It's time to go back to school. But as coronavirus limits in-person instruction, some form of virtual learning will be a reality for many families this fall.
When the pandemic first hit, educators leaped into action, quickly crafting virtual learning plans so students could study at home. Parents and caregivers found themselves juggling childcare, their children's schoolwork and their own careers during a time of great uncertainty.
This time around, educators and parents are more prepared for remote learning, both physically and mentally. We've had time to process what worked well and what we'd change. With some advance planning and a few adjustments, working parents can manage their own workload and help kids navigate virtual learning.
Virtual learning is a form of instruction under which teachers provide learning activities, resources and support through digital platforms so students can learn and study online. Students may use online tools to complete lessons, learn new skills, complete group projects, join their teachers and friends for video chats, attend virtual field trips or explore enrichment activities.
It can happen inside or outside of a traditional school building. During the coronavirus pandemic, virtual learning has been a key part of many remote learning strategies.
Virtual learning is a form of remote learning, but the terms aren't interchangeable. Remote learning can also include printed materials like books and handouts, as well as hands-on activities to be completed at home or in any location outside of school.
Last spring's leap into remote and virtual learning was necessarily quick and reactive. This fall, parents have time to think ahead and plan a virtual learning strategy for their household.
Spend a few minutes reflecting on your previous experience with distance learning. Write down your stresses and successes. Then make a plan to tackle your biggest obstacles first.
Here are a few things you should consider when developing your virtual learning plan.
Virtual learning requires a strong internet connection, which can be a challenge for renters in rural areas, large apartment complexes or historic buildings. Set up your virtual learning center in the room where the connection is strongest. Brick, stucco, plaster or thick beams can all interfere with a Wi-Fi signal, so different corners of a room may yield different results.
Upgrade your internet speed if you haven't already. This is especially important if you're also working from home.
If price or connectivity is a concern, request assistance. Your internet provider may have programs for low-income households. Service groups and community organizations fund initiatives to help families and rural residents bridge the digital divide. Reach out to your child's school first.
“If districts are requiring at-home online education, the districts also need to provide the resources for online activity," says Dr. Joshua Grover, principal of Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School in Cass Lake, Minnesota. “If school districts cannot provide internet access, they need to provide paper and pencil activities, communication by telephone — whatever they can do. Reach out to the school district and ask what they can do."
In addition to temporarily switching to off-line work, Dr. Grover says school districts might also send mobile hotspots home with students or provide free, socially distant Wi-Fi access in places like school parking lots. Some places of worship also offer free parking lot internet access for students, so ask around to see what's available in your area.
If you'll be working from home while the kids are studying, set up your workspace first. Make sure it's free of distractions and includes everything you need, including office supplies, the right IT equipment and sufficient storage.
Then, create a dedicated work area for the kids. You might have to get creative if you live in a small apartment or if you have a large family.
“Our set up is in our kitchen," says Kelly Williams, who supervises remote learning for her six kids, ages three to 17, in Gaston, Oregon. “It's where we had the most space and where I can monitor and be more on hand and available to all the kids. We set it up so each child has their own workstation and supplies, which hopefully will limit distractions."
At school, kids store their supplies in lockers, cubbies or backpacks, so replicate that system at home by keeping each child's projects and materials in one bag, box or cupboard. This will help contain the mess while they're working and enable you to tuck everything out of sight when their work is completed. Determine where to store and charge devices like tablets, laptops and mobile phones when not in use.
Technology is always changing, so review the apps and websites your kids are using and install any recommended updates. Each teacher is different, so kids might need an entirely different set of online tools than last year. Make sure both you and the kids know how to use each online platform. It's much less stressful to learn a new system without a looming deadline.
Take a moment to review and update any programs you use for work, as well. If you're not tech-savvy, you can outsource this task to older students.
List each student's passwords and log-in info in a separate document. Then, do the same for your own info. Any step that cuts down on confusion will help streamline the virtual learning process.
A child's virtual learning schedule will depend on the student's course load, their age, abilities and familiarity with technology. It's also influenced by the schedules of adults outside the home and how many other kids are present.
If more than one adult is working from home, divide virtual learning supervision into shifts so nobody's work suffers. (Older kids can also help monitor younger children.) Each schedule should include time for the schoolwork, relaxation, snacks and physical activity to help kids burn off excess energy.
