Remote Learning: What’s a Parent to Do?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost all facets of life here in the United States and around the world, one particularly unique challenge has arisen for many working parents: for the first time, their children are no longer occupied and learning at school, but instead dependent on them for daily guidance and assistance with learning. The Learning Partnership’s Mark Johnson and John Wachen developed a remote learning equity framework where support for home learning is an important source of equity. They developed a report where they applied the framework to remote learning policies across US states and territories. They found that only 65% of states included specific guidance in their remote learning policies on how schools and districts should communicate remote learning expectations to students and parents.

For this blog we talked with some our team members and partners who are parents with school-aged children regarding the level of support they received from their children’s schools, the challenges they faced and strategies they have developed to address the unique situation of families working and schooling at home. I spoke to two of our Learning Partnership team members and three of our partners, who reside in five different U.S. states and territories.  

Our parents reported varying amounts of school support, from providing laptops and lunches, to offering IT support. Aside from school support and guidance, our discussions found that these families have more in common than not. All of the parents reported that they set up designated workspaces for their students to learn from home. Some of the parents are receiving additional help from grandparents or a stay-at-home parent. Overall, they are finding ways to stay positive and grow together as a family. 

Here are their individual stories:

Mark Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher with CAFÉCS at The Learning Partnership, has a 5-year-old son in kindergarten in Chicago Public Schools and a 3-year-old daughter who is taking Kiddie College classes, which are offered through the Chicago Park District. Both children also attend online classes offered through the Chicago Public Library. Johnson is working full-time from home, and his wife is currently a stay-at-home mom—where she has taken the lead with managing the kids’ learning from home. Johnson said he is grateful for his wife’s ability to be with their kids, and for his own work flexibility which allows him to spread his work hours throughout the day so he can help out with his children’s learning as well. 

“We’re very lucky because we have a parent at home who can take charge with the remote learning,” Johnson said. “Things would be much more difficult with two parents working full-time from home. I could see how that would be a real challenge.”

As a parent and a co-author of The Learning Partnership’s report on state remote learning policies, Johnson is well-versed in the guidance states and districts are providing and said he feels lucky to have the support that CPS has provided. “We’re really fortunate here in Chicago to have a district that has prioritized ensuring that all students have devices,” Johnson said. “Another support provided by CPS is online IT support to help out with any tech issues.” Additionally, Johnson said that CPS provided some of the basic supplies required for kindergarten, including a dry erase board, workbooks, headphones, and a musical instrument kit. 

Dennis Brylow, a Computer Science Professor at Marquette University and a director of the PUMP RPP, has three school-aged children. His eldest two — a 5th grader and a 2nd grader — have been learning from home since March, while his youngest, a preschooler, was attending day care in person two days per week until a recent outbreak at the center. For Brylow himself, he was teaching in-person classes at Marquette University three days per week in the afternoon up until the Thanksgiving break, but other than that, the rest of his professional work has been done virtually from his home office. And while he is occasionally interrupted when one of his kids needs help, Brylow said the remote learning has gone smoothly overall, “Both the kids are pretty tech-savvy and the district did a good job of pulling its digital resources to try to assemble a checklist of all their activities.” 

Brylow also said that each of his children’s teachers sent a checklist of things they recommended while learning from home, including setting aside a dedicated space, making sure there is a comfortable chair to sit in, and selecting a place that is going to be reasonably quiet. For his family, Brylow said having a dedicated space has been key, “The fact that we can move far enough apart where we mostly aren’t interfering with one another, and that everyone has stuck to their assigned routine and assigned space really seems to have helped a lot.”

For his family, Brylow said there have been positives to come out of the situation, like knowing exactly what is going on with his kids’ education and having more time to do things as a family outside of the house. 

“Now that the weather has actually gotten cold enough that we can’t bike, we bundled everyone up and went for a hike in the woods this past Sunday,” Brylow said, “and that is stuff that, you know, we just never would have done before the pandemic.” 

Jennifer Duck, a Data Analyst across multiple partnerships at The Learning Partnership, said stresses come with both in-person and remote learning during the pandemic. When her son was initially attending 1st grade in person in Ohio at the beginning of the school year, Duck said she was constantly looking up the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. Eventually, right around Halloween, an outbreak occurred at her son’s school, and the switch was made to remote learning. The school already had a plan in place to switch to remote learning which they could immediately implement. They distributed laptops to students who needed them, had parents come to the school to pick up any books or work packets that they would need until a return to in-person learning and began a weekly lunch pickup program.

Besides suggesting students find a quiet place to work without distractions, Duck said the school did not provide much support or guidance. Duck said that her son does not need a lot of help with his class work, and that she has extra support from both of her son’s grandmothers, who are able to spend the day with him while she and her husband are working. 

Having family nearby has been a blessing for her family as both sets of grandparents are nearby to help, and her son can play with his cousins who live down the street. 

Erin Henrick, President of Partner to Improve and evaluator for CAFÉCS, lives in Tennessee with her three school-aged children, a son in 6th grade and twins in 4th grade. Henrick also highlighted that she would not have made it through this period of remote learning and working without the help from her kids’ grandmother who comes to their house every morning before school starts and stays throughout the school day.  

At the beginning of the school year, Henrick said the school sent out a virtual learning guide, and that she went to the school to pick up her kids’ laptops, a big packet and any necessary textbooks. Henrick said that the elementary school her twins attend has done an excellent job of not relying on parents’ involvement in remote learning unless necessary, so her biggest struggle has been keeping them all situated and at their desks. 

While she said that having a designated space for all of them has been helpful, having uninterrupted time is rare. “I don’t even remember what it was like to have focused time,” Henrick said. “It’s just one thing after another – making sure they have eaten breakfast and lunch, making sure they go outside, and there is a timing that goes with all of that. Work has been significantly impacted!” 

Noelia Báez Rodríguez, a coordinator for the Luquillo LTER Schoolyard in Puerto Rico, also said her ability to work has been impacted. “I haven’t been as productive,” she said, “I try to move my meetings to after 2:00 p.m. when possible, but sometimes I can’t and then our whole routine is a little bit off.”

Her two school-aged children, one in 6th grade and one in 1st grade, have been learning from home since the pandemic began. She said her children have instruction via Zoom for an hour or two each day, and then they are provided homework and activities to complete. She explained that at the Montessori school her children attend, so much of the learning is hands-on, so it has been difficult to translate those activities into a virtual environment. 

At the Montessori school where older grade levels are typically combined in one group, they have opted to separate the students by grade level for virtual learning. But, Báez Rodríguez said her son tends to be ahead of his smaller group and gets impatient and desperate to be learning at a higher level. 

“I think the school hasn’t provided much of the materials that he would normally be doing in school in person, so it’s been a little bit of a struggle,” Báez Rodríguez said, “I have to supplement material for him because he works fast. I had to meet with [the teacher] and ask her for more work for him to do at home, because the work just wasn’t enough for him.”

However, Báez Rodriguez said her professional coordinating skills have translated to coordinating her family’s schedule. “It’s just a crazy coordination effort family-wise with my personal life – it’s all together, it’s all mixed.” 

But like anything, she said, they have adapted. At the end of the day, Báez Rodríguez and her family have been staying disciplined about going for a walk to the park where her husband can run, her kids can play, and she can walk and relax. She also said that they have more time for things now than before the pandemic, like biking and hiking, and working in their garden.