Jackie Einsig tried really hard to follow her twins’ school assignments to the letter once the kids’ public school closed because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread. There was daily homework plus extras like science experiments for her 8-year-old son and daughter, who are in second grade in Richmond, Virginia. Einsig, a single mother, was struggling to be a teacher to both plus maintain her full-time, work-from-home schedule.
“It was just too much. One of the options was learning the phases of the water cycle, doing an experiment on condensation and graphing something,” she said. “I emailed one of the teachers and said we would be doing our own thing.”
How Coronavirus is Changing Education Norms
Einsig’s frustration is echoed by millions of first-time home-schooling parents across the country, who have been thrown into a new reality by the virulent spread of COVID-19. These families, who have little experience with or desire to homeschool, are now juggling common core math, reading comprehension, book reports, science projects, and even virtual phys ed classes. About 3.3% of American children ages 5 to 17, or about 1.7 million students, were homeschooled prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.
School closures in the US have now forced 55.1 million students from 124,000 public and private schools to be continuing their education at home. More than 90% of the global student population has been affected by COVID-19-related school district closures. And for almost every family with a school-aged child, expectations are low that school doors will open again during the current academic school year.
Melissa Styche and her husband are both working eight hours a day from their Enfield, Connecticut home while juggling schoolwork with their 8-year-old daughter, who is in second grade, and their 10-year-old son, who is in fourth grade. Her daughter spends about two hours a day on work assignments plus two Google Meets with her class per week. “My son’s work should only take him 3-4 hours a day max, but he has trouble focusing and not fooling around so it can take 12 hours some days to actually get the work done,” Styche said. “We try to get the kids to get their work done in the morning so they can relax and play in the afternoon.”
The Styches have found they’ve had to lessen their kids’ screen time rules so they can get their work done, but that presents a whole new set of challenges. “We had both of them blocked from access to YouTube. That had to lift since some of the videos to help teach the material have been on there,” Styche said. “The biggest challenge is to keep them focused on school work and not detouring into YouTube videos and similar distractions.”
Styche, however, has found that both of her children really like learning at home, even though her daughter misses social interaction. Einsig’s children, however, “hate it.”
“They say it’s too much and I am mean,” she said. “They email their grandparents and complain about me to them.”
Instead of following the rigid school assignments and lesson plans that were stressing everyone out, Einsig has ordered BrainQuest workbooks for their current, second grade level and also for third grade to prepare them for next year. They are now finding their groove as a home-schooling family, and a schedule that works for them. She homeschools two to three days per week to keep up with her own work schedule as well as everything that needs to get done around the house.
“I assign a couple of pages in the different sections, they read for 20 minutes and play an educational app of my choosing,” she said. “They also email their grandparents or write their teacher a note each week.” Other days they do “home economics,” she said, and help with cleaning, whether it’s sweeping the floors or wiping down surfaces with a Clorox wipe. The kids have also asked to start helping with the cooking.
Like Styche, she also tries to keep school work to mornings only so the kids can relax and do their own thing in the afternoon. That includes many hours of screen time over the course of a week, another COVID-19-related change. “They used to be able to only have screen time on the weekends or special occasions. Now screen time is whatever during the week and I try to limit it on the weekend,” Einsig said. “Last weekend, I was able to put the screens away for the entire weekend.”
Home-Schooling Doesn’t Mean Recreating School at Home
Parents across the country have taken to social media to commiserate about their new status as fill-in educators. But they may be expecting too much of themselves … and their kids.
“The biggest mistake that is made when people start homeschooling is that they try to recreate traditional school at home,” said J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association, which has cut its annual membership rate to just $10 for families looking for homeschooling resources. “Home school students, learn much faster and more efficiently so it takes much less time out of each day.”
His recommendation is to keep schooling short — just one to two hours of dedicated school time, and then the child can help fill out the rest of their day with activities they are passionate about that are also fun and enriching. “Maybe it is dinosaurs or superheroes. It doesn’t matter. Use that to incorporate these skills. Take turns reading out loud even if it is comic books,” he said. “Have them write emails to ask questions about something or even pretend letters to their favorite superhero.”
For parents juggling working from home or helping more than one child, Weston has some advice that will likely come as a bit of relief. Once a child has learned to read, write and do basic math, he said, “they do not need to be taught, they need to be encouraged.” And that is good news for parents who are still working during the pandemic.
Einsig is still working her traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, determined to give herself the gift of not working late into the night. Reducing her children’s school work hours has helped her do that. So has her company, where she works in healthcare quality and compliance. “My company has offered some paid time off for associates who have children under 13 whose school has closed,” she said. “So, the last two weeks I have taken Wednesday afternoons off just to catch my breath.”
The Styches, who both work for a company that manufactures equipment for power plants, the food industry and medical and laboratory environments, are also working about eight hours a day. “[We] both have work laptops and we were able to bring home some of our desk setups,” she said. “Mine is in the living room, [his] is in the basement in our rec area. We have two old home computers the kids are using.”
Both families have found that giving everyone in the house a little grace has been critical to their success with school work and careers, and everyone’s emotional health. “I think it is about being open to changing circumstances,” Einsig said. “Keep in mind that we are all in survival mode and some things may have to be half-assed for a little while.”
Tips for Effective Home Education
Weston has a few more tips for parents working with their children:
Talk with them, not at them. Their response will be much better, he said, adding that “pushing causes resistance.” Let your children have a say in their own schedule and learning activities.
Learn what is important to them. Yes, that even means video games. “Maybe Minecraft or playing video games is their favorite thing. That’s ok if you use it to help them learn,” he said. “Minecraft is a great learning tool and there are many really fun educational video games.”
Have fun. “Monopoly teaches math. Baking is fun and teaches fractions. Kitchen chemistry is always fun — look online for ideas,” Weston said. “Read anything together … even comic books.” Get creative when customizing your homeschool curriculum.
Determine their learning style. Visual learners don’t do well sitting and listening, he said. Kinesthetic learners learn by doing not by seeing or hearing.
Teach them how to learn, not what to learn. “Children teach themselves things that they are interested in all the time,” he said. “They don’t need to be taught — they need to be inspired.”
Relax. “Nobody is going to fall behind,” he said, “so this is a great opportunity to reconnect with your kids.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.