How this Columbia student is raising four kids during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Mengshin Lin, Photojournalist

(from right to left) Constantina Davis, 37, with her four kids, Teanna, 20, Dillan, 16, Tre’von, 12, and Savanah, 9 (front). Mengshin Lin

I met senior photography major Constantina Davis my first semester after she transferred to Columbia from Malcolm X College. When she told me she was raising four kids by herself, working as a security guard at The Art Institute of Chicago and studying photography at Columbia, I could not imagine how she balanced it all.

Chicago Public Schools closed its in-person classrooms for almost a year during the pandemic, and currently 145,000 students are learning remotely from home. As the pandemic progressed, Davis’ story came to mind.

Although CPS students were given the option to go back to in-person learning starting March 8, Davis was not ready for her children to return.

Davis’ son Tre’von, 12, and Savanah, 9, both attend their online classes from the dining room without using headphones, causing the room to be flooded with the sound of two different lectures. Mengshin Lin
Savanah sections off her bunk bed using a blanket to divide the room that she shares with Tre’von. Mengshin Lin

“I think they opened it back up too soon,” Davis said. “They should have waited until everybody got vaccinated and all that before they let the kids go back.”

Davis said she now only works during the weekend, so she can “make sure [all her kids] are focused.”

I arrived at Davis’ apartment in the Austin neighborhood early on a Monday afternoon on Feb. 22 and found myself immediately immersed in what had become routine for the family over the last few months.

Savanah complains that her brother didn’t clean up after searching for an outfit, leaving the floor of their room covered in clothes. Mengshin Lin
Tre’von comes to his room to play Minecraft every time he has a break from class. Mengshin Lin

Davis’ two youngest children, 12-year-old Tre’von and 9-year-old Savanah, were attending class from the dining room, while their mother tuned into her photography class from her bedroom.

Davis’ youngest daughter, Savanah, 9, draws and takes the wrappers off her crayons during her online class. Mengshin Lin

As the day went on, Davis’ kids participated in a number of classes, with little change or movement, other than Savanah participating in her PE class, before going back to staring at her computer screen across from her brother.

After Tre’von and Savanah got out of class at 3:30 p.m., the chatter from online school stopped, the apartment became quiet and they retreated into their rooms to decompress.

Tre’von brings a bagel as lunch to his room and plays Minecraft with his friend over the phone. Mengshin Lin
Teanna, 20, is Davis’ oldest daughter and a creative writing major at Columbia. Mengshin Lin

Davis’ oldest daughter, Teanna, who is 20, scrolled through social media in her room while Dillan, who is 16, played games online with his friend in the next room. Tre’von started to draw for his art class, as Savanah spun around the apartment on her electric hoverboard.

Senior photography major Constantina Davis sits in on a Zoom session of her “Image Strategies” class as Colleen Plumb, part-time faculty member in the Photography Department, shows references for the class’ installation project. Mengshin Lin
Davis comes out to the dining room during her “Image Strategies” class to make sure both Tre’von (left) and Savanah (right) are logged into class as Teanna, Davis’ oldest daughter, searches for snacks in the fridge. Mengshin Lin

Meanwhile, Davis attempted to wrap up her “Image Strategies” class. In 2019, after graduating from Malcolm X College in 2011 with an associate in arts degree, Davis returned to college life at Columbia to study photography, with a long-term goal of owning her own photography business.

After class, Davis orders pizza and wings for dinner, which her kids eat separately in their rooms. Mengshin Lin

Davis lived with her mother while she was in school. However, following a house fire in 2011, she had to find a job to support her children independently.

As her children got older and were able to watch the younger ones when she was away, Davis began to take classes at Columbia. She enrolled in 2019 and relies on help from the government to cover some of the costs for housing and food.

Davis asks Savanah where she put their family album while she lays on the sofa after finishing her class. Mengshin Lin
Davis holds a photo of Teanna dressed up for prom in 2019 while going through their family photos. Many of her images were lost when her mother’s house caught fire 2011. Mengshin Lin

“I wouldn’t be able to go back to school if it wasn’t for Section 8,” Davis said referring to the housing choice voucher program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist low-income residents with rent payments. “Because I would have to spend [all] my time working [and] trying to pay bills.”

Davis talks to her oldest son Dillan, 16, about his assignments after he finishes his online class. Mengshin Lin

Even with this assistance, Davis’ three-bedroom apartment in Austin costs around $1,450 a month without on-site laundry.

“I think it’s too much for this apartment,” Davis said. “But … I appreciate it because some people don’t have it as good as I have.”

Davis wakes up at 7 a.m. on the weekends to get ready for her eight-hour shift at The Art Institute of Chicago. Mengshin Lin

On weekends, Davis wakes up at 7 a.m. ahead of her long commute to The Art Institute of Chicago. After changing into her security uniform, applying makeup and getting ready for the day, she drives to the Central Green Line Station, 350 N. Central Ave., to get to her eight-hour shift.

Davis leaves her apartment at 8:15 a.m., letters and newspapers delivered for her neighbors scattered across the front yard. Mengshin Lin
Davis drives to Central Station to take the CTA Green Line toward the Adams & Wabash Station. Mengshin Lin

The full commute usually takes Davis around 40 minutes, but she takes it in stride, the expression on her face only scrunching with concern when unmasked passengers board the train. After arriving downtown, she catches a ride with a co-worker, their chatter and laughter filling the car as they drive toward the museum.

Davis runs into her coworkers at McDonald’s, who give her a ride to the museum after she gets her breakfast. Mengshin Lin

Davis has been working for The Art Institute of Chicago as a security guard for close to eight years. She said that although it was inspiring to work at the museum, she has started to get depressed when waking up for work.

Davis and her coworker enter through the staff entrance of The Art Institute of Chicago. Mengshin Lin

“[You] go to work, come home, go to work, come home. You’re stuck in that trap,” Davis said. “I don’t want to be a security guard for the rest of my life.”

She said for her, studying photography has felt like a way to create another avenue for herself.

“I think going back to school will be my outlet,” Davis said. “So that I [can] get into entrepreneurship, doing something more exciting.”

Senior photography major Constantina Davis is stationed at the entrance of the Modern Wing at The Art Institute of Chicago while on duty. Mengshin Lin

Davis said the loss of her mother has made her hope to spend more time with her children.

I just think about how hard my mom worked because she used to work for the CTA,” Davis said. “I wanted to do something I enjoy. I didn’t want to go to work and come home and not really [enjoy] life.”