BALTIMORE — A year ago, Katherine Banegas-Bonilla, 17, had to worry only about managing her classes at Baltimore City College, one of Baltimore’s top high schools. Now, the pandemic has forced her to be a short-order cook, housekeeper, laundry supervisor, tutor, translator, tech consultant, baby-sitter — actually, a third parent.
Most days, she’s fine with the work. It’s just how her life is these days.
“I’m the oldest, and I have little cousins so they come to my house, and then I have to help them too,” Katherine said. “Then I have to help my little brother with his work all the time, so sometimes I don’t have time to do my stuff.”
Across the country, students face challenges with virtual school, but Katherine is one of the many teenagers who are burdened with additional responsibilities because they are the oldest child. While managing her eight classes, Katherine is also expected to run the house and help her younger relatives, whose first language is Spanish, keep up with their online classes.
“Sometimes it’s stressing because depending on how much school work I get and then the work I have to do at home, it stresses me out,” Katherine said. “Sometimes, though, it’s just fine.”
Katherine’s mother, Nancy, works at a candy factory. Her father, Santos, is a construction worker. During the week, Katherine is left in charge of their East Baltimore home.
“What we’re seeing is that elder siblings are shouldering more responsibilities at home during this public health crisis,” said Tammi Fleming, senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based national philanthropy that focuses on child and family well-being.
“This is especially the case for families where the parents must work outside of the home,” Fleming said. “And though these young people are stepping up to the plate and pitching in with caring for their siblings, it’s important that they have the emotional and academic support they need for their own studies and personal needs. They need to be cared for, too.”
Natasha Escobar, a Spanish teacher at City College, has heard from her students that balancing household and academic responsibilities has been challenging. Back in the spring, when school first moved online, Escobar had students tell her that they were the oldest in their households and were expected to take care of their younger siblings.
“I think a lot of kids feel very overwhelmed right now, and everybody is coping differently,” Escobar said. She has seen more of her students struggle with anxiety, depression and isolation because of the pandemic.
Katherine says she has not faced those problems, though her schedule leaves her worn out. And the virtual class format, combined with her household responsibilities, have impaired her schoolwork.
Baltimore City College has high standards, and Katherine’s middle school assistant principal urged her to go there. It is the only high school in the city to offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program from ninth through 12th grade, and all students are required to take IB classes. In May, Katherine will graduate and receive her high school diploma. She also will have completed 27 college credits
But getting through school has become harder since classes have gone virtual.
Katherine said she used to get a lot more work done when she went to school in person. Now, she tends to push off assignments.
“Right now, I feel like sometimes when it’s really late, I’m tired,” Katherine said. “I should just do the work tomorrow, so I wait, and then I get all of these assignments overdue.”
Her Spanish teacher, Franca Muller Paz, noticed that Katherine missed some deadlines during the second quarter.
“She is the person making sure all her siblings are doing what they need to do, making sure that they’re able to be connected,” Muller Paz said. “ I think there’s a lot of her kind of sacrificing her own academics to make sure that her younger siblings have everything they need, and that’s really been who Katherine is for a long time.”
Katherine’s brother Brayan, who is just a year younger, only has to keep his room clean and do his own laundry. She has been given many more tasks. “Because I’m a girl,” Katherine said.
At City College, Katherine takes four 60-minute classes each day. This year, she’s taking Spanish, physics, history, theory of knowledge, English, social anthropology, math analysis and an extracurricular class that alternates between photography and SOMOS, Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society.
She failed three of her classes in the second quarter, which doesn’t doom her chances of graduation. If classes were in person, she thinks she would have performed better.
“It’s hard for you to explain to your teacher and show them what you are thinking and what they are thinking,” Katherine said. “Let’s say you ask a question and then she tries to answer it, but when she tries to do so, she gets questions from other students. She doesn’t [end up] answering the question.”
One of the classes she failed was English. English has always been a challenging subject for Katherine. She was born in Honduras and moved to the U.S. when she was 11. She quickly became her parents personal translator.
“My parents actually started taking me to the store and I was the one who was supposed to pay for stuff,” Katherine said. “They were always like, you need to practice your English, and now I’m their personal translator,” Katherine said.
That was just the beginning of her obligations. Today, she has many more.
Katherine’s alarm goes off. Her father and brothers, Elvis, 8, and Brayan, are still cozied up in their beds. She meets her mother in the kitchen so they can start making her father’s lunch, which some days is chicken and rice.
Both of them are still half asleep, so the conversation is limited.
At 6 a.m., after her father’s meal is packed away, Katherine’s mother heads for work. Katherine has coffee ready for her father when he is up and getting ready to leave too.
Every other day, Katherine tackles her family’s laundry. She also takes the time to tidy up the house and make sure she has finished all her assignments before school starts. She doesn’t always have the energy to finish them at night.
At least three days a week, a cousin who lives nearby drops her four younger siblings off at Katherine’s house for the day so Katherine can help them navigate virtual learning.
