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Life on hold: Families in the Bronx face new challenges during pandemic

East Side House Settlement is one group trying to ease family's stress.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to tighten its grip on the U.S. and remote learning turned bedrooms and kitchens into classrooms, life for the South family in the Bronx, New York, was turned upside down.

Tamara South, the mother of first grader Tahlia, 7, and fourth grader Tovell, 9, said that the school assignments seemed endless -- and that at the start of public schooling from home, "there's not a day that I didn't cry."

"The Zoom calls, the emails, the constant being online was very, very stressful for all of us. We had to adjust very quickly, which was very hard, especially for the kids," she told ABC News on Wednesday.

Like so many across the U.S, families in the Bronx have found themselves facing the immeasurable stress of life on hold amid a deadly health crisis.

The death rate in the Bronx due to COVID-19 is strikingly higher than in other parts of the city: 240 per 100,000 people compared to 135 per 100,000 in Manhattan.

It is a somber statistic in a community that already faces staggering odds.

Add to that, the poverty rate is near 30% for a population largely made up of African Americans and Latinos, according to U.S. Census 2014-2018 data. As of March 2020, city data showed the Bronx had the highest unemployment rate among the NYC boroughs: 5.7%.

South, a travel agent and substitute teacher in the South Bronx, is currently unemployed. She had to leave her job as a teacher to be home with her children after their charter school closed. Her husband, Tovelle South, is a front-line worker whose shift had changed to nights, she said.

She said being in such a small space at home, while trying to complete assignments and keep the children entertained, was challenging and overwhelming, even though she tried her best to get them outside daily.

"The kids can't run around and play like they would like to, so of course there's a little sibling tension every now and then," she said. "With the lessons online, it's very stressful because there are a lot of things that we as parents, we forgot, and now it seems like we've become the teachers. ... I wish there were more mental health check-ins to make sure that families are coping well with the situation."

East Side House Settlement's Daniel Diaz said that while it was a very stressful time for parents in the Bronx, his organization was trying to "bridge the gap," pivoting from workforce and educational development to serving the ever-expanding needs of the Bronx.

According to the Department of Education, in 2018-2019, there were more than 236,000 students in the Bronx and more than 84% were living in poverty.

East Side House Settlement has been providing job training and remote learning to students for years. It's provided free tablets and WiFi hotspots to families in need of better ways to keep up with the modern day reality of getting homework done.

"The biggest challenge has really been access to technology. Many of our families do not have the WiFi that they need or the bandwidth that they need," Diaz, the executive director, told ABC News on Tuesday.

Diana Rodriguez, an employee at East Side House, said many families in the Mott Haven section, where the group is headquartered, didn't have any devices at home in addition to not having access to the internet. And, she said, families faced challenges even when they were able to get the school materials.

"Many of the families in this specific neighborhood. ... Not only do they not speak English, and they do not speak Spanish, they also speak an indigenous language so that's been very difficult for them to navigate the expectations from day to day," she said. "Accessing remote learning, there's lots of steps to it, that they're just not used to it. ... So being able to meet those needs and go online and be able to navigate the world wide web, which is very easy for many of us, could be challenging for a lot of the families."

So far, East Side House, which has programs in more than 29 locations in the Bronx and parts of Manhattan, has distributed 300 tablets and has a goal of giving out close to 400 to 450. The group has also sent out STEM and academic kits.

During the coronavirus pandemic East Side House has made healthy meals a big part of its outreach, distributing food at several locations through its new program Harvest to Haven. Diaz said some high school students will be working with the organization as part of their youth summer job program, helping to provide food for those families who need it most. It will keep teens with little else to do busy, rather than bored.

But with publicly funded summer camps and youth programs closed, as well as public pools, Mercedes Rogalewski of the Bronx's Pelham Parkway section, the mother of 8-year-old third grader John, said she wondered what the next few months would be like.

On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that distance learning would continue online for summer school. He said it remained too early to make a decision about schools in the fall.

"With the summer coming, I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be finding stuff for John to do. ... We're still crossing our fingers that his little league will be able to play. ... We're crossing our fingers to see if that can happen," said Rogalewski, who was a lunch monitor and substitute teacher at John's Catholic school before it moved to virtual learning.

She said that even with a park nearby, it would be a challenge for her, her husband and her son.

"You don't want to be stuck in the house," she said. "He's going to be 9. He has a lot of energy to burn off, so that's definitely going to be tough to keep him occupied and physically active."

Diaz, of East Side House, said parents were learning to be "creative" during the pandemic, reaching out to neighbors and others who'd been furloughed for help watching over their children. It's evidence that it still takes a village, even in the worst of times.

"It's becoming more of a community effort," he said. "In the midst of a pandemic, with all the food and everything else that we have going on, with the remote learning that's happening, and with our families' just sheer resilience and toughness, we are Bronx tough. We are going to make it through."