Interview: Figuring Out Home Schooling in the Age of Coronavirus

Two journalists, with five children between them, discuss what life is like with schools closed and kids at home.

By Francesca Donner and 

— Corinne Purtill, a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers health, science and technology

Classroom education around the world has come to a screeching halt. School closures in over 160 countries have separated a staggering 87 percent of the world’s student population from their peers and teachers, according to UNESCO. More than 55.1 million K-12 students in the United States are now out of school.

With buildings closed, families are grappling with how to teach kids at home (and preserve everyone’s sanity).

The approaches to home schooling vary dramatically by school, grade and state. Some schools are having children log in to Zoom sessions for face-to-face online lessons, while others direct families to websites with activities for kids to do on their own.

But all is not equal in home learning.

Not everyone has access to books, school supplies and Wi-Fi, with low-income families especially hard-hit. And public safety nets like libraries, where children might have gone in the past, have closed their doors.

How are families managing home schooling in a pandemic?

Corinne Purtill, a Los Angeles-based journalist and parent of two, and Francesca Donner, an editor and a parent of three, discuss.

Francesca Donner: Before we get started, I just need to say I’m sorry for being nine hours late to this discussion. My day with two kids and a baby was a lot.

Corinne Purtill: Oh, I get it.

FD: And after I finally got the baby to bed, I needed to take a shower and change from one set of pajamas into another. Forget button pants, Corinne. All the best practices we discussed last week about working from home have flown out the window.

CP: Whatever it takes. That is the rule right now: whatever it takes.

FD: True. OK. Today we are going to talk about home schooling. You started home school last week. How’s it going?

CP: Last week was a resounding … meh. Think of what an adjustment it has been for adults to start working from home — fighting off distractions, finding a routine. For kids, this is huge. Their lives are disrupted, they can’t see their friends, and the adults around them are undeniably stressed. Even if they reacted at first as if summer vacation had come early, a lot of them are also worried about this virus and how it’s changing their life.

FD: And that’s totally valid.

In my family, we’re still technically on “spring break,” but it’ll soon be clear that spring break isn’t so different from “back to school” — and not necessarily in a good way. We were so aimless in the early days that I finally broke down and had my boys, ages 7 and 9, create a schedule. I can’t say they followed it, apart from “11:30 a.m. snack,” but it did help to provide a semblance of routine.

CP: That’s a start! Count that as a win. We all need wins.

FD: It also counted as an activity.

CP: We are in this for the long haul, and everyone is going to need to figure out what keeps their family sane and balanced.

I haven’t made a super detailed color-blocked schedule, mostly because I know my children, ages 9 and 3, will treat it exactly like the organic hand-pureed baby food I made exactly once for each of them as infants: They’ll be visibly appalled and refuse to have anything to do with it.

But I also know my household, and I know that if I let chaos and Netflix rule all day, by late afternoon everyone is tearful and snarly, even the kids.

This week, we are trying a loose schedule of schoolwork in the morning and free play in the afternoon. Will it work? I have no idea. All of life is an experiment right now.

FD: In concept, I like that very much. But does schoolwork in the morning need to be overseen by you or can you leave them to it?

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CP: My 9-year-old daughter and I talk the night before about which activities from the school’s suggested list she’ll want to do in each subject area. She’s old enough to be able to tackle most things on her own, and if she has any questions, I’m around. I’m around a lot these days.

At lunchtime I look over what she’s done, mainly just to make sure she’s been doing something on the laptop besides watching people make slime on YouTube. The afternoon is free time.

FD: And what does free time actually entail?

CP: My daughter can do her own thing. Her little brother, who can’t read yet, needs more attention.

He likes to pretend — he’s on a pirate ship, he’s in the wilderness, sometimes both at once — and he’d like me there with him while he does. When I can, I go all in on pretending. When I’ve got work, I juggle: playing cars while listening to a conference call, setting him up with a project before opening my laptop, and when I need to, turning on the TV or handing him my phone without guilt.

