Erin’s Story: How One Woman’s Journey Through The Pandemic Gives Insight Into The Debate Over When To Reopen Schools

Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images
FOR LICENSING: Please Contact me at Todd [at] ToddBigelowPhotography [dot] com

In March when the Covid19 pandemic hit, Erin Jundef was earning six figures working for a top notch PR firm and, like most mothers, monitoring homework with her kids at night. By April, she was the full-time teacher for her two, virtual learning kids and was figuring out how to apply for unemployment. 

Erin made sure Spencer’s graduation from Hale Academy Middle School was special despite being virtual.

Erin’s life before the pandemic was not one of extreme hardship nor was it one of privilege. It was quintessentially American; a middle-of-the-road life defined, much as it is throughout the nation, by her professional career and devotion to her two children, especially their education. She worked remotely from a spare bedroom in her suburban tract home and spent most of her spare time shuttling her kids to activities and school.

As the unique school year came to a close, somewhat mercifully, Erin wondered about the fall school year. “Can I really do this for another four months?” 


 

This Is Erin’s Story 

 

It could be that the universe is telling me to slow down and to enjoy the time I have with my kids and family – to be present and to be in the moment – or maybe it’s the universe pushing me towards a new opportunity. I don’t know, but this pandemic has revealed in me a sense of resolve, a determination to fight through an incredibly disruptive time in my life.  

I am a single mom to two great kids – Spencer, 13, and Brooklyn, 9 – and our world was turned upside down last March as the schools were abruptly shuttered and kids sent home to be educated. Seemingly overnight, I was faced with navigating their academic lives while managing my own work as a communications professional. Fortunately, we were well equipped with desks and computers so that my kids were able to continue their education without too much physical disruption, but for Brooklyn it was a bit more of a challenge. I couldn’t just drop her in front of the computer and assume she would complete her lessons while I worked. She needed assistance and guidance and I was unsure if I could fill that role just based on the sheer number of hours required. See, instead of just being a mom who normally works from home and oversees a bit of homework each night, I was suddenly thrust into being a mom, a communications professional, the sole breadwinner and a full-time teacher – and let me say that my kids definitely didn’t like the latter. My daughter pushed back relentlessly to the point that each day my first thought was, “I need to just get through the rest of the school year and all will be fine.”


“Summer was a couple months away and hopefully the virus would abate enough to let the kids return to school. Whether I was suffering from naiveté or just wishful thinking is unknown, to be honest, because all I know is I’m now staring at four more months of the same.”


The overnight transition was hardly seamless. I worked all hours of the day to accommodate distance learning from home, often juggling Zoom work meetings and helping Brooklyn with work. Thank goodness my work understood and others were in the same situation because it was a challenge, to say the least. Then, on April 22, my world was rocked; after 14 years at the same communications company, I was furloughed. I was numb when I received the call and panic set-in. I have never been let go from a job, I didn’t know what do and I had to keep my kids from any more turbulent news. “How the hell do you file for unemployment?” I thought, never having done it before.

I did what I had to do, battled through the insanity of applying for unemployment in the state the size of most countries, and processed this development as a sign to redirect all of my attention to my children’s education. From the end of April through June, my days revolved completely around supporting them academically and emotionally. Being home all the time, not seeing friends and denied the chance to participate in day-to-day, normal activities weighed heavily on my kids. The longed to have play dates, to feel normal and I certainly understood, but what could I do? Truth is, I felt the same and eventually allowed for some limited interaction with a very few, selected people who were carefully screened.

As the end of the school year approached, it came with mixed emotion. Spencer was graduating from middle school and the in-person graduation was cancelled. I wanted to celebrate him and his academic success. Already he’d had to unceremoniously clear out his school lockers and return books. It all seemed so sad and such an unceremonious end to three years of hard work. The official graduation was held virtually but I was determined to make this a day for my son to remember. I got up early and decorated the house and invited just family over to celebrate Spencer receiving three academic honors during the virtual graduation. I was so proud that I even ordered him a cap and gown and had him walk into our backyard where the family had gathered. “I’m so proud of you,” I told him after he had tossed his cap into the air.