The oldest cousin is in sixth grade, and the youngest is in first. The cousins recently immigrated from Honduras, and now the families live just a 10-minute walk away from one another in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Ellwood Park/Monument.
“We all grew up together back in Honduras, so it’s like we’ve always had that connection,” Katherine said.
They gather at Katherine’s house because Wi-Fi is stronger there but mostly because the children need a translator. Many Baltimore households don’t have a reliable internet connection that is crucial for online education. According to a 2018 report by the Abell Foundation, 40.7% of Baltimore households did not have wireline internet service.
Before the cousins arrive, Katherine sets up their work stations, strategically placing the youngest closest to her and Katherine’s 16-year-old brother and making sure no one is sitting next to someone who might distract them.
“I know how to separate them,” Katherine said.
If the cousins haven’t eaten, Katherine makes something for breakfast before it is time to log onto Google Classroom. It takes her nearly half an hour – about five minutes for each cousin and her 8-year-old brother – to get them into their Zoom classes.
School starts for all of them at 9 a.m. Her cousins begin asking for help when their teachers ask them to sign into other applications. Sometimes Katherine has to text their teachers to get codes and log-in information for the cousins while she is in the middle of her own classes.
All seven students use their own laptops and the same Wi-Fi connection. The sheer number of devices connected to the internet can cause it to glitch and slow down.
One day, Katherine was taking a test in her physics class when the Zoom call dropped. The word “reconnecting” appeared on her screen, but her call never reconnected. The Wi-Fi had gone out in her neighborhood.
“So I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh. What do I do now?’ ’’ Katherine said. “So I emailed my teacher, and I told him there was an outage in my area.” Her teacher was sympathetic and allowed her to use extra time at the end of the day to finish.
Katherine’s classes pause for lunch. She usually eats what’s left from the meal she packed for her father that morning.
At 12:10, it’s time for Katherine to go back to class. This would be easy enough except for the fact that her cousins’ lunch period starts at noon. The kids bring lunch at least two times a week, but on the days they don’t, Katherine must make something for them. On Fridays, however, Katherine opts to order pizza for herself, siblings and cousins instead of cooking.
She enters the kitchen, using her phone to stay connected with class. Wearing headphones, she moves around, heating up soup for the children.
If the soup is ready before the cousins are allowed to take a lunch break, she sometimes has to reheat it.
Katherine knew nothing about cooking until she moved to the U.S. Her mother thought she at least knew how to make rice, but on her first attempt she ended up burning it.
When school is over., Katherine asks her cousins and younger brother what they have for homework. If they have questions, they opt to stay at Katherine’s to complete their lessons, as she is the translator.
Then Katherine rounds them up, makes sure they have their devices and bookbags and walks them to their house. Katherine would have had her driver’s license by now and would have been able to drive them home if the virus had not shut down her driving school.
There are days when Katherine doesn’t want to have these responsibilities. “It’s those days where I don’t get enough sleep,” Katherine said. “I don’t really want to do this like I do.”
On those days, Katherine warns the kids to disturb her as little as possible. She also asks Brayan for help, or if she’s having a particularly stressful day, she tells her 18-year-old cousin, Saira, she needs her to be there during the school day. “I’m like, ‘Please, I need your help today,’ ” Katherine said. “I am not so good.”
Katherine makes dinner for the family. But even when Nancy Bonilla-Galo gets home on time, Katherine is still expected to help out in the kitchen. Some evenings, her father works late, so the rest of the family may wait until 8 p.m. for dinner.
Then she washes the dishes and cleans up the kitchen before she heads upstairs to do her homework.
On nights where she has a lot of homework to do, Katherine goes to bed between midnight and 1 a.m. On those that she doesn’t, she goes to sleep around 11 p.m. Her alarm will ring at 5 the next morning.
Taking a break
For Thanksgiving, Katherine and her family traveled to Manassas, Virginia, to spend the holiday with her aunt. Her mother suggested that Katherine and her siblings stay there for a couple of weeks and do their schooling while away from home.
“My mom wanted us to take a break from school because we were stressed out, especially me,” Katherine said. But the relief from her responsibilities didn’t completely alleviate her stress. She missed her routine at home. By the second week of December, she was back home in East Baltimore.
Katherine’s parents have tried to stress the importance of college. They believe it will allow her to get a better job and give her more opportunities. But because of the pressure of her obligations, Katherine said she wants a break, a year off. She may not want to go to college at all.
Her parents think it will be a major regret if she decides not to go. If she does go, she said she would like to major in nursing or business.
And if she had that business degree, she says she would consider traveling back to Honduras to assist her grandparents with their business, a coffee plantation that Katherine says that doesn’t make a lot of money as “prices are really low.”
Katherine does not want to stay in the United States for a long time. “I hate it here,” Katherine said. “I just want to go back.” It’s been six years, and she said she still hasn’t adjusted to life in the States.
That decision is months away. For now, Katherine is focused on managing her responsibilities and finishing her senior year.