Some structure is helpful, but I try not to overplan. My friend Megan Carmichael is a funeral consultant who writes frequently on helping families cope with grief and loss. She’s also the mom of two young kids here in Southern California. I’ve been thinking a lot about something she wrote on Instagram earlier this week: “A lot of that activity planning is our way of avoiding the undercurrent of uncertainty. Life is scary, schedules are comforting. Our kids have a chance to find their own path and to explore this new way of life. This is new to ALL of us and everyone deserves an opportunity to find their own rhythm.”

FD: In other words, we’re trying to put some structure around that which we can’t control.

But you’re right about the freedom of exploration. “Wow in the World” had a great podcast for kids about how the mind becomes way more creative when we’re left to our own devices (i.e. bored).

If the online resources and guides and color-coded Instagram schedules are anything to go by, the home schooling thing is going to be a full-time job. I appreciate the resources, but, well, they’re a lot. (Remember the Israeli mom video? I see you, Shiri. We all do!)

CP: They are a lot. And it’s not a realistic expectation that those of us employed outside the home can continue to do our own jobs, while seamlessly taking on the work of the trained professionals who educated our children up until a few weeks ago. Anyone who thinks that teaching and caregiving aren’t labor-intensive jobs is profoundly undervaluing both.

FD: Can we take a moment to recognize the truly extraordinary efforts by teachers and educators to get at-home learning plans in place, however bumpy they may be. It’s new for all of us.

I know that academics in my household are going to slide, even with the resources of parents (me and my husband, generally available), working Wi-Fi (generally pretty good) and books, paper, pencils and a laptop to share.

But I worry far more for kids who don’t have parents at home to handhold them through the twists and turns of learning. It’s not fair. Access to the internet and books at home is such an advantage.

CP: Absolutely. This shutdown will exacerbate the educational gap between kids who have access to the internet, books — even food and a stable home — during this time, and those who don’t. This crisis has shut down all the workarounds strapped families rely on, like school meals and internet access at libraries.

Not every family has a computer, let alone more than one. The Los Angeles Times spoke to a teacher here in Los Angeles who has a student whose only internet access is on her dad’s phone, which she can only see once he gets home from a full day of work. In addition to schooling, many families are also now trying to navigate the byzantine process of applying for unemployment benefits and temporary insurance.

Plus, the instructions from the school can be confusing even if you are a parent fluent in the local language, and virtually impossible to manage if not.

FD: Right. And The New York Times wrote about a fourth-grade honor student who brought home her school’s loaner iPad only to discover there was no internet at her family’s studio apartment in a homeless shelter. It’s heartbreaking.

Some groups are working on it. The nationwide organization ParentChild+ secured an emergency grant to distribute smartphones and tablets with data plans to Massachusetts families in need. In the Bay Area, the same group set up drive-through centers to serve families with supplies like books and diapers, which are placed directly in the trunk of the car.

But the education gap is brutal — it leaves the poor and vulnerable behind.

And parents who have more can spend more to keep their kids learning now, buying them extra books and educational games, and later to get their kids up to speed on whatever they missed — tutoring, ballet classes and so on.

CP: Yep, just as they were doing before the virus.

Anne Helen Petersen at Buzzfeed asked a social worker in Pennsylvania what could be done to help families in such straits right now. I’ve been thinking about her answer ever since:

“I’m not overly interested in what people think they can do today, right now, from the comfort of their homes,” she said. “To me, that’s well-intentioned but shortsighted. People don’t have a lot to offer my clients right now. I want people to start thinking in macro, not micro. I want them to think about the structural inequalities that put my clients at greater risk — economics, education, mental health services, drug and alcohol services — and I want them to care about those when this is over. If you really want to help vulnerable children, spend your time thinking about how you can organize and outreach and demand that from them right now and when this is over.”

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