On a typical day, retired schoolteacher Janice Atkins has a full schedule: She has a 30-minute commute, then helps three of her grandchildren log in to virtual classes. She monitors their assignments and makes breakfast and lunch. On top of that, she tries to corral her toddler granddaughter and get her excited about numbers and letters.
When COVID-19 forced school closures in the Atlanta area, Atkins was ready for the demands of remote education. She dusted off her knowledge of curriculum, brought back her teacher voice and turned up the volume on her love for instruction.
It's not lost on Atkins that when she was working in schools, she put her own children in daycare, in order to instruct other children. Now, she's able to take everything she knows after 35 years in classrooms to foster a love of learning in her grandchildren, even during this unprecedented pandemic schooling situation.
"I'm getting a chance to pour everything it is that I know about early childhood education into my grandchildren,” Atkins says. “I spent all those years pouring that into other people's children."
Making remote learning meaningful
Atkins is one of many grandparents who have stepped in to help support grandchildren with online learning and to assist their adult children, who may be working from home or out of the house while trying to juggle childcare and educational duties. Even before the pandemic, grandparents were lending a hand: A 2018 AARP survey found that 38 percent of grandparents handled childcare for their grandchildren. More than 50 percent consider themselves a source of wisdom for their grandkids.
The number of grandparents helping out is likely much higher now as some schools remain all virtual or are operating in a hybrid mode, offering a mix of face-to-face and remote classes.
Atkins delights in the opportunity to spend time with her grandchildren and takes pride in their education. “That's what's going to determine what their future is,” she says. “I feel very strongly that we have to make sure that they value education and that they see it as necessary and that they enjoy it."
Pre-pandemic, Atkins, who has a master's degree in early childhood education, had been running what she calls “Nanny Camp,” a structured after-school education program for her grandchildren. These sessions had a planned curriculum, preschool evaluations, report cards, field trips and hands-on science activities.
When schools went virtual in response to the pandemic, Atkins transformed Nanny Camp into a full school day for virtual learning, enriching the lives of her grandchildren while easing the burden for her working daughters.
“I told them, I don't have to work anymore but ya'll do,” Atkins says.
Her daughters — Janine Denard and Jacquelyn Watlington — say their mother's support has been critical, especially during the pandemic.
"It's a huge help. It just gives you peace of mind,” Denard says, because she knows that her children are protected from the virus and that her mother is the ultimate instructor.
For Denard, a special education teacher, and Watlington, a school social worker, the support means more than just the knowledge that their children are well-cared for. It allows them to focus on their own careers. “I can't be effective at work if I don't feel like my children are where they need to be, comfortable or safe,” Watlington says.
The latest version of Nanny Camp began in 2013, when Denard and Watlington gave birth to sons within eight months of each other. Now Atkins had two grandsons and two granddaughters, all elementary-school age or younger.
Education runs in the family
So what does Atkins’ day look like? She drives to Watlington's house and then sets up each child in different area of the house. Charles, a second-grader, is in one room. Jackson, the first-grader, is in a bedroom upstairs. Jordyn, in pre-K, works in the kitchen with grandma. Jada, the 2-year-old, “is all over the place,” says Atkins. “I'm trying to potty train, get her some ABCs, 123s."
Atkins monitors their progress, making sure they complete assignments. She also participates in conferences with the teachers via Zoom. The biggest challenge for Atkins is technology. “I don't always know how to navigate from one app to another,” she says. “Everything's on an app."
She prepares breakfast and a hot lunch, daily. “I've gotten it down to a rotation where I finally got a menu, so I know what I'm cooking every day,” she says. “So every night I get home and prepare the meals for the next day.”
Just like with any school, pizza day is the kids’ favorite. Her husband, Alphonso Atkins, 70, a retired firefighter and former P.E. teacher, stops by to help with recess and to give her an occasional break.
Education runs in the Atkins family. Her parents were teachers. Her grandfather, Robert Clinton Hatch, earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University's Teachers College in the 1940s and was interim president at Alabama State University, where the forensic science building bears his name. All three of her sisters were teachers at one point and her oldest daughter is a principal in Tallahassee, Florida.
"The legacy of education is very strong, the desire that they be prepared is really the basis of my waking up every morning,” Atkins says.
Her teaching experience gives her an advantage. “I know what they are supposed to do because I have taught these grades,” she says. “I'm not sure how people who have no background in teaching are handling this because it's hard for me and I've got training.”
Atkins recommends that grandparents who find themselves in this role create a schedule to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “I call the name of the Lord a lot,” Atkins says, laughing. “You said I can do all things. So, I'm just standing on that promise. Because this is a lot."
Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a contributing writer who covers sports, interior design, business and human-interest stories. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and tennis columnist for Bleacher Report, her work has also appeared in Essence and Black Enterprise. She is the author of the biography Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend and Cultural Heroine.