With summer upon us and understanding that my kids, especially my daughter, suffered learning loss during the spring, I challenged them with online learning opportunities designed to keep them engaged. In the meantime, I attended virtual information sessions for Spencer’s freshman high school year while hoping beyond hope that the virus would subside enough to allow in-person classes. As July turned to August and the decision was made to hold classes virtually, the realization of what lies ahead hit me. There was no escaping the fact that I was facing a repeat of the last few months.

Given all that we faced from March through June with distance learning, I especially worry about the return of the technical challenges we faced accessing class work online as well as the possible need for additional academic support. I’ll do anything for my kids, but tutors aren’t free! I also worry about how well my kids will connect with their new teachers when the entire relationship is distance based. Then there is the job search which, despite early and often interest, has yet to yield any concrete results. I’m still unemployed and facing an uncertain future. How will I manage their academics at home and still put forth the required effort to find a full time job? I worry for all these reasons.

Reality really set in several weeks ago when I took my daughter back-to-school shopping. It’s funny how different it felt. I grabbed a gift card, checked the Target app for specials and headed out with our masks and gloves to gather supplies. I had the grade-level supply list the school had provided that listed the usual assortment of pencils, notebooks and glue sticks, but added to the list were new items, mostly art supplies, that were previously supplied at the school. My daughter insisted on buying a new backpack and lunch bag as we do every year, but I explained how that was unnecessary since school was going to be held in her bedroom and at the kitchen table. She certainly didn’t need a backpack or lunchbox to go from the kitchen to the bedroom. Other things that are important to 9 year olds and high school freshman, like new clothes, shoes and jackets, are also being put on hold since, if the past is any indication, both of them will probably be attending school in their pajamas all day.

With the bags of new school supplies, Brooklyn was excited to set-up her classroom/bedroom. Having designated spaces to learn is important and I even found myself learning how to test the strength of our wireless network in anticipation of the heavy reliance both kids will place on it. About all I can do now is ride this out and count on what I learned from March through June to get us through. In the end, all I want is my kids to have a successful school year and I’ll do my best to make it happen. Fingers crossed.

All photographs ©Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images

If interested in publishing Erin’s Story, please contact Todd Bigelow at Todd [at] ToddBigelowPhotography [dot] com

 

Erin deals with her daughter’s schoolwork while also managing communications for her employer during the first week of LA’s lockdown order.

 

Erin helps her daughter with schoolwork while also managing communications for her employer during the first week of LA’s lockdown order.

 

Brooklyn asks Erin a question about her schoolwork while Erin is on a conference call in her home office during the first week of the lockdown.

 

A tutor works with Brooklyn via Zoom to prepare her for a test the next day in 3rd grade math. Brooklyn stayed in her pajamas, unicorn robe and slippers all day, according to her mom, Erin.

 

Erin’s son, Spencer, was navigating 8th grade math when he got stuck on a problem. 

 

Both of Erin’s kids are distance learning from home.

 

Late afternoon on March 19, the first day of the Safer At Home order, when Erin first had to juggle work plus helping her two kids on their first day of virtual school. All LA schools had been ordered closed.

 

Erin talks to Brooklyn’s tutor via Zoom at the end of a tutoring session.

 

As a 5pm Zoom tutoring session goes long on the last day of Passover, Brooklyn dramatically claims she’s starving for the pizza that Spencer already started eating.

 

With social distancing and Stay At Home orders banning all gatherings, Brooklyn’s 9th birthday party was conducted by Zoom at lunch and later by a drive-by celebration.

 

Erin leads Brooklyn’s friends in singing her “Happy Birthday.”

 

Brooklyn’s friends drive by and throw stuffed animals out the window to celebrate her 9th birthday.

 

Brooklyn celebrates during her drive by birthday party.

 

Social distancing means kids are now giving “air hugs” as seen during this social distancing birthday party for 9 yr old Brooklyn.

 

A few weeks into the pandemic shut down, Erin was furloughed from her full time, six figure job of 14 years. This was her first time filing for unemployment benefits.

 

Erin had reason to be concerned because her company said she was “furloughed” but they provided severance pay which complicated filing for unemployment benefits.

 

Erin attends a virtual conference with the local high school counselor and principal for information on incoming freshman. Her son, Spencer, starts high school in August and the lockdown left parents with many questions typically answered at school orientations no longer being held.

