Life of HBS Families during COVID-19

Anja Do, Partner & Community Editor

Four RC families give us a glimpse into their lives in the period of pandemic.

With the abrupt shift to online classes at HBS in the week preceding the Spring Break and other changes in the wider Boston-Cambridge community, many families at HBS had found themselves having to adjust and adapt to this new reality. Almost overnight, their children’s schools and daycares shut down and these parents had to quickly rearrange their daily schedules and routines to accommodate all aspects of family life—work, school, and childcare.

It has been roughly two months since the shutdown and I reached out to four families of RC students to find out how this transition affected them. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, including having children of different ages, the four families shared many common challenges as well as delights during these strange times.

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Prior to COVID-19, HBS students with families would begin their day much earlier than most of their classmates. For Arpit Srivastava (MBA ’21, Section F) and Luqzan Mustafa Kamal (MBA ’21, Section I), their families would start the day as early as 6 to 7am, in time for the family to have breakfast after which everyone would be off to their daily schedule. Arpit would take turns with his wife, Victoria, to take their five-year-old daughter Olivia to school at Morse Elementary School in Cambridge, while Luqzan would walk his two children, Eijaz and Dania, to a bus stop to get to their elementary, the Kennedy-Longfellow School. Both fathers would then head to their classes, while their wives would spend the morning with their youngest child.

Victoria, a very active mother of two, loved taking walks with her little daughter, Sophie, as far as 4-5 miles every day. Sarah, Luqzan’s wife, usually spent the mornings with her youngest son, Maliq, in playgrounds with playdates and walking along the river. Prior to the lockdown, both families have spent the majority of their days being at school, being outdoors, running errands and only returning home in the afternoon or after sunset. Now that they have to stay home for the entire day, they admit that this is one of the hardest changes to adapt to.

Dominique Lacassie (MBA ’21, Section C) and Ashley Chang (MBA ’21, Section I)—who live on campus and have younger kids—would drop off their kids at the SFP Harvard-affiliated child care before heading to class. Dominique and her husband, an MBA student at Babson College, would take turns to pick up their daughter, 19-month-old Elisa, in the afternoon around 4pm after her naps and snacks with friends. Ashley and her husband, James, would also take turns to bring their four-year-old son, Jonas, from and to daycare, but their schedule was less flexible given James’ full-time job.

As soon as the school announced that the classes would be virtual and the lock-down policy was enforced across Massachusetts, the families faced the most immediate concern: How will the HBS students take classes from home with the children around?

In Dominique’s household, she and her husband had to figure out a way for both of them to attend their online classes and still take care of Elisa. Fortunately, their class schedules do not clash every day and therefore whoever is not in class takes over the responsibility of taking care of their baby. Though a few times a week, when Dominique has to take her daughter to attend classes with her, she admits that it is not easy. “When I have to be with her during my classes, it can be pretty stressful. She is a great baby, but she is only one and half years old. Kids of her age don’t play a lot by themselves so I feel bad that I am looking at a computer and not paying attention to her. Also with her around, I try to listen as much as possible to the class discussion but I cannot add much value to the conversation.”

What has been helpful and encouraging, however, is the response she has received from her classmates and the faculty. “Everybody is messaging me on Zoom, ‘Oh, she is so cute! It is so nice to see her! She made my day!’  Those kinds of messages really make me feel better. One of the professors was super understanding and wrote me a long email saying how this is the new normal. It was amazing that he was so empathetic.”

Ashley and James, on the other hand, have divided their child care shifts to mornings with daddy and afternoons with mummy. James works remotely for a VC based in California and therefore begins most of his days around noon when it is about 9am in the West Coast. Luckily, HBS has rearranged the RC schedules to be more manageable with 2 cases per day and therefore most classes are now taking place in the morning.

Even with this arrangement, there are occasions when Ashley still needs to bring both of her children to class. On those days, she just surrenders. “I just don’t know how to take the class at all. I’m holding the kids and that is my signal to the professor—Don’t cold call me! Especially because I have two children, it is hard to handle.”

On the bright side, Ashley was never a full-time mother before. Up to now, she was always working while her children were either in school or with the caregiver. In her own words, she feels that “this is forcing me to really experience that. I always admired a full time mom so now is the opportunity for me to feel what that is like.”

Both Luqzan and Arpit are facing different kinds of challenges while studying from home, even with the help from their wives who are full-time stay-at-home mothers. 

When they first moved to Cambridge, Victoria and Arpit moved into a two bedroom apartment assuming Arpit would only study at school or in the library. But now in the COVID-19 time, Victoria sympathizes with her husband’s situation “He does not have a private space. He has to study in the bedroom, right beside our daughters’ toys. It’s distracting because sometimes our girls come in and out of the bedroom, and during class, he can hear them screaming and crying, just a few meters away from him in the next room.”

