For me, the words “back to school” have never been so complicated and concerning. Even though my 4th-grade son would be restarting class after a long break and it’s a process we have gotten used to over the years, it’s never been in the midst of a pandemic and never all online.
As the days came closer for virtual classes to start, I could feel a bit of anxiety. Parenting is challenging and COVID-19 definitely hasn’t made it any easier. Through virtual learning, there is a new level of parent engagement required to keep our children’s education on track. But with a decent plan, patience, grace, self-care and love, we will get through this with great memories to reflect on. Here are nine tips my fourth-grade son and I have been using throughout this virtual learning journey:
- Preparation is Key. Although I knew for a month that my son would attend school virtually, the first day of school came faster than I thought and differed from any other school year I’ve experienced. I did not do the typical back to school shopping, and my son didn’t pick out his favorite backpack. Instead, we masked up and drove through the lane typically designated to drop off students for school to pick up his device and passcodes for virtual learning.We familiarized ourselves with his device as soon as we got home, entered his passcodes to ensure they worked and checked our Wi-Fi connection. Did you notice I said “we?” I feel it’s very important to include your child in every step of the process. It teaches responsibility and gives them ownership of the process and their education. We reviewed a PowerPoint from my son’s teacher about what to expect during this virtual learning venture, asked each other questions to ensure we both understood and texted his teacher about questions neither of us knew the answer to, receiving a reply immediately.The night before school started, we reviewed his daily schedule. Though it was posted online, my son needed a visual in front of him. We wrote his schedule and passwords on a mini dry erase board to display on his desk. I love the dry erase board because it helps encourage ownership and responsibility. He can see what time he needs to log in, what time he can take a break, what subject is next and the material he needs. Since I am working from home, I display my calendar on his desk so he is aware of what time I have meetings or deadlines. We compare schedules and figure out our workarounds in case something comes up. For instance, if he must be online by 1 p.m. and I have a meeting at the same time, I make sure he logs on at 12:50 p.m. to avert complications. Additionally, I communicate with his teacher when I am unavailable due to work. Prep is key, but so is knowing that interruptions will happen!
- Create a Designated Learning Area. My son and I enjoyed transforming the space in my workout room into his own special area conducive to learning. Entering the workout room now means going to work. There are no distractions such as toys or video games. We put up a few educational posters to set the mood for school and learning. All the supplies he needs are at his fingertips. His personal clock, coupled with his schedule, encourages responsibility. He is responsible for logging on and taking his breaks on time, which helps me tremendously as I’m working from home.
- Establish Routine. I must admit my son was totally out of his normal routine when his school closed and then moved to a loose virtual schedule in the spring due to the pandemic. Before virtual school started, he stayed up later than normal and slept in way later than normal. Although he attends school virtually, we concluded we needed a routine with structure, which includes prep time the night before, specific times to wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed and log on. We follow the daily schedule the teacher provides, which includes lessons, lunch, recess and screen breaks.
- Flexing on Flexibility. Since I was a teacher in my former life,and have been working in the education system for over 20 years, I figured with our prepping, our designated learning space and our routine we would breeze through this virtual learning thing. I was wrong! On the first day, our login didn’t work immediately and an app that was supposed to be on the computer wasn’t, so my son couldn’t access a few of his assignments. On top of that madness, I had three virtual work meetings. It felt like juggling and all the balls in the air were about to fall.I felt overwhelmed and anxiety took over. However, I did not want my son to be discouraged due to my feelings and his inability to log on. I had to step back and give us both a break. I meditated and prayed. Two words came to me: patience and grace. My son and I regrouped and talked about our frustrations and the importance of having patience and grace with ourselves, classmates, technology and his teacher. This was new to everyone, so it was OK if things didn’t go perfectly the first day or week. Even schools often have the same issues during the first week of class, even when it was face-to-face.Not only did we learn patience and grace, we learned the importance of flexibility and having back-up learning activities that don’t rely on technology. When my son could not log on or access an assignment, I communicated with his teacher by text and gave him a book to read and math problems to solve until the issue was resolved.
- Lean on Your Support System. A support system is very important when it comes to raising children. If you are balancing work and your child’s virtual learning, this is the time where a support system may be needed even more. Sometimes we hesitate to ask our support system for help. I challenge you not to hesitate. If possible, reach out to household members, close family, friends and your child’s teacher. Perhaps a grandparent can make a meal or someone can help with shopping, etc.
- Check Unrealistic Expectations. The first day of my son’s virtual school we were prepped and ready to conquer the world and expected everything to work perfectly. I don’t know why because I have worked as a teacher, and I know there are usually technology issues the first few days or week of school. With that in mind, I started thinking about what a typical school day was like for my son. He usually spent time with several professonally-trained teachers including PE, music, art and an after-school program. Not to mention, when our children attend school, they have the opportunity for emotional and social learning and growth.Although sometimes I think I am Superwoman, it’s unrealistic for me to mirror a school day, especially in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. I had to check my expectations and understand what I could do as a working parent and what my son could do as a virtual student. My immediate fear was he would fall behind; however, I realized stressing him out with unrealistic expectations would contribute to us struggling more. I take solace in knowing that teachers and school districts are aware of this situation and will plan for remediation in any learning gaps once students return to face-to-face instruction.
- Be Straightforward With Your Supervisor. On the first day of virtual school for my son, I had three virtual meetings for work. I did not realize the level of stress and challenges that would present themselves, and if I had known I would have taken the day off. Fortunately I had spoken with my supervisor the day before to explain the new challenges I faced and my plan to manage my workload and my new responsibilities.Every parent’s situation may be different, so try not to assume your supervisor is aware of and understands your specific challenges. Being straightforward about your concerns and maintaining open dialogue throughout your child’s virtual learning experience can reduce stress and assist with setting realistic expectations.
- Acknowledge Limitations. The first few days of my son’s virtual school, I felt like throwing in the towel. I was mentally exhausted. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in myself because I AM EDUCATION. I have over two decades of experience in education and I have a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership. Why was I struggling? I decided to give myself a pass. This was new and different for everyone. There were things I couldn’t control like technology, my workload, a world-wide pandemic, hurricanes and current events that seem such a burden.We were determined to keep going because anything worth doing is difficult and may throw you out of your comfort zone. However, I was fully aware of our limits, and if we reached them, we took a break and then got back at it. We decided it was OK to walk away and come back later, even if later was the next day.
- Take Care of Yourself. As parents, we tend to focus on our children’s happiness and education. That’s a good thing, but we have to make our own wellness and mental health a priority. If you don’t take care of yourself, it will be extremely hard for you to be there for your children. While your instinct may be to throw yourself completely into your child’s new virtual school routine, don’t let your personal needs and work suffer. Your support is needed, however teachers and school systems have been working diligently for months to make virtual learning as successful as possible.
Don’t forget to set aside time to relax, have fun and spend time with your family. Shut off that computer, step away from virtual reality and live!
Dr. Tamecca Rogers is a resident of Tulsa and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Tulsa Technology Center, where she has worked for 10 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in business administration and a doctoral degree in educational leadership. Prior to her time at Tulsa Tech, Dr. Rogers served five years as a hospital corpsman in the United States Navy and a combined six years as a high school instructor and college enrollment counselor. She has also held adjunct professor positions at multiple post-secondary institutions. She is mom to three boys who love to discover adventure together.