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Statewide Fayetteville Pine Bluff Rogers
Statewide Culture 0

A Year of Virtual School: Arkansas Families Create Work-Life Balance

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For Northwest Arkansas residents Jessica and Jesse Sanders, it meant bringing their children to their business. For Erin Rongers, it meant bringing her work home. When schools were shut down last year, Ricky Dale Harrington needed to incorporate his children’s occupational therapy into their new routine when he was working from home.

An Unexpected Twist on Taking Children to Work

When Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day transitioned from Take Your Daughter to Work Day, the program was about more than a few hours observing a parent’s career. Organizers of the original celebration on April 22, 1997, wanted girls and young women to see the possibilities in the workplace, value their education and make appropriate life choices to support future success. With the transition to include boys, the foundation hoped all young people could also see value in a rhythm of work and family while experiencing a variety of career options.

In 2020 and 2021, Arkansas families didn’t have a choice but to throw their work and family together, regardless of how chaotic the situation.

Taking Children to Work

Best Brake and More in Rogers, Arkansas sits on the edge of a busy highway. On the outside, the parking lot stays fairly full with vehicles waiting for repair or to be picked up by their owners. On the inside, the shop has served as the venue for virtual schooling for much of the past year. Each of the vehicles represents a customer who owners Jessica and Jesse Sanders take care of at this auto mechanic business they’ve owned since 2013. The books and crayons on the inside represent the children whose education took place a few feet from oil changes and tire rotations.

Shutting down their business or working from home wasn’t a viable option for the Sanders, so they brought 14-year-old Rebekah and 6-year-old Dean to the back office of their shop, school materials in tow.

Sanders said the situation was an eye-opener for her teenager. Rebekah had only been focused on what she was missing: school events and get-togethers with her friends.

“Seeing how I rushed around, handled customers and managed business tasks gave her a good perspective on the work that had to be done.”

When it came to helping her younger son, Sanders was conflicted. Dean was happy to do schoolwork with his mom at the office, but she was terrified. She had enrolled in classes at the University of Arkansas and wondered how she was going to handle all of her responsibilities at once. She ended up being proud of how her family handled the situation.

Jesse Sanders repaired cars in the shop garage. In between working on assignments with Dean side-by-side, Sanders answered phones and helped customers.

“It wasn’t easy, and there were lots of emotions. Looking back, I am 100 percent positive it drew us closer in ways we didn’t even know were possible, and we learned a lot of new ways to work together that we still use.”

Bringing Work Home

Erin Rongers is the associate director of development at the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Going remote with her job meant mostly working through the new situation of everyone being together in their Fayetteville home. Her husband, Zach, already stays at home with their two children, 10-year-old Stella and 7-year-old Andrew, and supervised their schooling during the shutdowns. She says some days were hard and others were wonderful, but they learned to take it day by day.

Like Sanders, Rongers says that while remote work has been a challenge, there is good that has come out of this time. Her family learned how to do some things in more efficient ways, and had a good time seeing the more personal side of coworkers when pets and children showed up in the background during Zoom meetings. She hopes the positive elements will stick with them.

“I am grateful that my employer was flexible and we’re lucky my husband stayed home. I hope I never take for granted how great it was to have this time together, though sometimes it didn’t feel great at the moment.”

For Ricky Dale Harrington’s family, virtual schooling held some particular difficulties. Harrington is a member of the clergy and his wife is full-time on duty with the Navy. The Pine Bluff resident has three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum, so academics weren’t always the first order of business. Outside of his job and campaign work last fall for the U.S. Senate seat in Arkansas, his children’s occupational therapy needed to be incorporated during their day. His oldest daughter, now in first grade, had a profound connection with her teacher. When school buildings had to close, the loss was palatable. Harrington points out the situation has been rough on many families.

“I hope we can continue to move forward with kindness and care for one another.”

Meredith Lowry is a patent attorney in Fayetteville. She was able to shift to working from home, so most of the finagling had to do with defining boundaries for workspaces during the day with her three children, 14-year-old Will, 11-year-old John and 8-year-old Kate. With the crew home in close quarters, they all took more of an interest in what Lowry does for her job, which led to a handful of humorous moments.

“They have had fun mocking each other for failing to argue a point well, and constantly tease each other about patenting or trademarking things.”

Smart and Savvy Sayings from the Children

Dean Sanders liked hanging out with his mom at their business, but made clear to his mom that the parent-teacher roles should not be joined, “I think you should be my mom and my teacher should be my teacher.”

Erin Rongers’ children looked forward to getting back to in-person learning since the school lunches are “so much better” than anything she or her husband prepares.

Harrington’s youngest child, a toddler, was so missing out on interactions with others that when outside, he would holler out to people who walked by, trying desperately to engage them in conversation.

During last year’s shift to alternative methods of instruction, John Lowry played with his Snap Circuits and announced his progress on tasks. “I have one more AMI thing to do, but apparently procrastination is good. Dad showed us a TED Talk about it, so I’m thinking I’ll do it [my schoolwork] later.”

Photos courtesy of Jessica Sanders and Erin Rongers.

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Rhonda is a writer and editor who creates content and rights the wrongs of misspelled words and grammar gone awry. A born city girl, she raises three lively boys with her husband in the rural woods outside of Springdale. She loves sharing other people’s stories with the written (and edited) word via her freelance work at RhondaFranz.com. She holds Arkansas teacher licensure and offers advice, tips, education, and humor while telling true tales of parenthood and the pilot wife life at CaptainMom.net. She schleps her children all over Northwest Arkansas and occasionally works on freelance projects in parking lots from the back of her minivan.

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