While there is no shortage of press coverage regarding ‘back to school’ plans across the countries – and certainly no clear national path or strategy – we’re yet again tossed into a situation where parents will continue to incur hefty tax burdens (property taxes, state sales taxes, state income taxes, federal income taxes) to support the education of our nation’s youth while also trying to juggle jobs, family responsibilities and the assumption of a greater share of the educational responsibilities for our children. While it’s easy to get lost in the discourse around public vs. private, charter schools, vouchers, home-schooling, pods and other forms of K-12 education let us return focus to the 55 million children who were suddenly tossed into a strange new normal and, as of yet, are still not quite sure what this upcoming academic year holds in store for them. So here are five tips for weathering, and succeeding in, what is shaping up to be another tumultuous year of education.
1. Children need our support – now more than ever. The 24×7 never-ending COVID-19 news cycle is now running in parallel with the 24×7 never-ending political news cycle leading up to this November’s elections. Add in the expiration of added unemployment benefits, an unemployment rate of 11.1% and the uncertainty around safety protocols and the assault on science magnified by partisan spats and parents are not the only ones feeling stressed. Children lack the frames of reference to categorize and manage these issues in their heads and they now lack the traditional social support – be it friends, classmates, teachers or regularly spending time with other family members – that they rely on to help figure out the world as they grow and develop. Having grown up during the height of the Cold War with a constant nuclear threat was challenging for me, but I was able to talk about it with an extended group of people and manage information a little more readily in the era before the Internet and pervasive social media. If you have a child, or know one you’re close to, please do check in on them regularly and ask them how things are going. Get them to talk about their concerns and listen closely. They need someone to listen.
2. Connectivity is critical. Sure, we have to have high-speed Internet connections and device proliferation (and support!) to facilitate blended and fully online learning models but the human connection was lacking in the sudden shift online this past Spring. Reach out and set up small groups, virtually, to get together on non-academic topics where possible. Our nine year old son set up a Zoom book club with four of his friends and they would read a different book – not assigned by his teacher, just for fun, every few weeks and get together and discuss what they had read. Part informational, part educational, but absolutely social – and that connection matters.
3. Schools have been, are, and will continue to be a safe haven. That means being hyper-careful about reopening and, arguably more importantly, having appropriate procedures in place to quickly identify, triage and stop outbreaks in their tracks so we don’t have to live in an ongoing, heightened, state of fear and paranoia which is both mentally and physically draining. Look to support your local educators on the front lines however you can and make your voices heard – attend school board meetings, send emails in with feedback on plans and participate however you can. We are a community, and our voices matter.
4. Power off. Yes, put the phone down, turn off the computer, tuck away the tablet and no TV for a bit. Children are not accustomed to our Internet-enabled working world of constant screens, nor should they be for many years to come. Get out in nature when/where you can even if it’s walking a few blocks to a local park to sit on a bench and bird watch. If you’ve never tried fishing, now is a great time to give it a shot (catch and release!). How about some low-key hiking through the woods as the Fall foliage descends on the northern half of the country in the months ahead? Our first foray was buying a tent – thank you Amazon – and pitching it in the backyard and spending a summer night sleeping under the stars. Most of these activities cost very little money, but they can be exceptionally valuable life moments that your children will remember.
5. We WILL prevail. I’m no politician and I am not running for office but this is not an America vs. The World battle, all of humanity is in this together and we have the resources and know-how through science and funding to figure this out. Breakthroughs will come – in therapeutics, vaccines and prevention strategies – but that’s the funny thing about breakthroughs, it’s hard to predict when. Later in 2020? 2021 perhaps? I don’t know enough to hazard a guess but there is an end, even if it is not squarely in sight today.
The novel coronavirus has brought novel stress to all of our lives, and it has to our youth as well. Without traditional outlets of sports, schools, social activities and friendships let’s make sure that they don’t remember this period of their lives as having been locked away with little connection to the world outside of a blaring TV screen and a 4 inch phone screen with TikTok videos and glamorous Instagram photos of a world that feels oh so far away. Academics matter, and you’ll see plenty of that advice as schools open, but the social and emotional support for children – that’s going to be everything this academic year as it will inevitably be unlike one any of us have ever experienced.
The author is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a learning platform-as-a-service company that enables any content provider to quickly build and deliver personalized online courses to K-12 schools, colleges/universities, and professionals in over 160 countries around the globe. He also co-led one of four public-private working groups chaired by the US Department of Education and FCC under the Obama Administration to chart a course forward for accelerating the digitization of the nation’s schools aiming to close the ‘digital divide’.