In spite of his wife’s concerns, Arpit is positive about the entire lock-down situation, sharing that his learning experience was less impacted by the presence of his children but more by the set-up of remote learning. “I’m struggling to stay engaged during a Zoom call. It’s very easy for me to open another tab on the computer and start looking at something that is not related to my course. Whereas when you are in a physical classroom, it’s very different; you are engaged and time flies by through those 80 minutes.”

Luqzan took a more radical approach in his first week of online classes to make sure that his learning time was completely separated from his family time. “I locked myself up in the bedroom to stay concentrated in the class. After the first week, I realized I needed to help Sarah out with the children. When my oldest, Eijaz and Dania, started virtual learning in the morning, I also became the tech guy who helped them set up for their classes. After a while, it became more fluid. So now I would just step out if anyone needs my help. I let the kids join some of the classes as well.” And the mute function on Zoom makes a difference too. Luqzan likes this function because it allows his children to be only seen on screen but not heard through the class.

With all of their children now back at home, I was curious to learn how the parents are handling homeschooling and ensuring that the kids keep up to date with their learning curriculum.

Luqzan’s older children, Eijaz and Dania, have received a Chromebook from their teachers and receive daily homework which they submit online. Every morning they also join their classes through Google Meet videos and have to complete this year’s curriculum in order to join the next Grade when the school reopens in Fall. As their mornings are now dedicated to online learning, Sarah jokingly shares with me, “I designated each area in the house. The children’s bedroom is their school, our bedroom is Harvard University and our living room is the preschool for our youngest son, Maliq. I’m practically the Principal in the house now. Everyone else is a student in our family.”

For little Olivia, her teachers send daily communication to her parents via an app. She can then complete English and Math exercises on the app as well. As Olivia is only five years old, the school does not make these exercises compulsory and leaves it to the parents’ discretion to go through the exercises with their kids. Despite trying their best, both Arpit and Victoria definitely feel the lockdown has taken a hit on Olivia’s learning. “It’s been hard to get Ollie to focus on her school work,” Victoria says. “She does not have a schedule that she must follow or homework she has to submit so it is not very effective. Because I am also the primary caretaker of the younger sister, Ollie cannot get my attention to do her school work when her little sister is around.”

Ashley faces the same practical challenge with her son Jonas and his one-year-old brother, Clement, though she is grateful that he is only four years old and does not have to make real academic progress. His school took two to three weeks to figure out the online curriculum but it works very well for her son. “Jonas has a lot of Zoom meetings, like Zoom story time once a week and Zoom circle time with his friends twice a week. And he is always looking forward to it.”

In fact, all the parents have observed that their children miss socializing with their friends. When asked what she misses the most, Olivia said, “I miss playing with my friends in school. I really want to go back.” Just like their HBS parents, the children are also using online platforms to keep in touch with friends.

Despite all the challenges of social distancing and homeschooling, all the families recognize that it is very helpful the schools and teachers have provided guidance to parents to ensure continuity of the learning experience for their children. However, as Luqzan points out, there is only limited capability parents have to teach their children well. “Homeschooling is really difficult. We can’t become teachers overnight. We try our best but we are not trained to do this, to have the patience and ability to connect with the kids like the teachers would have.”

Since online classes have been in full swing for the last two months, most of the parents have learnt to manage their time with the children around. However, one of the issues that is on everybody’s mind is, “What happens when the summer internships start?”

Both Arpit and Dominique have yet to hear back from their respective companies, whether the internship will be virtual given the dire pandemic situation all around the world. But even with the internship taking place online, the uncertainty makes planning full time work around children a very difficult task. In particular, Dominique and her husband are both going to be working over the summer and that would make it “a very different deal” as Dominique puts it gravely to me. They are potentially planning to return home, to Chile, and get help from her parents and parents-in-law.

For Ashley, her summer employer has already confirmed that she will be working remotely but on West Coast hours. This will coincide with James’ working hours so they will need to be very creative with their scheduling. Ashley gave me a huge smile and said with all the optimism she could muster, “I have not figured out how we will do that!”

There is one universal concern that I have heard across most of the families: “Our children are having too much screen time.” Often the parents share this with a sense of failure on their part, as none of them have found an effective solution to resolve this.

Ashley felt very much defeated until she listened to a recent breakfast podcast by Arthur Brooks (Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at HKS) and Len Schlesinger (Baker Foundation Professor at HBS), “From disappointment and fear to love in the time of COVID-19.” At first, she was not paying much attention but she listened keenly when one of the parents asked, “How do you manage the stress in these situations as a parent?” One of the professors gave a rather uplifting answer: “Think about 10 years from now, when everybody remembers this period. If you have kids, you hope they will say: ‘Hey, there was this coronavirus period and it was superb! I was stuck at home and I could do whatever I want.’” This kind of philosophy really stuck with Ashley and made her feel more relaxed about letting her kids enjoy their TV and snack time more leisurely. She wishes her sons remember this time as a fun period because they will never experience it again.