Delegating household chores can relieve pressure on working parents and build important skills like responsibility and teamwork, so make them part of a child's school day.
Supervising virtual learning can be distracting. And if you're working from home, there may be moments when you'll need to get outside help.
“Getting an in-person adult to help your children with online learning is a great answer for parents working from home," says Jaidene Anderlini, the owner of Babysitters in a Pinch, a Denver-based service. “It helps parents run their home more efficiently by not having to monitor their children during online learning."
A similar approach can work for parents who work outside the home, as well. Small groups of neighbors, friends and extended family often split childcare and virtual learning supervision responsibilities. This keeps the risk of virus exposure limited to a small group. It can also help parents mitigate childcare shortages, accommodate changing work schedules and keep expenses low during a time of economic insecurity.
Working at home with very young kids is especially challenging. Anticipate frequent interruptions and short attention spans and create a plan to deal with them in advance.
“Plan ahead with activities like crafts that your kids can do while you are working," suggests Cheryl Lee-White, a children's author, blogger and mother of three from Somerset, England. “And instead of a long lunch break, split it up into short, regular 10-minute breaks to spend with the kids."
Lee-White also recommends making lunches early, to avoid a midday rush — or meltdowns. Keep a stack of library books, pre-approved movies, or a stash of board games and puzzles on hand. Kids can reach for them during scheduled independent playtimes or amuse themselves if your Zoom meeting goes long.
If you or your child are struggling with virtual learning during a pandemic, you're not alone. This is a challenging environment for which no one could have prepared. School counselors and other mental health professionals have tools available to help families cope.
Registered nurse Abbie Wignes learned how an expert can help firsthand. Her two sons, ages 11 and eight, enjoyed the virtual learning at first. But after a few weeks, her youngest started to struggle.
“It was just too much sitting, too much time online on a screen that he couldn't handle it," she says "Each kid is so different. It kind of comes down to knowing your kid and knowing what's best for them. We knew that our youngest craves that one-on-one attention and quality time."
A social worker from her son's school in Monticello, MN, provided resources to help ease the transition. But Wignes says that the stress of being furloughed and transitioning into remote learning meant that it took a while for her to really process them. A chat with the school social worker helped her youngest son connect.
“Honestly, just to talk to another person outside of our family was like a treat," she says. “He just enjoyed the one-on-one attention from her. I thought, “Why didn't I call this social worker sooner?'"
Humans are social creatures, and that one-on-one attention matters — even if it doesn't happen in person. Parents are finding creative ways to help their kids socialize during a time of social distancing.
“We have struggled with this, too, with an only child living in the country," says Shana Williams, the mother of an 11-year-old girl and a secondary special ed teacher at Climax-Shelly Public School in Climax, MN. “I started reaching out to her friends' moms and setting up semi-regular Zoom calls with her friends."
Wignes' boys keep in touch with friends and cousins on Messenger Kids and go on bike meet-ups with friends. Other families host masked outdoor playdates and trips to the park. Coaches, instructors and park districts have found clever ways to bring kids to together for socially distant outdoor activities, virtual camps and events.
Make socialization a regular part of kids' schedules. As an added bonus, parents working from home can often get a few more tasks done while kids are on FaceTime, talking on the phone or playing video games online with their friends and family.
Supervising virtual learning on top of managing a career and a household can be stressful. But experts agree that just being emotionally present and curious can help kids feel loved and supported.
“Just be a parent. Do what you normally do," advises Dr. Grover, who is also a father of three. “We are that primary source of engagement. We need to be talking to our children and playing with them. It's really important that we provide that good example of socialization."
International Schools Services, which works with educators in more than 500 schools across the globe, recently shared author and educator Larry Ferlazzo's tips for how parents could support remote learning. They include asking kids about what they're learning, reading with children, telling family stories and keeping a journal.
Balancing work and virtual learning during a pandemic can be a challenge for any family. This isn't the year any of us imagined just a few months ago. Accepting these facts can help us move forward.
“Model how to face crisis with compassion," is Ferlazzo's first tip for supporting kids during virtual learning. He reminds parents to be kind to themselves and model self-care.
Planning ahead, anticipating problems and asking for support can help. Taking a break to relax and socialize is as important for you as it is for the kids.