 

Erin attends a virtual conference with the local high school counselor and principal for information on incoming freshman. Her son, Spencer, starts high school in August and the lockdown left parents with many questions typically answered at school orientations no longer being held.

 

Spencer’s middle school cancelled in person culmination and offered signs to 8th graders to place in their yard.

 

Waiting in line to pick-up Brooklyn’s school work and personal belongings from school, Brooklyn sees a friend.

 

Erin and Brooklyn walk home after retrieving her school work in May, months after her last in-person class.

 

Erin, after retrieving a bag full of Brooklyn’s school work from school, waits for her daughter en route home.

 

This was Spencer’s final year in middle school and he was told to return to school and clear out his lockers. It was an unceremonious end to his three years there.

 

This was Spencer’s final year in middle school and was told to return to school and clear out his lockers. He waves goodbye to a friend down the hall.

 

Spencer in the empty locker room at his middle school where he was told to clear out his locker. It had been months, so he struggled to remember the combination.

 

Spencer discovers his PE clothes smell after sitting there for two months.

 

This was Spencer’s final year in middle school and was told to return to school and retrieve all belongings. It was an unceremonious end to his three years there, so his mom, Erin, took a photo as they left.

 

Erin posted notes behind her computer to help her during a Zoom interview for a new job. She wanted it to look like she was engaging the interviewer while easily referencing the points she wanted to make.

 

For the first time since the pandemic shuttered life in LA, Erin invited her friends over for a girls night, the first time she’d gathered socially in months. Social gatherings with anyone outside of your household were still  banned, but Erin and others were battling quarantine fatigue. 

 

For the first time since the pandemic shuttered life in LA, Erin invited her friends over for a girls night, the first time she’d gathered socially in months. Social gatherings with anyone outside of your household were still  banned, but Erin and others were battling quarantine fatigue.

 

Erin’s boyfriend, Justin, shows a photo to Spencer of what he looked like in high school as they hung out at Erin’s house on Memorial Day weekend. Spencer is heading to high school in the Fall.

 

Spencer was one of three students asked to submit a speech to be played during his middle school virtual commencement. He practiced before his mom recorded it.

 

Erin records Spencer’s 8th grade graduation speech to be played during his middle school’s virtual commencement. 

 

Spencer at times grew frustrated trying to remember the lines to his two minute speech for his middle school’s virtual graduation.

 

Erin become more tolerant of small social gatherings and play dates as summer neared. The Safer At Home order banned gatherings with those outside of your own household, but Erin felt she had to loosed the rules to allow her kids to have friends over.

 

Brooklyn, already with a broken wrist and cast, jumps through the bushes en route to the Slip N’ Slide. Erin become more tolerant of small social gatherings and play dates as summer neared. The Safer At Home order banned gatherings with those outside of your own household, but Erin felt she had to loosed the rules to allow her kids to have friends over.

 

Erin made sure Spencer’s graduation from Hale Academy Middle School was special despite being virtual. The day started with Erin decorating the house for the big event.

 

Erin made sure Spencer’s graduation from Hale Academy Middle School was special despite being virtual, so the family, including her ex-husband, left, gathered to watch the recorded graduation on YouTube. Spencer reacts after it was announced he won three awards.

 

Erin congratulates Spencer after learning of his third award on graduation day.

 

Erin made sure Spencer’s graduation from Hale Academy Middle School was special despite being virtual. Spencer, complete in cap and gown, walked down the side of the house to applause and gave a short speech for close friends and family.

 

Spencer throws his cap in the air after the home graduation.

 

Erin told Spencer how proud she was. Despite spending the final three months of middle school virtual learning, Spencer graduated with three awards including the Presidential Award and the Hale Academy Award.

 

As summer grinds toward a new school year, Erin continues her job search. She prepares for a job interview by researching the company and the person interviewing her the following day. She places notes on a board that will stand behind her computer during the interview for quick reference.

 

Erin takes her daughter, Brooklyn, to Target for back to school shopping. Still without employment after being furloughed in April by the pandemic, Erin used a gift card given to her by her son plus a coupon, but still paid over $50.

 

With a new desk and new school supplies, Brooklyn sets-up her own little classroom in her bedroom in preparation for the coming school year that will be conducted virtually.

 

Todd Bigelow Photography

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