Despite all these challenges, I was personally amazed at how well all the families are coping with the current situation and how they all have focused on what is wonderful during this period instead of dwelling on the problems. One aspect of HBS life that has changed and that none of parents are experiencing at the moment is the “fear of missing out” (FOMO).

Ashley, for example, feels she can finally be present at more HBS events than ever before. “Now, I don’t need to worry about FOMO. We actually get an opportunity to join more events, like HBS Got Talent, or Heard On The Street. In normal times, there is only a 30% chance that I can go to those events, but now I stay at home and enjoy it with my kids. And they love it! They love seeing my sectionmates on the screen.”

Although Dominique is pretty sad about social distancing from her friends, she also recognizes that by staying at home, she can enjoy many precious moments with her daughter. “This period has been less stressful for me. As a parent-student at a business school, you have trade-offs. Though I love social activities, you have to sacrifice most of them. The fact that no extra-curricular activities are happening now makes my life easier. I tell my husband that I feel bad because I’m actually happy. I get to have lunch together with my family, read books to my daughter and put her to sleep when she’s falling asleep during her nap time. All these little things make my day great and amazing.”

Arpit feels the same way and he savors every moment that he has with his wife and daughters. “I’m actually enjoying this. I definitely sleep more than I used to and I get to do more work. And I’m very fortunate in the sense that I get to see my kids grow up 24/7. When I started HBS, it was pretty intense as you have to go to classes, but now I’m at home taking care of my kids. It’s great. Life is definitely better. The quality of life from personal relationships with my wife and our kids has improved.”

What the parents also get to witness nowadays are the special moments when their children positively surprise them with their way of thinking about the world. Luqzan, for instance, found it hard to explain the magnitude of COVID-19 to his kids, especially with news outlets doing so much reporting about this topic. So his kids actually helped him out. “My kids were very interested in knowing how they can help in this kind of situation. So we said if we stay at home, we can help others as well. This helped them understand a bit more why we have to do social distancing.”

Olivia, who is even younger than Eijaz and Dania, has also surprised her parents with her views and behaviors. Arpit fondly retells the adorable story of how his five-year-old daughter reminds him of preventive measures. “She is very careful during COVID now. If we go downstairs to pick up a package, she knows not to touch the elevator button. Once, she even scolded me and said, ‘Daddy, don’t do that!’”

Another element of family life that can be neglected prior to COVID-19, is how often the family stays in touch with the extended family. Luqzan’s parents are back in Malaysia and his sister is London, but thanks to the lockdown his family is more connected. “Now everybody’s indoors so it’s a lot easier to organize play dates. On the weekends, the kids would do a virtual yoga session. They will meet up with all their cousins on Zoom and they will do it together. This builds that connection between them. So that’s the silver lining to all of this!”

In hope that the current situation gets better, I wanted to find out what the families most look forward to and what would be the first thing they want to do when the lockdown order is removed.

Luqzan and Sarah, who are both very active members of the Crimson Parents community, simply want to meet up with everyone again and have playdates. “Right now, we feel like we’re on a deserted island. If you meet someone outside, you might not know how to react because you haven’t interacted with people for some time. So we’re looking forward to reconnecting with people and going where the community is, in the library, in the classes. We were a strong part of the HBS community and that has formed many of our daily activities.”

For Victoria, she is excited to start bringing her one-year-old daughter Sophie to the playground to socialize and interact with others. “She’s growing older now and is more aware of playing with people. Every day now she’s learning to talk so I can’t wait to watch her become more sociable.” And Olivia, of course, can’t wait to return to school and see her friends!

James, Ashley’s husband, worries about the social experience for his children in the long term and hopes that they soon can return to school and daycare. “My son Jonas loves the school. He is very outgoing and likes to hang out with people. So we look forward to hanging out more with other families and having playdates with Jonas’ and Clement’s friends in the Section.” 

Like other HBS parents, Dominique also looks forward to meeting other families and hosting friends for dinner again. What she also hopes for is to return to normal relationships prior to COVID-19. She explained to me what she meant with an adorable story. “One day we were outside and my daughter saw one of my friends. She wanted to give her a hug while my friend was trying to keep a distance. I tried explaining to Elisa that my friend needs some space but she did not understand. She kept opening her arms as if she was saying ‘Hug me! Hug me!’ My heart was breaking but I did not know what to do. How do you explain to a one-and-a-half year old to stop doing what I have always taught her, to express her love freely?”

Having had this unique chance to hear from these four amazing families, I humbly salute them for their positivity and strength as parents and as individuals. Thank you for letting us take a glimpse into your hectic but joyful family lives. There is so much wisdom from your stories that will benefit both parents and other students to carry on through these challenging times.

Anja Do is an RC Partner at HBS who recently moved to Cambridge, MA, with her husband from Singapore. She identifies herself as a global citizen and loves meeting people from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and religions and learning about their personal stories.