For parents with school-age kids, the coronavirus has made this back-to-school season anything but routine. Across the country, parents are wrestling with how and where students should learn and what they need to be successful academically, socially and emotionally.
Academic calendars have been upended in many school districts across the nation, with some delaying openings or starting virtually for at least the first few weeks.
Virtual learning will be the default instruction method this fall in many places, including San Diego and Los Angeles. In contrast, New York City schools are going ahead with a hybrid model.
Private schools might be more likely than public schools to open for in-person instruction, with their smaller class sizes making it easier to employ social distancing.
Each district’s plans and options could change depending on the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in each community and region, so it’s important for parents to review the latest email and website updates from their child’s district and school.
Children’s health and education experts acknowledge the educational, social and emotional benefits of in-person schooling. But they also realize that parents have to balance the positives of in-person school with the potential of students catching – and spreading – the virus.
Parents in some districts don’t have the option to send their children to school physically. In fact, 73% of the 100 biggest U.S. school districts are opting to go remote-learning-only this fall, according to data from Education Week. But many families must decide between all-virtual and a combination of virtual and in-person learning.
“This is a very individual decision for each family because there are a lot of different factors that each family will need to consider,” says Dr. Charlene Wong, assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University and executive director of the North Carolina Integrated Care for Kids program.
The child’s physical health. “If the child has a health condition that increases the risk of COVID, remote learning reduces the possibility of COVID-19 exposure,” says Kathy Sievering, who recently retired from the Jefferson County School District in Colorado and is an active member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ crisis response group.
Preexisting conditions that could increase the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus include cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease.
Also, in-school education is vital to the almost 12 million children and teens who live in food insecure households and depend on free or reduced price meal services.
The student’s emotional well-being. When school is 100% virtual, students are “missing a lot of what school provides that’s really hard for us to do virtually,” such as social interaction with a peer group, says Jessica Kendorski, department chair and director of the Master of Science program in school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
In-class interaction can help younger kids learn to share and take turns, and a peer group is “super important to adolescents because it helps shape their identity,” Kendorski says.
Some children might prefer virtual learning if they can succeed academically and if they didn’t enjoy the social dynamics at in-person school. “It really is an individualized cost-benefit analysis for parents,” Kendorski says.
The child’s age. A child in an early elementary grade will need quite a bit of support from a parent or caregiver to learn remotely, Wong says. “Developmentally, it’s not well-matched to have a kindergartner or first grader do remote learning independently,” she says.
However, “highly motivated and responsible middle or high school students can continue remote learning until COVID-19 is eradicated or controlled,” Sievering says.
Special student needs. Children who are on an individualized education program and who need significant educational and possibly emotional and behavioral support are likely best in a hybrid model instead of all virtual, according to Sievering.
“Differentiated instruction is a lot easier to do in person, when you can actually see a kid, than it is to do virtual,” Kendorski says.
If parents have children with mental health concerns and choose a virtual option, they should watch for “excessive isolation, self-harm, suicidal ideation, extreme anxiety or highly aggressive behaviors,” Sievering says.
Family health. There is a risk that children will be exposed to the coronavirus at school and potentially infect a family member at home. This is a major concern for homes with a high-risk adult in the household.
Backup plans. Families should have backup caregiver plans in case a child is exposed to or is diagnosed with COVID-19 at school. For example, a child who had classroom contact with another student who was diagnosed with the coronavirus would likely have to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“Is that something that your family can accommodate?” Wong says.
School safety. Parents need to consider whether they think the school and school district are doing enough to prevent infections. Districts and schools are likely to release their plans in emails and online, and administrators or staff members should be available for questions.
Community spread. The recent surge in virus cases has prompted districts in several states to adjust their school year plans. Parents need to consider whether the benefits of in-person classroom instruction outweigh the heightened risk of exposure in areas where coronavirus cases are rising.
“The rates of COVID in the community are such an important driver with decisions on all levels,” Wong says.
Parents also need to review district policy on whether they can change their mind on in-person versus remote instruction. While parents should minimize transitions at this point because kids need consistency, they can’t control whether, for example, a school has to go all online because of an outbreak.
“Flexibility is going to be key for us supporting each other through this,” Wong says. “No one knows what things are going to look like even over the next month, which is tough for so many school districts.”
When many students go back to a physical school building for the first time in several months, it will be dramatically different.
“Parents who send their child to school need to prepare them for the changes they will experience,” Sievering says. “Desks will be separated and probably divided with partitions. Teachers won’t high-five or hug them. Playing on the playground and lunchtime will be controlled. Singing and sharing art and P.E. supplies spread germs, so special classes will change.”
Changes will be specific to each community, district and school and likely will be adjusted based on whether the coronavirus spread is on the rise locally.
