The Color-Coded Quarantine Schedule Parents, Revisited

In March, they posted their elaborate plans for their children’s days. In September, I wanted to know how that went.

Parent schedules for quarantine.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Allison Benedikt.

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

On March 11, Emily PG Erickson got the email. Her son’s preschool was closing up shop indefinitely, due to the novel coronavirus. “As soon as that email popped up on my phone, I knew I needed to make a plan,” she told me recently. Emily, a stay-at-home mom to two kids, ages 2 and 4 at the time, in Minneapolis, knew immediately that her older son in particular, who is autistic, would need a new routine. “What I knew about kids in general, my kids specifically, and what I knew about myself: In chaotic times, we need stability.”

So she stayed up really late that night—a night she remembers as “the NBA night and the Tom Hanks night”—deleting her old Google calendars and making a new one. She called it “social distancing” and typed in yellow, “because we all needed a little sunshine in our lives.” Creating it “gave me control at a time when there was so little else I could control,” Emily said, speaking for pretty much every parent I talked to for this story and also every parent I know, including myself.

It is hard to overstate how destabilizing the total unraveling of every single structure in our lives felt six months ago. For parents, nothing was more routine-wrecking than school and child care disappearing overnight. It’s not just that our kids had nowhere to go and no one to be with; it’s that they had hours and hours—every! waking! hour!—of emptiness that could either be filled by the much-dreaded unlimited screen time or by us. So, in an effort to impose order where none existed, it makes sense that some parents like Emily snapped into action, digging up all the magic markers that had not yet dried out in the house and creating elaborate daily schedules on poster boards, cork boards, whatever boards they could get their hands on. The schemes included specific times for walks (the morning walk, also known as the family walk, was a very big deal), for yoga, for this Mo Willems online drawing class that everyone seemed to know about all at the same time. There was cozy reading time and creative time and move-your-body time. Also quiet time (lol), solo time (lol), and something called “lunch & learn.” As Daniel Chancellor, dad to an 11-year-old in Orlando, Florida, put it to me: “The thinking was, if we can just control every second of his life, it will all be OK.”

Parents are parents: We can make an arms race out of anything. So not only did we create these things, we also shared them. Facebook quickly became a minefield, where parents with impressive organizational skills and seize-the-day attitudes posted their color-coded masterpieces, causing panic and self-loathing for the rest of us—and in my case, inspiring me to grab a piece of printer paper and write out a rough hourly breakdown to keep my kids occupied and myself sane until 3 p.m., the time my husband and I had designated as late enough in the day to allow screens, which then stretched all the way till dinner.

Now, six months later, I wanted to know how the serious schedule people fared. In truth, I wanted to know that they failed: that “independent learning time” had turned into hours of Minecraft in their houses, like it had in mine. And for many families, that’s exactly what happened. “The schedule fell apart exactly as we anticipated it would,” Daniel told me. “A big part of that was really letting ourselves off the hook for trying to bring something unreasonable into the world.”

When I asked in my local Facebook parenting group how it had gone for the schedule moms (as far as I could tell, it was mostly moms making these things), several replied with the cry-laugh emoji and the grimacing emoji. “I give you our schedule and its last opened date,” wrote one, linking to a Google spreadsheet that hadn’t been opened since March 18. The phrases “dumpster fire” and “shit show” were used. “I made a huge poster outside. We cut out pictures from Oriental Trading catalog and glued them on with little clocks. We had everything timed to the minute,” one mom wrote about the early days. “It rained and that was the end of the poster, the schedule and my sanity.” “It’s like everything else I do as a parent,” Susie Thorpe, a mom of three in San Diego, told me. “I have all these great ideas and put them into action for a short period of time and then quickly abandon them.”

Our schedule, which never included anything too ambitious but did map out times for morning walks or bike rides and journal time (to record what it’s like to live through such unprecedented times, I said on repeat), succumbed to our family’s collective lack of will. We managed afternoon bike rides most days, but honestly, our entire lives ended up built around me getting to take a run at some point so I didn’t lose it.

Some parents, it’s worth noting, did say the schedules worked—to a point. Anne Booker, a librarian and mother of two in Mount Vernon, Washington, went through several iterations of her “Team Booker Daily Schedule.” “I had seen one floating around on Facebook that had all the different colors and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that,’ ” she told me of her initial enthusiasm. Her 7-year-old son was into it—“He was more on top of it than I was,” she said—so they kept it up. Eventually, her son’s school developed a more robust online learning plan, so Anne shifted the routine. “It was basically three walks a day and whatever school stuff he had to do until June.” But “by the time June rolled around and school was ending, we had been walking five to seven miles a day, and I think he was just tired. He just didn’t want to do it anymore.” Her summer schedule devolved into 1) play outside in the morning, and 2) come back and “do other things”—those other things being mostly watching TV or playing on the iPad. Now that school has started back up, “the schedule is pretty well set by the school,” Anne told me. Still, they are back to three walks a day.

Most of the parents I spoke to had not only gone through several calendars, but also several moods—from embracing the challenge to total defeat to that brief stage where everyone just decided it was OK to have feral kids (also known as “summer”) to cautious optimism heading into the new school year, with a throughline of dread mixed in. Daniel told me that the only thing that remained of his original schedule was the screen time (“that was a staple”) but also that he had learned to embrace screens as a positive for his son, a way for him to hang out with his friends when he couldn’t do it in person.

These days, Facebook has become a less fraught place for the underscheduler, though the pod craze replaced the scheduling craze, and I’m sure October will bring something new. (What is your street doing for Halloween, btw?) In our house, we’ve started the remote school year with me saying the word “upright” more than I ever have in my life—as in, “we are not going to do school from our beds this year. We’re going to sit in our chairs, upright.” (One of my kids is in bed as I type this.) My kids’ teachers are back to scheduling their mornings, with us just here for tech support, and, unlike in the spring, there are outdoor afternoon activities to keep them busy-ish. For now, we’re saying no screens after school, but who knows how long that will last? The thought of doing this all year is extremely depressing. But whereas six months ago, I felt a divide between the parents who were motivated to enrich their kids’ lives and those of us who weren’t, now we’re all just in it for the long haul, doing what we can to make this feel normal, or at the very least manageable for our children and ourselves.

As for Emily, whose original schedule was conceived out of late-night anxiety: She eventually shifted to larger blocks of time and fewer transitions, and was feeling good about everything she’d learned when I talked to her last week. “I was trying to account for the kids’ attention spans by making everything 30 or 40 minutes, but fewer transitions ended up working a lot better.” She also realized she could only impose what she called one “forced thing a day”—one activity per day that her kids had to do, whether they wanted to or not. The rest of the day she filled with “preferred activities” (aka things her kids liked to do) and consolidated screen time into one long chunk, which gave her more time for herself (“part of the learning was that I get to be an equal family member. I get to be a priority too”). She also started outsourcing: She scheduled one-on-one grandparent chats, for instance. The changes helped, but also the schedule was never magic. “The schedule made things better,” she told me, “but it didn’t make them good.”