Photograph by Jeff Greenough / Getty Images
Photograph by Jeff Greenough / Getty Images

Help! My kid’s school is still virtual.

Many families are faced with another semester of at-home learning. Here’s advice from the parents who’ve been homeschooling for years.

When schools started shutting down in the spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar role of substitute teachers. While schools scrambled to figure out how to educate children from afar, moms and dads struggled to help with a slew of online assignments and fill hours normally taken up by classroom instruction.

One solace: that summer was coming soon, and that school life would go back to normal in the fall. But as infection rates spike in parts of the country, many districts have announced they’ll continue with virtual learning as the school year starts, either through a hybrid version of in-school plus at-home instruction, or classes that are totally virtual.

Parents are rightfully concerned. But they’re not alone. Almost two million children were already being homeschooled before the coronavirus slammed schoolhouse doors shut, and those parents know a thing or two about what happens when the living room becomes the classroom. Here’s advice from parents who have been homeschooling their children for years.

Challenge: My kids are struggling to stay focused during class.

With kids facing hours of online class time each day instructed by teachers who aren’t actually “there,” staying engaged can be tough—especially when parents have their own work demands. Laura McKenzie, who educated four kids at home, says that established class-time rules can be a big help when kids just can’t focus. “That way you can just refer to the rules rather than always being the bad guy,” says McKenzie, who’s also the administrator of a homeschool group in Birmingham, Alabama.

Rules might include “staying on screen until class is over,” “no muting the teacher so you can talk to your sister,” or “no online surfing on another screen during Zoom classes.” And remember: These rules carry more weight if adults have to abide by them too.

Exercise can also help kids improve their concentration and focus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the recommendation is 60 minutes a day, it certainly doesn’t have to be all at once. Christina Strickland, who homeschooled both her daughters from first grade through high school graduation, suggests allowing kids to burn off some energy in the backyard or inside before they log on.

“I wouldn’t expect even a high schooler to go for more than about 45 minutes without needing a break,” she says. “Younger children may need more frequent breaks. In my experience it’s better to do some work, let them burn off some energy, then come back and do some more.” (Here are some ideas for indoor activity that won’t seem like exercise.)

And of course, watch the snacks, especially the sweet ones. “When a sugar crash happens, attention flies out the door,” McKenzie says, adding that she’d keep healthy protein snacks handy when her kids needed a quick energy boost while learning. (Check out these brain-food snacks for kids.)

Challenge: I have three kids at different age levels. How do I make sure they’re all learning?

This is one of the biggest challenges of learning at home. Strickland suggests recruiting older kids to help the little ones after school or during non-classroom time. “If the older child is helping with a math problem or language arts, it will reinforce those skills with the older student, helping them with their work too,” she says. “And the little ones might think it’s cool to get help from an older sibling.” This works especially well if your older kids had the same teacher the younger ones have now.

During the school day, you may need to keep kids separated so everyone can concentrate. Strickland points out that one benefit of learning from home is that children can connect to class from anywhere with Wi-Fi: bedrooms, the kitchen, or even in the backyard.

If you don’t have enough space, McKenzie recommends investing in good earphones, lap desks, and plenty of floor pillows so everyone can have some privacy, even if they’re close together.

Challenge: My kids’ school isn’t yet up to speed with remote schooling and the lessons aren’t filling up the day. How do I keep my kids occupied—and get work done myself?

This is a common issue for veteran homeschoolers, according to Michael McShane, director of national research at the nonprofit EdChoice, where he tracks education data and writes widely about homeschooling issues. He says that homeschoolers long ago learned that when you subtract changing classes, going to lunch, and organizing groups of 30 or more kids, the schoolwork takes a fraction of the time kids spend in school. “Often homeschools will only go for half a day, five hours maybe,” he says. “And they’re able to accomplish everything they need to.”

Even if it’s only an hour to fill, homeschoolers advise taking advantage of any extra time by letting kids pursue subjects that interest them but aren’t in the traditional curricula. One of McKenzie’s boys took up piano; another immersed himself in the study of Celtic history. (Here are some other ideas for “educational” projects that’ll take up some time.)

Board games can be a fun way to fill time while shoring up skills. McKenzie says games like Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Payday are great for reinforcing numeracy skills, while Scrabble and Boggle can help with vocabulary and spelling.

As for that time when your child desperately needs your help (or your computer) right before an important meeting? Thankfully, as shutdowns have dragged on, more and more companies are realizing the need for flexibility. But Strickland recommends being transparent and proactive with your supervisor and colleagues to prepare a game plan.

“Before talking to your supervisor [about your flexibility needs], determine your ideal outcome so you can present a solution instead of asking them to solve your problem,” she says.

Challenge: This is all too much! I’m going crazy!

Remember: You are not alone. When Lisa Connolly homeschooled her child near San Antonio, she found other parents were her best resource—and that’s still true during these uncertain times. Chances are, there’s already a Facebook group for parents in your area, and of course there’s video and old-fashioned telephone calls for support.

“Just being able to connect with people who were doing the same thing was a huge help,” Connolly says. “On bad days, we could sympathize with each other. On good days we celebrated together.”