What to do now that kids are 'back in school'

Advice from parents and teachers on how to smooth out the still-new process of learning from home

Last week, when 14-year-old Karl got a glimpse of the work his teacher had uploaded to the online learning platform Canvas, his mother said he had a bit of a panic attack.

“He freaked out and didn’t know how he was going to get it all done,” says Christine Schofield of Sebastian, Florida. “But we just emailed his teacher, and she replied with: no deadline, no penalties for late work, and that the parents and teachers and students are all learning this together.” Soon her now-calmed-down son could refocus and get back to his algebra and Spanish.

Over the past few weeks, many schools have implemented some semblance of formal online learning in order to get kids “back to school.” But parents are still figuring out what that means for their daily lives. An accessible, responsive teacher definitely helps them navigate the new normal of at-home learning. But many challenges remain.

Turns out, a lot of those issues are things parents probably tackled back when children were first sent home: setting schedules, managing expectations, and being flexible. Though navigating the new teaching methods and structured online education can feel overwhelming, parents and teachers say patience and support flows from both sides.

“Our teachers, their hearts are breaking,” says Elizabeth Lucas, who has twin girls in third grade. “It’s not how they wanted to finish their year. It’s such a lot to ask teachers to change how they fundamentally teach in two weeks—but everyone’s in this together.”

Here, teachers and parents offer some of their own observations and suggestions for how to continue to support learners and their families at home, and what families can do to help out educators.

Setting expectations

Formal online schooling will look different depending on where you live. Some districts are using platforms that allow teachers to upload a weekly agenda with links to videos, worksheets, and online interactives. Many schools aren’t grading as rigorously (some are using simply a pass / fail structure) or requiring that kids “show up” at particular times of day. In districts where online access is an issue, paper packets with the week’s work are available.

How schoolwork is spread out during the day varies by family. Some families front-load their mornings; others sprinkle lessons throughout the day. Students are typically expected to spend two to three hours a day reviewing lesson materials and completing assignments.

No matter how your child’s new “school” is structured, the first piece of advice is to reset any expectations about what learning “should” look like and just embrace the process. According to Cheryl Walker, a seventh-grade English teacher at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown, Maryland, teachers themselves are still adjusting to classes looking and feeling completely different. Now, instead of a 45-minute block of classroom instruction, a smaller daily dose of math or language skills seems adequate.

“Doing this online requires us to start slowly, then gain momentum” until the new approach feels comfortable, she says.

For Tori Ball, a high school math teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, the switch to online and remote learning gave her pause. Could math really be effectively delivered through video tutorials?

The answer, she says, surprised her—quite a few of her students have told her they felt more capable and confident in what they were learning because they were able to pause, back up, rewatch, think, ponder, and not have confusing questions from classmates distracting their thinking.

“I think in some respects this has been a really good time for education in that it’s forced teachers to try new things,” Ball says. “It’s certainly opened me up to different ways of working with kids.”

“For my students, the expectation is to continue learning, ask questions, explore things on their own, and develop their natural curiosity,” Walker says. Those are things online learning can amplify beyond what students might typically have explored in a conventional classroom setting.

Creating a schedule

Yes, the dreaded daily schedule. But taking the time to map out a student’s day—even if it’s just barely planned—helps everyone, parents and teachers included.

Only parents are also going to understand how best to motivate their own children, something teachers need help with as they try to instruct from a distance. That’s why Ball recommends taking some time to cocreate an acceptable daily schedule, especially with learners who might have self-motivation issues. Want to sleep in some? OK, but not too late. Want video games? Commit to a bit of math first. “It’s helpful for teens especially to have a voice in the boundaries of what their schedule looks like,” she says.

That helps teachers as well as parents. Fort Wayne, Indiana, parent Lee Dubose Fuhr breaks up her kids’ learning into one- to two-hour blocks that includes time for them to work independently. It’s been a sanity-saver.

“If you have phone calls and appointments and clients, it can be a nightmare to try and monitor whether your child is doing their schoolwork or not,” Fuhr says. “My third and fourth graders can go off and attempt to have some autonomy.”

For Lucas, the idea of a strict daily schedule has taken on a completely new meaning—and rarely concerns schoolwork.

Lucas says she initially set a rigorous academic schedule to get her girls’ online lessons and homework completed. But after facing two extremely different learning styles, she decided to homeschool one daughter full-time after the online approach just didn’t work. What has been helpful are a handful of anchors: The girls are out of bed no later than 8:30 a.m., physical movement and activity breaks happen throughout the day, and the lunch hour involves pitching in on dishes and laundry.

“It alleviated so much pressure,” Lucas says.

Physically but not socially distant

Online teaching can also provide students a social outlet they’re now missing. Ball says that being separated from friends has been tough on her students, and that times set aside as “office hours”—intended for students to call or email about schoolwork—frequently evolve into something else.

“There are kids who use these times not for math help, but to say, look, here’s my cat,” Ball says. “Showing each other pictures of their cats is a really important part of their lives. I’ve heard a lot more chat from parent friends that more screen time really is OK for this.”

Fuhr says she’s been particularly impressed with how her school district has handled “social-emotional learning” by dedicating two weekdays each week to live sessions for trivia, gaming, and show-and-tell.

Not all schools that are back in session are offering live class sessions and opportunities for socializing, out of privacy or safety concerns, or other reasons. But parents are still seeking those out as a part of their children’s day. Amanda Young, a parent of first- and fifth-grade boys outside Boston, says her older son meets virtually with his Boy Scout troop, and both boys participate in live, virtual activities offered by her local Boys and Girls Club.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Above all, parents and teachers need to be working together to make this social learning experiment successful.

For instance, Ball says that her school’s initial remote-learning plans didn’t involve “synchronous” learning opportunities—times when students would be expected to be “in class” together—to avoid putting too much pressure on students. But at an online parent check-in, Ball says one of the main requests was for exactly that. Parents needed that quiet time, and virtually together lesson times gave students a touch of a “normal” classroom environment for idea-sharing.

Walker says parents can help in other ways too. One thing she’s found that makes a big difference for students—even if it’s not directly communicated to the teacher—is for parents to ask kids to show them what they’re doing online. “A lot of parents want to trust their kids, but it’s important to have those conversations,” Walker says.

She and her colleagues appreciate feedback from families about what is and isn’t working with the new approach to learning, she adds. She also enjoys hearing what else her students are up to: a recently completed book, videos from dance or yoga classes, progress on a scrapbook or knitting project. Teachers who miss their students find that outreach from families incredibly uplifting.

Says Walker: “It’s that personal connection and touch.”

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