Parents can address potential anxiety by answering questions honestly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, Sievering says.
Parents need to “put their fear in perspective, especially if you have a kid who is anxious,” Kendorski says. “It’s going to be anxiety-provoking for everyone.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a checklist to help parents get their kids ready for in-person instruction. Also, the NASP offers tips to help parents offer reassurance to their kids about the pandemic. For example:
- Be a good role model because children will follow your example.
- Explain social distancing and other methods to help control the spread of the virus.
- Take time to talk with children, and let their questions guide you.
Generally, “the more that you make it personal and salient to them, the more powerful the message will be,” Wong says.
For younger children, it’s often best to learn through play. Middle school students might want to learn about the science around pandemic prevention, and high school students might best understand the concept of “flattening the curve,” Wong says.
It’s also a good idea for parents to model mask wearing and practice with their kids because it “makes it a habit and reduces frustration later when it is required,” Sievering says.
Maintaining social connections will be difficult for students this fall, regardless of the schools’ academic structure.
“Social relationships and friendships are significant to a student’s development. However, social connections with peers will be different in schools while COVID-19 exists,” Sievering says. “Students won’t be allowed to touch, play or eat together as they did in the past.”
She adds, “Many students will find it difficult to wear a mask for several hours, even with ‘no-mask breaks.’ There will be more sitting and less moving, to avoid social contact. If a student can’t remain focused, sit still for long periods and refrain from touching others, remote learning is probably a better choice.”
Districts are receiving guidance from state and federal officials on how to safely transport kids to school. For example, Minnesota officials recommend that districts make sure buses have as much space as possible between students or limit bus capacity to a maximum of 50%. Staggered school schedules – such as allowing half of the student body to attend each day – could help.
Districts might also need to provide screenings, such as temperature checks, before students get on the bus and when they arrive at school.
If students need to take public transportation to school, they are encouraged to wear face coverings and practice social distancing as much as possible. Some public transit systems require all riders to wear masks during the pandemic.
If someone at school tests positive for the coronavirus, the CDC recommends that school officials separate that person from others as soon as possible. A student or staff member who tests positive while at home should stay away from school until meeting self-isolation and care requirements.
Parents need to prepare their family for the possibility that a child might be exposed to the coronavirus and test positive for it. With that in mind, parents should consider notifying their employers that they may need to work from home or take time off to care for their child.
It’s also possible that individual schools and school districts could pivot to all-virtual learning if there is a local outbreak, forcing parents and students to adjust again.
“Parents are in a really tough position,” Wong says.
Parents will need to act quickly to find after-school opportunities, as there might be a lot of demand and limited availability because of social distancing requirements.
In-school extracurriculars, such as high school sports, are in flux as districts nationwide decide how to open for the year. While some states are still pondering their next steps, California has moved all fall sports to the winter or spring.
Regardless of in-school options this school year, parents are stocking up on technological tools to help their kids succeed.
This year, a 28% increase is expected on back-to-school technology spending, according to a Deloitte survey released in July.
Tech tools purchased in the weeks after workplace and school shutdowns in the spring included monitors, docking stations – which allow a laptop to charge and connect to a monitor – keyboards, printers and cameras that could facilitate virtual face-to-face meetings, according to data analysis company The NPD Group.
The best remote learning setup replicates the school setting, Sievering says.
“Sitting at a desk or table with minimal distractions and noise allows a child to focus,” she says. “Offering movement breaks every 20 to 30 minutes for younger children aids attention. Older children often prefer to work while listening to music.”
If students don’t have the space and equipment for remote learning, their school or community might offer a chance to close that gap. For example, San Francisco is offering “learning hubs” in several communities. These hubs will provide students with access to technology, healthy meals and snacks, and enrichment programs.
Also, some corporate foundations and states are helping to close the digital divide with donations to local organizations.
Children might be ready for virtual learning if they succeeded during the virtual setup quickly put together by districts in March. “It’s important to note, all school districts worked really hard since that time to buff up remote learning,” Wong says.
After several months of following full or partial stay-at-home orders, kids likely have figured out a way to stay in touch with their friend group. But it’s not the same as the in-school setting, where they can also renew relationships with acquaintances and meet new people.
For younger children, organizing a virtual play date, game night or movie night might be a way to keep their connections strong, especially if parents help their kids invite a mix of children from their class. There are several apps that can make this easier.
Parents are also taking it upon themselves to form learning pods, in which multiple students get together for school. In this situation, one or more parents could check in on the students – depending on their age – as they learn virtually.
“Pods could be one solution to allow an opportunity for social and emotional learning among a smaller group of children,” as long as there is a lower risk of exposure, Wong says.
