Early in the coronavirus pandemic, a worried friend — a parent of three small children — texted me that her kindergarten daughter’s building would be closed for two months and instruction moved online. “It’s stressful and painful,” she went on to say and asked what she should do to get her daughter Scarlett ready for the first grade.

As an educator, I should be ashamed to admit this, but I texted back: “My advice is to blow off the online classes if it causes stress. Not age-appropriate anyway. She’s a kindergartener. She’ll be fine.” It was flippant, but a month into school shutdowns, I’m convinced I said the right thing. 

Judging from the comments I see on social media, my friend is not the only one finding schoolwork during the coronavirus crisis to be “stressful and painful.” What’s causing all this stress and pain? A good example is this “guidance document” for teaching remotely from the Michigan Department of Education. It’s full of links to resources, most requiring sign-ups, logins, passwords, streaming links, or apps and none independently navigable by an elementary-age student. A team of highly regarded educators wrote this document; they tried, but it’s just too much. I’m a computer-literate educator in a quiet house with no distractions or obligations, and I was overwhelmed. Is it any wonder the average parent is tempted to just sit the kids down in front of the TV for yet another viewing of “Frozen 2”? 

A recent Gallup poll found 49% of parents surveyed online were concerned about their children’s education during the coronavirus school shutdown, up from 39% two weeks earlier. My friend had similar concerns. Was I minimizing elementary education when I told her to blow off her child’s online schooling? Guilty as charged. When it comes to elementary school-age students, I don’t think classwork needs to be a priority now. We’re in the middle of a national public health emergency. Parents of children not yet old enough to work independently need to focus on just getting through this with everyone’s sanity and physical well-being intact.

I realize parents are afraid their children will fall behind. It’s also clear that while school closures are affecting everyone, they aren’t affecting all students equally. Families who rely on schools for meals, services, and a safe place to be, who have jobs they can’t do from home or who have lost wages, are harder hit. Low-income families may not have access to technology and the internet their children need to do their schoolwork. For some parents, this new reality demands superhuman juggling. For others, it demands superhuman juggling and may cause a growing number to worry about how they’ll feed, shelter, and care for their children. 

Still, these school closures are a universal experience, and some research shows this helps. When individual students miss a lot of school, their achievement is often negatively affected. It’s less of a factor when all students miss school. Case in point: Many schools in eastern North Carolina were closed at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year because of Hurricane Florence; 29 schools missed four to five weeks of classes. In spite of this, North Carolina DPI assessment data from the end of the school year showed that on the whole, schools affected by Hurricane Florence recorded “ongoing gains in student performance.” Students now will end up missing much more than four to five weeks of school, but the commonality of the experience makes me cautiously optimistic. 

I did tell my friend to blow off kindergarten assignments, but in my defense, I also followed up with some texted suggestions for her daughter, who is already reading: “If Scarlett can read, it sounds like she’s ready for first grade already. Use this time for the kids to play together independently. Blocks, Legos, coloring books, etc. Now would be a good time to fence in the backyard and get a playset. Anything to get through this time.” 

On further reflection I would add the following suggestions, suitable for all age groups:

  • Reading, both with somebody and independently. Some digital libraries are loaning e-books and audiobooks, which can be downloaded on a number of devices.
  • Going for walks and playing outside; dancing and exercise inside.
  • Making and/or listening to music
  • Writing
  • Cooking
  • Playing with blocks, Legos, puzzles, and board games
  • Assembling models and doing other arts and crafts
  • Communicating with classmates, teachers, and friends
  • Figuring out what to do when boredom hits. Boredom can foster creativity; support this by providing suggestions and materials, not directions.
  • Helping out with household chores and other responsibilities

These activities encourage physical fitness, creativity, cooperation, and free choice reading and writing. Many aren’t considered traditional school activities, but that’s the point. Parents don’t have to replicate school, especially if it keeps them busier than their children and if doing so is “stressful and painful,” as my friend put it. And parents can weather pandemic-related school closures more easily if they rethink their own definitions of school and learning.

So what happened to my worried friend who wanted advice for her kindergartener? A Facebook post a week later showed the family making and eating cupcakes together. That’s learning enough for me.

Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator and author of “Dispelling Misconceptions About ELLs” and “Get Money for Your Classroom.” You can reach her on Twitter at @barbgottschalk1.

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