ATLANTA — On a mild August afternoon, Asia Mitchell styles hair in the living room of her two-bedroom apartment as she talks on the phone. In the background are voices of some of her children — ranging in age from 2 months to 14 years old — asking her for help with their schoolwork.
Like thousands of parents throughout Atlanta and its neighboring counties, Mitchell juggles her job and supervising her children’s virtual learning while schools are closed because of the coronavirus.
“Between being tech support, teacher, chef, hairstylist and nurse, it’s a lot,” the single mother of seven said from her apartment in Riverdale, a city of about 15,000 a few miles south of Atlanta’s airport.
That’s the challenge many Black parents in metro Atlanta are facing as schools reopened in August with virtual learning only. That has forced many parents to find child care alternatives while they are at work or work from home if they can. There also are additional costs many families struggle to cover, such as buying laptop computers when some school districts ran out.
At the same time, the pandemic places added pressure on Black parents. Nationwide, Black people are dying from COVID-19 at 2.4 times the rate of white people. In Georgia, Black residents make up 31% of the population but account for 37% of the confirmed virus cases and 43% of the deaths — more than 2,300. Among the counties with the highest death rates per 100,000 residents, four of the top seven are Georgia counties where Black residents are the largest racial or ethnic group. The state has recorded more than 5,600 deaths from the virus, including 137 in Clayton County, where 69% of the residents are Black and where Mitchell lives.
Mitchell starts her day at 6:30 a.m., waking up her children for school and getting her 4-year-old daughter ready for pre-K, which starts at 7:15 a.m. The other children are doing their morning routine and eating breakfast between 7:30 and 8 a.m.
“If they start school by 8 a.m. it’s pointless to let them sleep,” Mitchell said. “I have to help everyone but my oldest log on. For the first 30 minutes I make sure they’re focused and aren’t on YouTube.”
If she’s not with a customer, Mitchell spends the day cleaning and preparing lunch — a more difficult task than it seems because the children have different lunch schedules. Mitchell’s mom also lives with her and picks up the younger child from pre-K.
“I’m just consumed by them from 8 to 3 p.m.,” she said, adding she starts dinner by 4 p.m. and baths at 5 p.m. Sundays are reserved for uniform wash day, and then she starts the weekly routine all over again.
While the students aren’t required to wear uniforms while learning from home, Mitchell said making her children wear them reminds them they’re in school and need to take it seriously.
“Instead of being lax at home, slouched on the couch, I saw that when I let them do that for the first couple days of school, they fell asleep on the couch. They were on YouTube. They weren’t really paying attention,” she said. “Now with the uniforms on, it’s not as comfortable as it was with just a uniform shirt and some leggings or basketball shorts.”
For some parents, managing the logistics of work and school is the tip of the iceberg. Southeast Atlanta resident Yavonne Clark spent $300 on tablets for her nieces and nephews after she said the DeKalb County School District ran out of Chromebooks to give to students.
“With everything going on, I didn’t have $300 just lying around,” said Clark, who is helping her brother’s family after he lost his job in March when the virus forced businesses to close. He’s been relying on unemployment until he finds work. “We’re just at a point where families have to pull together to have what they need.”
The lack of resources for students learning virtually reverberates across metro Atlanta, including in Clayton County where Mitchell lives. She said she had to pay $300 for additional tablets and purchased Wi-Fi hotspots so her children would have adequate access to the Internet.
In Cobb County, Dorothy Thompson bought her grandson an iPad, a Bluetooth keyboard and a cord to connect his iPad to his monitor, allowing him to do the assignments while following along in class.
Thompson was able to get the supplies needed for her grandson, but she said many parents can’t. “Especially the ones that are out of work. My heart goes out to them,” she said.
Thompson called the first day back to school in Cobb County a tragedy.
“Monday was a tragedy. Tuesday, there was not so much blood but still bleeding. And Wednesday was as good as Tuesday,” she said.
Thompson said there was a missed opportunity to allow parents and grandparents to test out the digital system so they can help children with assignments.
“I mean, we were out of school long enough, I believe for the teachers and for the county to have come up with a plan B just in case we weren’t going back,” she said. “And it did not happen. I can’t say that it happened. I believe they’re doing their best. But this was a loss of opportunity.”
Cobb County School Board member Leroy “Tre” Hutchins said the district distributed at least 26,000 laptops and tablets before the first week of school and more are on the way.
“We all recognize that digital opportunity is the best opportunity. However, we are a working community,” said Hutchins, who represents residents in south Cobb County. “And as a result of that, oftentimes we’re struggling between how we’ll continue to provide for the household and making sure children are supported. For those families where there are essential workers who work throughout the day, they’re now going to have to navigate how they will ensure that virtual learning is working for their child if they’re not there. That’s going to be the biggest hurdle for families here.”
Hutchins said he would like to see the district work within the community to meet parents’ needs.
“I don’t believe anyone expects the school district to do everything, nor that they have the capability to do so. It is going to take robust partnerships with other community partners. So maybe about a month ago, once we found out we were going virtual, many of our childcare facilities and many of our families started pulling together to create small learning pods so that five or six kids within a community get together at one person’s home during the day. And then they could share the responsibility of making sure that (children) are all logged in for those four hours that we’re having our digital learning process. Several child care centers have also opened up their spaces for that.”
For Zan Armstrong, technology and child care are the least of her worries.
Armstrong and her daughters had to move into her parents’ Warner Robbins home — an hour and a half south of Atlanta — after she was unable to find an affordable apartment near her child’s school.
“It’s not that I can’t afford rent. But when you’re a single mom, they want you to make three times whatever the rent is. So my rent is one thousand dollars. They want you to make three times that, which is not even possible,” said the mother of two.
Right now, her daughter’s school in College Park is holding virtual classes, but all students could return to the classroom as early as October.
If that’s the case, Armstrong will have to put her daughter in a different school and is leaning toward a private school since her third-grader is working on a fifth-grade level.
Working out of a small apartment isn’t ideal, either. Mitchell is saving money to move to a larger place that accommodates her family. A larger place will also come in handy when she starts a new job with Sprint working as tech support from home from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. She’ll continue to do hair on the weekends.
“You might have one in the kitchen, one in my bedroom and two in the living room,” she said. “It’s just a lot and not enough resources to help families. We’re in a two-bedroom, one bath. Going to school was a big help.”
Despite the stress, Mitchell said she’s glad schools are starting virtually. “I choose life over anything when it comes to that, I won’t put my kids’ lives in danger. When everything gets up and running, sure. But for the time being, we’re just going to have to be OK with it.”
Raisa Haberham is an Atlanta-based reporter whose work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on The Daily Beast and BET.com. This is part of a series funded by a grant from the Rita Allen Foundation to report and present stories about the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color, Americans living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.