The Thursday morning meeting of Philly Families Connect was already wrapping up by the time Thelma Weeks finally got on the line, weariness in her voice.
Weeks, 71, of North Philadelphia, had spent three hours trying to print off school assignments from her 9-year-old great-granddaughter’s school-issued Chromebook — and it still wasn’t working.
“It’s very frustrating," Weeks said. "We’re just walking in a dark tunnel, and we can’t find our way out trying to help these kids. Being older, we don’t know how to do this stuff.”
The other grandparents in the group — which is run by the Supportive Older Women’s Network, and normally meets at the 11th Street Health Center in North Philadelphia — knew the feeling well.
They’re among more than 13,000 grandparents and great-grandparents in the city who are serving as primary caretakers for children, the Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging estimates.
Like other parents muddling through the coronavirus pandemic, they are straining under the weight of 24-hour-a-day custody, care-taking, and home-schooling.
The grandparents, though, are grappling with layers of additional complications: There are technological anxieties (many don’t have smartphones and have never had home internet) and literacy challenges. There are financial constraints (some were scraping by on Social Security, and now sinking under the cost of feeding kids who used to get free breakfast and lunch at school). And, there are physical limits, being tested by the daily exhaustion of entertaining young children and coaxing older ones to stay indoors.
Looming over it all is the worry of what will happen if any of them contracts COVID-19.
“My concern is, what backup plan can I have?” said Diane Lackey, 70, the sole caretaker for her 14-year-old grandson, Lawrence. She was the backup plan. “Who will step up? I don’t see anybody trying to do that. When people hear someone has this virus, they’re not trying to run toward them. They’re trying to stay away.”
For now, the grandparents have one another. A dozen women and one man, ages 58 to 88, clung to the phone line, most of them sole caretakers for grandkids and great-grandkids ranging from toddlers, to middle- and high-school students, to adults with intellectual disabilities.
“No grandchild lives with a grandparent for a happy reason,” said Arlene Segal, coordinator for Philly Families Connect. They end up there as a side effect of incarceration, drug use, mental-health issues, or death.
The women discussed the newest scams, and the rugged frontier of online shopping — how to know whether what they ordered is what will show up. They talked about how you can’t send teenagers to the store, and expect them to know what things are supposed to cost.
The lone grandfather in the group, Ollie Tansimore Jr., 69, said he’d finally found a way to give his 5-year-old granddaughter space to work out her excess energy. “I moved all my furniture out of the way, put all the chairs in the dining room, and turned my whole house into a playground.”
The women raising teenagers are struggling both to keep kids at home and to soothe their anxieties, as everything they’d been working toward feels as if it’s slipping away. Prom dresses, custom ordered, still have to be paid for, but might never be worn. College plans that seemed real a few months ago now feel like fantasies.
And even though basketball courts are locked up and hoops removed, it’s still nearly impossible to keep kids isolated. Some grandparents say having just one or two friends over is an allowance they have to make.
“That’s their favorite words: Can I go? Can I go?” said Saundra Atwell, 72, whose granddaughter, Chaylah Jones, is 17 and a high-school junior. Chaylah is already questioning whether she’ll get to walk at graduation, already recalibrating her ambitions from a state university to community college.
Lackey, who lives in Logan, saw her grandson, who has a learning disability, struggling in his class of 36 people. Now, she sees him lagging further behind, academically and socially, and she doesn’t know how to help. When a box of sixth-grade math assignments arrived, both she and her grandson were mystified as to where to begin. “This is very serious in that it’s a continued gap in an education that was already full of gaps. How will that be addressed?”
Sometimes, Lawrence will put a mask on and say he’s going out. All Lackey can do is keep explaining the dangers, harping on him to wash his hands. “I don’t think he quite understands, or he doesn’t accept it.”
Organizations that serve grandparents have been patching together supports as best they can.
The nonprofit Grand Central has recruited about 10 families whose kids are in college to mentor the younger ones, tutoring online or just playing games to give their grandparents a break.
Chartan Nelson, who now runs the office solo, tried early on to move her biweekly support groups online, but hardly any of the grandparents were able to log in. Instead, she has been spending her days as a sort of remote help desk, connecting people with food deliveries, providing tech support, sitting on the line for hours during three-way calls with the grandparents and Comcast to try to get home internet installed.
One grandmother was told to set up her grandchild on Zoom for therapy, “So she called me to find out what Zoom is, or how to get Zoom," Nelson said.
After six weeks of work, about 90% of her families now have home internet. For the rest, “the next plan is to get the mobile hot spots. What I’m saying to those families is to continue to do the packets they got initially, even if it means doing them over and over again.”
At the older women’s network Thursday morning group, the grandparents are helping one another, at least with moral support. But it’s hard not to worry: At least one member is already fighting off the virus, her coughing so violent she had to leave the call.
Segal is trying to at least maintain the familiar routines. Back at the health center, she said, they would close by holding hands in a circle and reciting the Serenity Prayer.
“We would look to the person on our right, and say may you continue to be blessed. And we always have a rousing ending. We say, `As grandparents, we are a force to be reckoned with!’ and raise our arms in the air,” Segal said. “It is quite wonderful.”