In response to the global Covid-19 outbreak, Bulgaria declared a state of emergency on March 13th, 2020. On March 16th, in-person education was replaced with remote teaching in 90% of the schools, which had already been closed due to a seasonal flu epidemic. Teachers had to quickly facilitate this switch, to the best of their capacities and knowledge, while parents were expected to support their children at home. With no centralised system for digital education in place and no provision of technical devices to families that do not already own them, many families found themselves under considerable pressure. How are families and especially women coping with this situation, and what kind of additional care responsibilities do they have to take up?
“I feel like a failure.” “I don’t know how much longer I can take this.” “I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” “My home is a nuthouse.” These are some of the responses to this question from women looking after their children at home. The particular shape of the crisis that many parents undergo varies with the age of the children who are being home-schooled, the intensity of employment (or sudden lack thereof) of the parents, the specific parental constellation at home and the number of caretakers that can and are willing to share the tasks amongst each other, the availability of technical equipment and economic means to purchase a much-needed device, as well as the degree to which schools and teachers are prepared to facilitate the abrupt switch to remote education. What is evident from the stories of many women I spoke to while preparing this text is that the amount of care work that they have to do now is rising exponentially.
For example, in the absence of an integrated platform that could be used in schools for teaching and communicating with pupils, teachers are often left to decide, individually, which platform(s) to use. This means that in some cases, a child would be using up to seven different softwares, as Boryana, mother of a girl in year 3 and a toddler, explains. Not only do some parents have to support their children to access platforms – ranging from specialised ones like Zoom and Google Classroom to messaging apps like Viber or Skype and Bulgarian-based sites such as Ucha.se and Shkolo.bg – but they also have to supervise them and study with them. In the words of Michaela: “I admit, I wrote [my daughter’s] Spanish homework twice, so that she can have a good sleep – and I don’t know Spanish!” Michaela studies with her child every day from 9am until 6pm: “In the first week we sometimes stayed up until midnight.” As Irena, a single mother working from home, put it: “I now have three shifts – my own and those of my two children.” In addition to work shifts and parenting duties, various domestic chores accumulate, so that, as Boryana ironically said, “After sixteen hours, I start cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing – for a break.”
While some of the women are under pressure because they need to combine their employment from home with the care for their home-schooled children, others might have recently lost their job. This is becoming an increasingly big problem, because parents of children under the age of twelve are forced to stay at home if they cannot afford to pay for help or want to adhere to the social distancing measures. With no option of taking sick leave to look after their children at home, thousands of them are forced to leave their jobs. Anna, mother of a year-5 pupil and a child still in the nursery, has recently left hers. “I wouldn’t know how to manage even if I found a new one”, she confesses. This is so as she has been spending up to six hours per day supervising her son’s remote learning, while looking after her younger daughter. Asked about access to a technical device, Anna says that it was a problem since the family did not own a laptop but had to borrow one. The device being old, it keeps giving them technical issues, which further complicates the already strained educational process. Despite the existence of free online educational resources, there is no targeted financial help for subscriptions to paid platforms such as Ucha.se (one of Anna’s son’s teachers requires its use, even if access to it is paid and covered by the family alone). Finally, Maria – a mother of two and a teacher herself who now uses her garage to remotely teach language lessons – describes the support she was offered as a teacher (which amounted to extra money to pay for heating costs and a Zoom subscription) as “ridiculous”. To the sense of alienation brought about by the normalisation of her precarious working conditions, she also adds the stress from her parental duties towards her own children.
The switch to digital education is often heralded as an emancipatory, necessary development, with some even going so far as to suggest that the current crisis might provide a welcome impulse to introduce long-awaited changes in the sector. However, the experiences depicted here suggest a different picture – namely, that in the present context it is mostly women who stay at home and take on the extra care work in supervising home-schooled children. The switch to this form of education in Bulgaria is so far doing more to solidify stereotypical, oppressive gender norms, and to exacerbate already existing economic and social inequalities, than to offer a progressive reform in the education system.
Neda Genova is a Doctor of Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London and a member of the editorial collective of the Bulgarian magazine for critical and political analyses dVERSIA.