When schools and day cares shut down in March of 2020, few people thought the lockdown would last more than a few months. Now, more than a year later, the Covid-19 pandemic is nowhere near over in the United States as virus variants continue to spread. Still, in many parts of the country, schools are gearing up to welcome students back into classrooms, even though less than half of American teens between 12 and 15 are vaccinated, and kids under 12 aren't expected to be able to get their Covid-19 vaccination shots until later this year.
Even if your school plans to have students on campus for at least part of the school year, it’s wise to prepare for repeated shutdowns, closures, or quarantines. The US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control has reinstated its recommendation that students, teachers, and staff in schools wear masks at all times, but rules vary from state to state. And while children are less likely than adults to become severely ill from a Covid infection, school shutdowns or quarantines may occur when children, teachers, and staff test positive for Covid-19. (If you need help buying a mask for your kid, we have some suggestions.)
This means remote learning, in whole or in part, is likely here to stay. We spoke to several edtech experts about identifying possible obstacles and aiming for reasonable goals for at-home education.
Your child might not become an Intel Science Fair finalist this year. But they can still be healthy, happy, and able to pick up facts. “Don’t try to replicate everything. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Sal Khan, founder of the online education nonprofit Khan Academy. “Focus on the basics first and get your legs under you.”
Update, August 11, 2021: This story originally ran in August 2020. It has been updated to reflect the changes in masking recommendations, vaccine availability, and vaccination statistics among school-aged children.
Assess Your Situation
Whether your school is public or private, you have to look at its plan for the upcoming year. Do they seem prepared? If they plan for in-person schooling, will students and staff be able to quarantine without penalty? If your school will be remote, does the curriculum prioritize interaction over clocking six straight hours online?
“Parents who are finding out that their kids are going to be learning remotely and feel unsure about the effectiveness of the implementation of the curriculum should be aware of other virtual options that are available to them,” writes Jorge Valenzuela, an education coach, advocate, and author of the book Rev Up Robotics, a resource for introducing cross-curricular computational thinking in the classroom, in an email to WIRED.
If your school’s current plans won’t work for your family—for example, if your child has special needs, but will be required to sit at a computer for 5 hours straight—you may need to consider other options. If you do withdraw your child, you may need to file a Declaration of Intent with your state’s Board of Education.
Online companies like K12 are used all over the country, and you can check their website for remote options near you. Educational organizations like Khan Academy can also be used to homeschool.
When you’re looking at your school’s plans, don’t forget to account for the time you, or other adults, will need to spend supervising. The younger the child, the more help they’ll need. K12 suggests budgeting 4 to 6 hours a day to help your kid if they’re younger than the fifth grade. Older children will need supervision for around 1 to 3 hours.
Social Skills Matter More Than Social Studies
Every educator I spoke to affirmed that kids don’t go to school to learn math and English, although those are important too! In a school environment, kids learn conflict management, discipline, and emotional regulation—all of which are hard to pick up remotely.
“In traditional schooling, the standards never say, ‘Make sure the kids make friends,’” says Khan. “Teachers and educators need to be focused on making sure that distance learning does not lose that element. Educators have to pull students out of the screen, do cold calls, do virtual breakouts rooms, ask them to convince each other of solutions, or teach each other.”
Whenever you can, facilitate in-person interaction—which can be as simple as reading to a small child, or asking an older one about something they learned at lunch. Pandemic pods, in which a few kids congregate in someone’s home or outside in their yard, may be a controversial solution. But they don’t have to cost money. “I think there’s nothing wrong with trying to find two to three families that have similar-aged kids,” Khan says. “You don’t have to hire someone.”
Another important life skill that kids learn in school is self-management—learning to follow a schedule, chip away at their workload, and meet deadlines.
Valenzuela provides a template for a daily schedule. But that schedule should incorporate plenty of free time and physical activity, especially for younger children. “There’s no way kids of any age should be expected to be sedentary at a screen all day,” says Devorah Heitner, media expert and author of Screenwise, a practical guide for helping parents manage their child’s relationship with technology.
“They need physical breaks and a break from the screen, as well,” Heitner says. “Do pushups or eat a snack. Playing videogames is not a great brain break during school.”
Smooth the Path
“A lot of the challenge with remote school is that it hasn’t been very parent-friendly,” Heitner points out. School districts aren’t always consistent across platforms. Maybe one teacher uses Seesaw, while another prefers Google Hangouts. That can be difficult to manage, especially if you have multiple children of different ages.
If you’re a parent or supervising adult, Heitner suggests budgeting time for dealing with tech difficulties, especially for children that are younger than the third grade. Their inconsistent typing skills get them locked out of their own computers regularly.
Hopefully your school is remaining consistent, with at most three separate platforms. But if you’re switching supervising duties with other adults, Heitner suggests writing down every single website, user login, and password on a whiteboard. Post the whiteboard prominently, and take a picture of it to send it to every adult who is supervising your kid.
My colleague Boone Ashworth has written before about setting up a workspace for your child. But Heitner has a few more suggestions. A cheap printer is a good solution for a child who is easily distracted or who has to share a computer or a tablet with a sibling. Just print out pages to have them read, edit, or work on worksheets away from a screen.
Sal Khan also recommends breaking free from digital media whenever possible. He recommends E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge series for every grade, as a good supplement for a parent or learning coach who is worried about skipping any fundamental steps.
Think Big Picture
If you’re reading this, I feel confident that your children will be OK. It’s likely that you have internet access. And possibly discretionary income, if you’re a WIRED subscriber. Perhaps the most useful tip for you and your family is to accept that living through a global pandemic means that a lot of things are going to slide.
Sometimes you won’t be able to put your kid on the Google Meet because you had to take a phone call. That’s OK. “The good news is that kids are wired to learn, and they will learn things this year,” Heitner says. “If they don’t learn every single piece, most kids are going to be in the same boat.”
Much of the concern about remote schooling revolves around how it will exacerbate inequality. It’s not within an individual parent’s ability to ensure that every child in their district has a working computer and Wi-Fi.
But if donating to a local public school district won’t impede your ability to buy groceries, you may want to consider donating a printer, printer paper, or ink cartridges. If you have these devices, you might want to consider offering to print out worksheets (contactlessly) for children in your neighborhood, or organizing a contactless bookmobile for students without access to paper books.
We’re not going to replace in-person schooling, complete with sunlit libraries, playgrounds, or lunch breaks with friends. But with open minds and the ability to adjust, parents can try to mitigate the harm of even more remote schooling—by a little bit, at least.