Social distancing has forced parents into roles as co-educators. This is not entirely new—parents have always helped with take-home lessons for kids at home due to illness. But the expectation that parents will engage daily for a long time is new.
Parents have good reasons to be unhappy. Distance learning for K–12 kids assumes that someone will get children started, help them when they are stuck, reorient them when they are frustrated, and keep distractions to a minimum. But these assumptions are tacit, not explicit. If parents don’t know what to expect or how to respond, it’s largely because no one has taken the time to figure it out.
Distance learning systems are usually clear about what teachers, web managers and kids must do, but not what’s demanded of parents. Even when parents get a little guidance, it’s not concrete enough about how parents can prepare themselves for their daily contribution, or how much time a parent should expect to put in. Giving that guidance would require disciplined observation of the parent-child transaction, recognition of the challenges that arise, and development of realistic solutions. It might make it clear when teachers need to reach out to parents and offer targeted help.
Challenges for parents vary from course to course and from grade to grade. Younger kids will need a lot of help focusing and learning, but so might older ones learning math and science or demanding subjects in arts, literature, and history.
One thing the current experience makes clear: No distance learning plan is complete without realistic expectations for parents, an appreciation of the variability of parents’ capacities and ability to set aside time, and specific scenario-based training and advice. Districts, school leaders, and designers of distance learning courses all must take parents into account, just as they must—for in-person instruction—consider teacher training and other factors affecting implementation.
Clarity from schools about how much time students should be spending on particular topics, what student work products are required, and when teachers will provide feedback could surely help. Parents would also benefit from teachers calling them frequently, asking specifically about their work loads and worries. Beyond those generalities, there is a lot going on right now—schools and districts should be capturing lessons learned. The first place to start might be with teachers who are at home with their children: what is worrying them, and where would they like help?
This need will not go away this summer or fall. Continued social distancing may require schools to serve only small groups of students in-person on any given day, and to support distance learning the rest of the time. This could continue throughout the 2020-21 school year and beyond. Moreover, a dreaded second or third wave of the coronavirus, possibly in conjunction with the seasonal flu, could close schools again for extended periods.
Educators can’t afford to assume that parents will just learn to do their part, or that today’s cries of pain will go away as soon as schools reopen. Parent contributions must be built into instructional programs, and the ability to get the needed contributions from parents must be treated as core elements of program design and assessment.