works as a partnership between the teachers and us -- parents, guardians, and overseers at home -- and I think everyone is trying really hard. I’ve also started doing mindfulness activities with them through YouTube videos and gratitude journals at the beginning and end of their school day. That really helps me know where the kids are emotionally each day and what I can do to help and support them mentally.
I am one to think positively about almost anything, and I do see many benefits to having them home, including making sure they have healthier meal options, more efficient “recess” time where they get to choose what they feel THEY need, and less contact with others which of course, minimizes a COVID-19 infection. So far, the kids have handled it amazingly. I am extremely proud of them for really trying their hardest to do the work, learn to navigate different technologies, and bear with all of the adults involved as we try to figure out all of these new things too.
I do think that they are getting what they need educationally, and I actually think they are getting more out of this than physically being at school because they get taught in smaller groups. The teacher will go over a big lesson all together, but then they will break into smaller groups based on the students’ strengths and weaknesses. This allows the students to really ask questions and be taught in a similar style as the other four to five students in their group.
As of now, we will not be changing anything this year. I hope public schools chose not to reopen until we have a SAFE vaccine. Before I make any decisions, I always try to be as informed as I can be to make the best decision I can for my family, but I know my family and I will not feel safe sending them back like this. I hope we are not forced to.
My siblings and I have always been close, but I do think we are even tighter now as we tackle this pandemic experience together. This has bonded us in new and beautiful ways. So when the time comes to decide what comes next, I trust that we will know what’s best for them and we will make that decision as we do all things … together as a family.
Brenda Zuniga is a college student in the Washington, DC, area.