In a normal year, most kids would be in school. But this is not a normal year. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many schools to offer online instruction, and many families are now settling into a remote back-to-school arrangement. In Michigan here, high school students are on remote learning for at least the next three weeks. Here are some suggestions I found for schooling at home.
Create a Dedicated School Workspace
We all know it’s hard enough for kids to pay attention when they’re in school. Just imagine how difficult it will be for them to pay attention to online classes, especially if distractions surround them. For us adults, we know we need to create some mental space between home and work; your kids need to separate home from school as well.
To aid in that, set aside a dedicated space for each kid. If you can, have a desk that’s used solely for school work. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but kids shouldn’t have to share with each other or work at the kitchen table if possible. If you have multiple children, try to separate them as much as possible so they can focus on their individual work without bothering each other. Putting them in corners of different rooms can work well; just make sure there are outlets available for iPad or laptop chargers. Don’t forget, you’ll need your own space too, but remember, to keep them focused, it may be necessary for you to pay attention to what they’re doing throughout the day.
It is recommended outfitting each desk with three things: a clock with easy-to-read numbers, a class calendar, and a desk organizer. The clock is key, since it’s all too easy for kids to lose track of time and show up late for online classes. Schools will probably provide an online schedule, but a printed schedule taped to the wall helps both you and your child keep track of which virtual room they should be in. Even with virtual learning, there will still be paper, particularly for younger children. And where there’s paper, there are pens and pencils. Make sure that you have plenty of extras because kids tend to lose them at inopportune moments.
Make Sure You Have a Fast, Reliable Internet Connection
I realize this may not be easy, but it’s worth making sure that you have as fast an Internet connection as is reasonable. Videoconferencing apps can usually adjust to lower bandwidth connections, but it then gets grainy; you may have frozen video and stuttering audio. All of this will make it significantly harder for kids to learn effectively.
Also, pay attention to your wi-fi network. If you’re using an access point from your Internet service provider or an ancient AirPort Base Station, you might want to upgrade. Newer access points can provide faster performance and greater range, and mesh systems are particularly good at extending coverage. I know this first hand; I recently replaced my old Airports with the Amazon Eero system. My connections are far more stable now. If you can’t do this, place your children near the wi-fi router. The closer they are to the router, the faster the connection will be, and it will be more stable.
Get the Right Devices and Accessories
Many schools will provide devices for your kids, either iPads or Chromebooks, in most cases. Unless you have something newer or better already, you’ll probably want to stick with the school-provided devices. If you do want to use your own devices, check with the school first, because it will likely require specific software or configurations. I can attest to this first hand. Each teacher prefers specific apps, so if you do use a device at home, connect with the teacher to see what apps your child will need.
If your children are using iPads, you may want to consider buying physical keyboards, particularly for older students who need to hand in writing assignments online. External keyboards are not only easier to type on; they also free up more on-screen space for content. An Apple Pencil might be helpful, but check with the school to make sure before buying one.
High school students might do best with a full-fledged Mac, but they probably don’t need the latest and greatest. A hand-me-down MacBook would likely be more than sufficient. Be sure to set it up from scratch for them, so they’re not dealing with old software and strange configurations that might cause instability.
Lastly, headphones or earbuds, especially for older children, are essential for reducing the noise level from multiple people participating in virtual calls all day long.
Find Your Tech Support Hat
Most schools offering online classes will have tech support available. Make sure you know where to call or how to get in touch with support, since you may need to work quickly to help a child avoid missing a class.
Don’t assume that the school’s tech support can do everything. Also, be patient with them. This is all new to them as well.
I recommend spending some time learning the main applications that the school uses before classes start, so you’re ready to help your kids with any problems they may run into. In particular, make browser bookmarks to all the school sites that your children will have to visit repeatedly so they can get where they need to go with a single click.
It’s worth making sure that you have login credentials—usernames and passwords—written down in an easily accessible spot in addition to storing them in your password manager. I normally don’t recommend writing down passwords, but when it comes to getting into school accounts, younger kids won’t be able to use a password manager, and you might have to move quickly between systems.
Provide Structure and Downtime
Finally, it’s worth remembering that you’re going to have to play the roles of both parent and teacher. Everyone’s situation will be different, but you might find that it works well to simulate a normal school day as much as possible. You may even want to go as far as have explicit snack breaks and time for lunch. Homework can happen in the evening, as it would in normal times, but let the school day be over when it’s done. It’s tempting to pile on more work to keep them busy, but kids need time to relax and just be kids. The pandemic is as hard or harder on them than on adults, and we need to be sensitive to that.
In the end, we’re all in this together, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.