With school fast approaching, many parents are faced with having to make a big choice. My email box is overflowing with requests for help in deciding what to do about school this fall. And the fact that many private and charter schools in California are now applying for waivers in order to open, makes the decision even more difficult. Virtual or in person?
For parents of younger children–preschoolers or rising kindergartners–it is just as difficult: Should my child start kindergarten? Should my preschooler go just because the school is open?
Parents are suffering from PTSD after last spring. With only days’ notice, teachers who had not been taught distance learning skills in their own education, suddenly had to become pros. Boy oh boy, there were ups and downs. Teachers everywhere struggled with making it work. Nursery school children were being directed to watch the very screens their parents had prohibited. With all that behind us, I am sure that there isn’t a teacher who doesn’t want to make the virtual school work. Teachers want to be in the classroom. They want to do a great job for our kids. Many have spent what little time off they had figuring out how to make distance learning work, mastering approaches and techniques, stock piling ideas and lesson plans. Some schools have even hired specialists in online learning to support the teachers. For sure the coming Fall will not be like last Spring in school.
What will the start of the 2020 school year look like for our children? Should the child attend in person, if it is offered? Should she participate in the hybrid offering? Should he go all virtual? Should the child be part of a pod school, do home schooling, have a full-time tutor, hire an out-of-work teacher? How do you decide?
My answer? It depends. There is not one right answer for every family and even for every child within a family. What is agreed upon is that children learn best when in school. School provides much more than academics. In the school environment children of all ages work on their vital social and emotional skills; they get essential physical exercise (large and small muscle); they have access to mental health support; they get support for special needs learning. For many children in our country school is where their nutritional needs are met. None of these is something that can be adequately provided virtually, if at all. In addition, many parents have seen first hand how different their child is at school than she is at home. Children need practice being that “good school kid,” the one whom parents have never met but have heard about at teacher conferences.
Experts know that learning, especially for young (including early elementary school) children, is most powerful when it is hands-on and interactive. When all senses are stimulated and utilized there is tremendous impact on the learning and the child’s development. Staring at a screen doesn’t cut it. And from the developmental perspective, for preschool age children and many kindergartners, screens are not the learning vehicle of choice. Occasional and limited entertainment and babysitting, yes. Effective, long lasting learning, no. But preschoolers, simply put, should not be going to school online. The first school experiences set the tone for all learning, and they ignite and fuel a love of learning. They provide the play that feeds so much of their development. They provide the cooperative play that is the foundation for social interaction. They foster the growth of self regulation within a group. Conflict resolution. Fine motor practice. The list is endless. In school learning is the choice when it comes to preschool.
Parents of rising kindergartners have a big choice to make. Preschools and day care centers are open and many are offering a program for their graduates on the way to kindergarten. The right choice for these children is the right choice for them only. The decision has to be made based not only on tips below, but also on each family’s circumstances, the child’s development and needs, and the local community conditions with regard to COVID-19.
In deciding what your child’s schooling will look like in just a few weeks, here are some points to consider.
- For all children, first and foremost, each family needs to measure and recognize their particular risk. For some families, the risk is small and may be remote and unlikely. For others, an elderly family member might live with you. And needless to say, if a member of the nuclear family is susceptible, your decision is made for you.
- If you are being offered an in-school experience, what is the COVID-19 Safety Protocol the school will follow? Make sure all your questions and concerns are answered, considering all the possibilities.
- What are your priorities for the children?
- What happens if your child won’t wear a mask? Won’t wash his hands? Won’t keep a distance?
- How will the children who are in her particular pod of 10 students (as dictated by the Health Department) be chosen?
- What if a child cannot separate from a parent?
- What if the child needs a therapeutic companion or special aid?
- What if the child needs special academic help?
These are also questions you need to ask if you are considering a micro school or a homeschooling
3. Do you have faith and trust the school administration? Is the administration available to hear your concerns and offer help to find a solution. Of course, the administration varies by school. But you must trust that the school has your child’s back along with everyone else’s.
4. Consider each of your particular children. There are some children for whom distance learning did not work last Spring and may not work well again this Fall. Ask yourself: What is my child’s temperament? Where is he in his development? What are his greatest needs for this fall?
Beyond these, think about
- Will distance learning work for the child?
- Is she motivated by online learning or does she need to be encouraged?
- Does he have the self control, the focus, the attention span, and the patience?
- Does she need constant supervision? Can she learn independently?
- Does he need more than what he can get through a screen?
- What is the child’s strongest learning modality?
- Can her greatest needs be met by distance learning?
6. In making the decision for each child in the family, parents need to look at the risk/reward. This is best accomplished by making a list for each child that delineates what matters most for that child and what is the risk to him (and to your family.) Giving a numerical value to the need and the risk will be useful. Doing so will help you to bring your goals into focus.
7. Certain of your child’s needs will outweigh others. Sometimes is it a result of the particular child’s needs and other times it is a result of a developmental stage. Teens are a good example. While they are agile with screen learning, distance learning seriously disrupts their tremendous developmental need for socialization. (In fact, those of us in the field are encouraging parents to find ways for their teen children to spend safe time with their friends. After all, the critical developmental task for the teen is individuating. This usually means separating from parents and home life to figure out who each is. Quarantine life sure doesn’t help with this task.) Other children may thrive on a direct relationship with a teacher and cannot do well as a muted square on a screen, one of twenty. That child might need a face-to-face micro school. Some children are self-motivated, self-reliant, and self regulated; others need a very small teach-student ratio. Some children just have to talk; it is part of the way their learn. Muted learning won’t work for them.
Whatever schooling choice you make for your child, remember that human beings are adaptable. We are hard wired for adaptability. (Otherwise, we would have gone the way of the dinosaurs.) It might be difficult at first, but most children adapt and adjust, so it will be better soon. Remember, children are resilient. They will recover. And if they missed out on certain learning, they will learn it later. Children’s ability to learn never goes away.
Finally, the decisions that you need to make are not forever; they are just for now. Likely, a year from now the schoolscape will look different, and the difficult decisions we are making today will yield to new ones we never anticipated. And such is life.