Christina Riehman-Murphy expected to be extra busy juggling her full-time job and supervising her kids’ schoolwork during an unexpected coronavirus break.

She did not expect to have a research class she was teaching via videoconference Wednesday interrupted by the screams of 2-year-old Hazel, who demanded applesauce, threw the applesauce, then asked for a paper towel to clean it up.

With a pandemic upending lives around the region and across the globe, millions of parents are suddenly finding themselves juggling the demands of work and child care, figuring out how to turn in reports on time while explaining fractions to their children.

Or, in the case of Riehman-Murphy, a librarian at Penn State Abington and mom of five in Glenside, she recently found herself wiping up a toddler’s flung applesauce while teaching her class. Luckily, she said, her students were understanding.

“There is a sense of solidarity in this — we’re all in the same boat,” said Riehman-Murphy, whose children attend St. Luke Catholic School and Roman Catholic High School. Her husband is a nurse who works evenings and is less available to help during the day.

Michelle Richardson, a therapist and founder of Mindful Soul Center for Wellbeing in Audubon, said it’s OK to admit this is a stressful time, with schools on an indefinite hiatus, governments ordering residents to stay at home, and the economy taking a nose-dive.

“I’ve been encouraging my clients and my staff to give themselves a little permission to not be perfect right now, to catch their breath,” Richardson said. “My kids are home, and I feel like I should be spending all this time with them, but I’m trying to keep my business afloat. Things are really scary, and the pressures that we normally face feel tenfold."

Monica Gilson, of Collegeville, normally works from home Tuesdays through Thursdays as an independent event contractor. But now, her 4-year-old and 18-month-old, who are usually in day care, are at home, and things are considerably more complicated.

“It’s really hard to keep them contained. They’re just like magnets, when they know you’re doing something important,” Gilson said. “It’s definitely hitting some additional nerves.”

Gilson has been trying her best to squeeze work in as she can, including by walking around their backyard with her laptop Wednesday, earbuds in, as her older son played outside. But mostly, she’s resorted to doing work while her children are napping or in bed for the night. And while some parents are sharing free online resources to help keep kids busy and engaged, that would be yet another task, Gilson said.

Plus, her son would “probably sneak off and watch YouTube anyway," said Gilson.

Emily Knight, 12, a seventh grader at Merchantville School (far left) and her twin siblings, Amalia (center) and Landon (far right), 5, kindergartners, work on school assignments at the dining table at their Pennsauken home.
Courtesy of Elyse Knight
Emily Knight, 12, a seventh grader at Merchantville School (far left) and her twin siblings, Amalia (center) and Landon (far right), 5, kindergartners, work on school assignments at the dining table at their Pennsauken home.

For Elyse Knight of Pennsauken, a stay-at-home parent, it’s a learning curve as she balances her three kids’ suddenly at-home learning with caring for her elderly mother.

“It’s been pretty challenging,” said Knight. “It’s hard juggling with all of the kids in the house; I have to schedule everything.”

Knight covers subjects ranging from reading and writing to Spanish and gym with twin kindergartners Landon and Amalia, who attend Merchantville School. Knight is relieved that Emily, a seventh grader, is self motivated, because she said she’d be hard-pressed to tutor Emily in accelerated math work.

“How can a parent teach something to a child that the parent doesn’t know?” Knight said.

Tara Chklovski, founder of the Los Angeles-based technology education nonprofit Technovation, said parents should look past busy work for their kids, recognize that these are challenging times and not fixate on mimicking school. Rather, Chklovski said, think about project-based learning or equipping kids with skills that parents have honed themselves in their careers.

“It’s quite impossible to re-create a school schedule at home when there’s no structure and everything’s different,” said Chklovski. “Over the next 15 years, if they had a break of two or three months, it’s OK.”

Things went relatively smoothly the first day Kate Mundie’s sons, fourth and sixth graders at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia, were at home. By Day 2, she wanted to cry from the constant togetherness and the weight of constant expectations from her kids.

“It starts a little bit before 6 a.m. with the constant ‘Mom, Mom, Mom,’ and it doesn’t stop until I put them in bed,” said Mundie, who works in marketing for an engineering firm.

When the coronavirus break was announced, Mundie thought she would be in good shape, as she already worked from home part time. But reality, with her husband working from home plus the kids underfoot, has thrown her for a loop. Her children have work to complete, but it’s optional, and her work flow is often interrupted by her children.

She and a neighbor have worked out a system where they take turns taking their similarly aged kids to a nearby municipal parking lot to blow off steam by riding bicycles, keeping a safe distance apart.

“And that’s when my boss will text me: ‘Where are you? I need you!’ and I have to say, ‘I’m with my kids, having them run around,’" Mundie said.

Dayee Johnson of North Philadelphia, a stay-at-home mom, is doing her best to keep her kids engaged in learning. But she’s got five school-age children, ages 5 to 15, and a limited number of devices. Once her children finished the paper packets their schools handed out, there was a scramble for the electronics.

“I do have a tablet that they can juggle, but it’s complicated, doing homework over the tablet,” Johnson said. “When there’s nothing else to do, they watch TV, one plays on the iPhone, we watch movies — sometimes we all pick something together, and we all eat popcorn and candy.”

Social isolation is tough, Johnson said, and there are moments when everyone feels claustrophobic.

“We all have to deal with this, though,” Johnson said. “We’re all just doing the best we can.”