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How to homeschool your kids through COVID-19 closures

As living rooms are converted to classrooms across the country, an education expert shares how to keep kids on track.

April 6, 2020

By Matt Watson

After Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced last week that the state’s schools would remain closed until at least April 30 to combat the COVID-19 crisis, most districts in the Denver metro area made it official Friday that they wouldn't return at all this semester and would finish the school year remotely.

That means Colorado parents, most of whom have had their school-age children at home for a few weeks already, are in for extended substitute-teacher duty as they facilitate their kids’ education at home. Like university faculty forced to convert their classes to online delivery in a matter of weeks, parents are learning on the fly and teaching like they never have before.

Some, like Bethany Fleck, are tackling both types of teaching at the same time. Between sessions of Developmental Educational Psychology, the professor of psychological sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver is setting up art supplies for her 4-year-old daughter, whose preschool closed indefinitely the day after the University announced it was canceling in-person classes.

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Luckily for Fleck, she has a background in child development and educational psychology, and as a parent of two small children who is working remotely, she has advice for others in the same position.

“There’s going to be a lot of learning as we go because the onus of teaching is now placed on parents. Most parents have absolutely no training in education or developmental theory, so it’s going to be hard. Do your best and don’t expect perfection,” she said.

Overall well-being is the top priority

Before you worry about your child making good grades while adjusting to distance learning, you should make sure your child is making it through the day, period.

“We need to make sure kids are getting rest, that they are getting exercise and that their emotional and mental-health needs are being met. There’s a lot of anxiety around all of this, and you have to address those factors before we can say, ‘Hey, hop on a computer and do some math homework,’” Fleck said.

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Thinking about children holistically is the first step, Fleck said, and maintaining parents’ well-being is just as important, as many are adjusting to remote work or job loss and other hardships during the pandemic.

Fleck and her husband give each other two-hour breaks, which are critical when most families are spending more time at home than ever before.

“We have to take care of ourselves as parents, too,” she said. “Two hours for a parent is a long time. My husband can nap or take a walk, but that’s his two hours to do whatever he wants, and we’re better parents for that.”

An elementary student from the Littleton School District does coursework on a school-issued laptop while his school is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by John Arnold

Teachers take on online teaching

Alex Peirano, a student teacher in the Jeffco school district, said the physical closure of her school is forcing her to be a better teacher. One of the areas she struggles with is lesson planning, but adapting her lessons so the same material can be taught online or in person is sharpening her planning skills.

“It’s been an adjustment because you don’t get to see the kids’ faces and have that organic relationship with them, but I think this was needed,” Peirano said. “This is going to help education tremendously and really highlight the importance of a classroom and what that does for students’ learning.

“But the world is changing, and we need to adjust accordingly in case we need to do more remote learning from time to time.”

Hsin-Te (Chuck) Yeh, chair of MSU Denver’s Secondary, K-12 and Educational Technology Department, said he had conversations with his colleagues this year about teaching students how to teach in online environments, well before the health crisis made it a reality.

Like Peirano, Yeh thinks teachers will ultimately benefit from being forced to be flexible and incorporate technology.

“As a technology professor, I always tell my students, ‘Technology is a great tool, but it can never 100% replace teachers. We still need to know how to teach,’” he said. “We can’t entirely rely on technology, but technology provides great resources for teachers to use.”


Reconsider restrictions on screen time

Some students, especially older students and those whose schools provide them a device, don’t have a choice when it comes to screen time. Jeffco Public Schools, for example, already has an initiative to provide most fifth- through 12th-graders with devices, and the district sent students as young as first grade home with a device when the closures were announced in March.

Regardless, all students are likely to spend more time online, engaging with technology or watching video now that they’re learning remotely.

“There’s going to be more media in our kids’ lives. Whatever our rules were around that, I think that it’s going to be impossible to avoid at this point,” Fleck said. “So we need to make sure we’re very diligent about the quality of that media that they’re consuming.”

Many schools are giving parents free access to apps and other resources to keep kids learning at home, and parents may find the need for more ways to educate (and entertain) their kids through the end of the semester and into the summer.

Fleck has used apps such as ABC Mouse, Khan Academy and PBS Kids but stops short of endorsing specific products – the most important thing is that parents review those resources and judge for themselves what they’re comfortable with their children using, she said.

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And while most physical libraries are closed, many such as the Denver Public Library offer plenty of virtual services and media, and many institutions in Denver and beyond are offering virtual tours and classes, including the Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Zoo and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance.

“There is some really good content out there for students. I don’t believe that it is as effective as face-to-face instruction, social interaction with other kids or the lessons they would learn just by playing with each other, but it’s going to give them something to stay engaged and curious and active,” Fleck said. “It’s novel for a lot of kids because they haven’t been doing a lot online, so interest could be high. We can use that to our advantage.”

Use what you have

Start with what your school sent home or shared with your children – any online learning platforms or other resources intended to guide students through their academic work at home – but feel free to get creative with whatever you have at your disposal in your home-turned-school, Fleck said.

If you’re ordering more packages online while self-quarantining, make use of those delivery boxes as building blocks. Takeout menus can provide fodder for art projects, and any spring cleaning projects you’ve been putting off could become a source of recreation if your child is willing.

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You can also use your child’s interests to drive their education, more than is possible within a curriculum designed for 20 kids. If your child is obsessed with dinosaurs or dreams of becoming an astronaut, weave those interests into their work.

“Now could be a really cool time for children to be able to dive into content that they wouldn’t be able to in the classroom,” Fleck said. “As the parent and teacher, you can foster that intrinsic motivation for that content and try to build in some kind of math lesson into that or reading or whatever it is that you want to work on.”

Stick to a schedule – and schedule playtime

No matter how old your child is or what type of schoolwork they’re working on, it’s important that their remote education doesn’t devolve into free-for-all chaos.

“Children of all ages are going to thrive more when there is structure, and right now they’re at home while we’re all trying to work from home and do everything we can do for our children at the same time. Just providing them with a routine can help with all of these things,” Fleck said.

Fleck has a schedule filled with activities posted for her preschool-age daughter – with a disclaimer reserving the right to change without advance notice. In addition to reserving time for what the school provided, the schedule includes time for reading books, completing activity books, learning apps, building things with Legos and art.

“For young children and even school-age children, play is their work. If we can give them a lot of unstructured playtime with manipulatives like Legos, it’s engaging without being academic, and that can be beneficial,” she said.

Just as important, Fleck schedules lunch, snacks and recreation. Kids need mental breaks, and they have to move to keep their minds active too. YouTube yoga for kids is a hit in her household.

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Even while keeping a schedule, it’s critical to find a balance of engaging your children and letting them play independently, Fleck said. The overall health of kids and parents still takes priority over academics and extracurriculars.

“If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that our overscheduled children who go from one activity to the next, all teacher- or parent-driven right now, are now blessed with all the time in the world that they can play and use their imagination. That’s pretty cool,” she said.

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