If older students are part of a school-based club or group, they could participate in virtual projects to help their community or provide self-enrichment.
“Being with friends is extremely important to school-aged students,” Sievering says. “If communities don’t offer safe options for children to be together, they’ll hang out any way they can. We need to be creative and find ways for children to be together safely.” Pods might work if held outside, as weather permits.
Parents need to monitor communications from their school district and individual school to make sure they’re up to date on plans for the school year and how academic instruction will take place. Included in these plans should be guidance for how parents can best stay in touch with educators.
For younger students, parents likely will be the main conduit for communications. If parents have concerns, they should reach out to teachers or staff. For example, students who struggle with online learning might need additional support from school staff and technology resources, if available.
Older students need support, too. Make sure you are aware of your students’ responsibilities – such as where to find and turn in assignments – and help them manage deadlines as needed. You might also need to ask them to share information they are getting directly from teachers.
School psychologists, social workers and counselors work as a team in most districts, Sievering says, and are able to consult with parents virtually.
“I met with several students remotely last spring. I think the sessions were successful,” Sievering says. “I learned things about my students and families I didn’t know before COVID-19. Children showed me their rooms, pets and drawings. They gave me visual tours of their homes and virtually introduced me to loved ones. Some read me passages from their journals; others walked me through video games they played. I gained insight into their world, which helped me understand them better.”
Parents can use online resources to supplement learning. Many, like the well-regarded Khan Academy, are free. Sites with student-focused learning opportunities also include NASA and Smithsonian.
Older students might gravitate toward massive online open courses, which are offered by more than 900 universities, including Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many of these classes are free.
Some parents are ready to ditch public and private school options and go all-in on home schooling.
To determine whether home schooling is the right choice for your family, you’ll need to consider multiple factors, including:
New responsibilities. Parents will serve as the teachers and administrators of their family school, which is a major change from just dropping off kids at school or helping them with homework. Although parents can choose from prepared educational materials on the market, they still need to select the academic tracks and make sure kids learn.
Regulations. State and local governments have laws on home schooling, which could include required subjects, assessment tests and other guidelines.
Lifestyle change. You might have to quit your job, which means less income for your family. Also, the relationship dynamic with your children will change, as you’ll be the parent and the teacher.
If parents are ready for home schooling, they can:
- Provide individualized education to their children, who might not get that level of attention in a large school setting. This could allow children to advance more quickly than they would at school or spend more time on difficult areas.
- Ensure positive social interactions with other home-schooled children.
- Provide an environment that helps their children learn, rather than letting them possibly get distracted by students who aren’t as enthusiastic about school.
Virtual schooling differs from home schooling in that parents turn over the academic planning and teaching to a company that serves as an alternative school.
Virtual learning programs provide a flexible schedule and personalized education. They’re ideal for students who have health challenges or who relocate often, such as those in military families. In addition to certified teachers, virtual schools could offer licensed school counselors, an established curriculum and assessment tests.
Virtual schools might not be ideal for students who are less organized and motivated, need more social interaction, or are likely to fall behind without constant supervision.
Parents should closely review the credentials of virtual schools as well as their outcomes.
The pandemic has “opened the door for players coming in that might not have the best intentions and not have fully developed products that deliver the type of education parents think they are paying for,” Wong says.
One trend for the upcoming school year is the learning pod, in which parents bring their children together to learn, share resources and provide social interaction.
There are a variety of pod types, including:
Same school with parents. Students who attend the same school come together to learn and socialize. The expectation is that the kids’ teachers provide the distance learning material, and the group – with parent leaders, if needed – will make sure the group keeps pace with the class.
Same school with a tutor. This is similar to the arrangement above, but it’s run by someone who has training as a teacher, acts as a tutor or is a caregiver. The goal would be to supplement what the school provides with someone who can guide the students in place of parents.
Small, separate school. In this scenario, the group resembles a home-school environment, where the curriculum is developed or purchased and the learning is separate from a public or private school.
In addition to making sure the leaders of each pod are committed to working on students’ academics and not just their social activities, parents need to ensure that safe pandemic practices – such as wearing masks and social distancing – are enforced.
One challenge for the pods model is trying to include all children in these groups. Some might join together naturally because they are in the same high- to mid-level income bracket neighborhoods but not include others with fewer resources.
“We’re going to see a lot of inequities,” Wong says. “Having a pod requires having an adult who will lead that pod, which requires resources. This type of option may not be available for some more vulnerable children who come from a less-resourced background.”
One idea is for pods to offer “scholarships” to families who might not be able to afford to participate.
“We’ve seen communities come together through this pandemic, and it’s a brave new world for everyone,” Wong says.
Each state’s department of education has a webpage to provide guidance about how coronavirus could affect school this fall.