The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Veteran home-schoolers share tips for parents during coronavirus closures


Parents in my social media accounts are panicking. As I write this from outside Seattle, where the first covid-19 case was found in the United States, all schools in Washington state are closed until April 27.

How will parents — especially of young children, kindergarten through fifth grade — school their children, keep them busy, keep them learning? Many parents still need to work from home, either as the only adult in the house or with another working partner. “I’m getting a lot of messages and emails and texts from acquaintances and friends saying, ‘Oh my goodness, how do I begin?’ ” says Kerry McDonald, author of “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.”

Take heart: This panic is something all veteran home-schoolers have faced, in some form. For whatever reason they chose to home-school, parents probably felt trepidation and fear when they first took on that burden. I felt it when we decided to home-school our kids almost four years ago. What saved me then was looking to experts for their wisdom and guidance. And it still saves me now.

“No matter how many school plans you do or don’t get to in the coming weeks, I’ll bet you love your kids more than any other human walking the face of the earth has ever loved them,” says Sarah Mackenzie, founder of Read-Aloud Revival. “I bet your child will go to bed at night knowing they are wildly loved by you. That’s the most important thing.”

Here are some tips from veteran home-schoolers, to help you navigate this strange new world.

Take a few days to relax. “First, acknowledge that this is an unprecedented moment” in history, says McDonald, who is also a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. “It’s okay to feel uncertain and uneasy about now having children at home and being in charge of their education.” Before embarking on ambitious academic plans, she recommends “de-schooling,” or relaxing and reconnecting as a family. Play board games or watch a documentary together. Establish a solid foundation for the relationship before you start learning.

Create your own environment. Throw out the normal school day, said all of the experts that I talked to. “You don’t have the resources to make the traditional classroom work,” says David Kern, vice president of resources with the Circe Institute in Concord, N.C. The traditional school system is supported by teaching aides, cafeterias, bells and groups of similar-age kids. Forcing that into your home can be stressful. “The number one priority,” Kern says, “is to find a way to make the environment one where learning can happen in a peaceful way. Surround them with good music, classical music or contemporary, with beautiful things. … Try to be restful in what you’re doing.”

Learn with them. “If parents can dive into the learning, too, and not just make it a series of checklists to get things done, that will help make the environment more peaceful,” Kern says. “I know that’s not always possible for parents who have to work at home, but as much as you can learn along with them, that will help things go a long way.” How do we do this? Ask good questions. Research a subject together. Show them you’re curious. This particularly helps younger kids who might be disoriented by the disruption in their routine.

Read with them. Set aside time with them to read out loud, even to older kids. This helps maintain vocabulary and reading comprehension. “When you get to a lunch break from your job, spend 20 minutes reading out loud to them or look at picture books with little kids,” Kern suggests. Though it feels counterintuitive, let kids play quietly while you’re reading. “It might not seem like they’re paying attention, but they’re getting more than you think,” Kern says. Mackenzie suggests putty, coloring books, sketch pads, watercolors, Legos and puzzles. To check reading comprehension, ask them to repeat back part of the story or have them write down what they heard.

Parenting during coronavirus: What to know about play dates, education and more

Give kids free time. Kerry acknowledges that some parents would love to sit around and drink tea and watch movies, but they might have to work instead. “I think parents might be surprised that if they give their child more freedom, that they will find time to do things besides just playing video games,” she says. “They will likely become immersed in projects or interest areas. And as a parent, you might have more time to do blocks of work.”

Turn on a podcast or audiobook. When you do need to get work done at home — whether that is virtual meetings or laundry — turn on one of the many great history or science podcasts, says Kern, who also hosts his own podcast, “The Daily Poem.” Or try audiobooks. My kids listen to stories beyond their reading level, which helps them build their vocabulary, including words they can’t even spell yet.

Go outside. “To the extent that we’re able to, get outside and go for a walk,” Kerry says. “Recognize the ways that we can learn without schooling in our environment.” Bring field guides and notebooks with you to observe what you see. Take a specimen home to draw. A friend of mine has her kids stop outside on walks for 10 seconds with their eyes closed and then report on what they heard and felt.

A word about schedules. I have already seen some pretty ambitious school-at-home schedules floating around social media. “Make sure you’re allowing for plenty of breaks,” Mackenzie says. “Allow extra time for transitions, and keep in mind that your child’s academic future doesn’t rest upon these coming weeks.” Keep your expectations in check. “Yes, your kids are probably used to being at school for about six hours a day … but they aren’t doing six hours of schoolwork while they’re there,” Mackenzie adds.

Be careful with the checklists. A list can be helpful as “a series of signposts to know what to do next,” Kern says, “especially for parents who are also trying to work during the day, or Dad is helping for two hours while Mom works and vice versa … just as it would help teachers in a school work together.” If you only accomplish three out of 10 things on the list, though, “that doesn’t mean we had a bad day,” Kern says. It might mean the three most meaningful things were prioritized. I keep a one-page list for the week of lessons and readings, and then check things off as we go. We have on days and off days, but we just keep going. By looking at things a week at a time instead of daily, it’s easier to keep perspective.

Keep a positive attitude. “Jotting down what went right at the end of each day or each week can make a big difference in how you feel about your home learning experience this spring,” Mackenzie says. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if we can see it that way: “Let’s use this time to make some memories with our kids that they’ll never forget.”

You can join the On Parenting & Work Facebook discussion group here, and sign up here for our newsletter.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: XBB.1.5, a new covid variant pegged by the World Health Organization as “the most transmissible” descendant yet of the omicron variant, is quickly becoming the dominant strain in the U.S.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.