Article / Published Jul 21, 2020

Planning for Back-to-School—in a Pandemic

Back-to-school is always a hectic time of year for families. This year, as states grapple with new outbreaks of COVID-19, it’s more unpredictable and stressful than ever. For parents, there are endless questions: What will “school” look like? Will my kids be safe? How in the world am I supposed to work if everyone is at home again?

While we can’t answer all of those questions, we care deeply about making sure families are as prepared as they can be. Here are some specific things you can do right now to get ready for whatever’s next.

1. Stay up to date on your school system’s plans—and start thinking through your options

First, keep a close eye on announcements from your school or district. Many are still developing their plans and others are changing their plans as local conditions change. It can be messy and confusing for everyone. Sign up for email lists, follow your district or school on social media, and keep in touch with other parents. Most school systems are currently deciding between a fully remote learning model, where all students learn from home, or a hybrid model that brings some students to schools for in-person instruction on some days and others on other days.

Second, don’t wait for your school to finalize its plan. Start thinking now about what you and your family want and need. Your school’s plan may not necessarily be the same as yours. For example, if you care for an older or vulnerable family member (or have health concerns of your own), you may not feel safe with anything except for full-time remote learning. On the other hand, if you have a child who struggles with remote learning or if you have work obligations that mean you can’t stay home with your kids, you may need to figure out alternative plans for the days when your child is not in school.

These are extraordinary times and there won’t be perfect solutions, so lean on your community for support — and extend support if you can. In addition to considering whether friends, relatives, or neighbors can help watch your kids or assist with the burden of managing learning at home, many parents are also exploring ideas like creating “learning pods.” With learning pods, you may be able to spread the burden of remote learning with other families AND give kids some extra time with friends or neighbors.

For instance, if your kids are only in school in person two days a week, you could have them join a learning pod with a small group of other kids in your neighborhood to do remote learning together on the remaining three days. If you join forces with two or three other families, you can take turns managing the group. Rather than having to manage remote learning three days a week, you might only have to do it one day a week, or once every two weeks—but for a larger group of kids. The key is to keep the group small and consistent, so you limit the possible spread of the virus among students, and to ensure that each family participating is also taking appropriate health precautions at home and when kids come together.

2. Gear up for more remote learning

Exhausting as it is to imagine, remote learning is simply inevitable in most places. Even if your kids are going back to school full-time or close to full-time, it’s likely that new outbreaks of COVID-19 will lead to temporary school closures and local restrictions that send kids home for periods of time. It’s also likely that schools will choose to extend remote learning around holidays, lengthening the amount of time kids are out of school. (Don’t be surprised if your kids’ Thanksgiving Break takes over the entire month of December.)

Think about where the kinks and stress points of remote learning were for your family this spring. Did you face challenges around internet access? The number or quality of the devices available to your kids? The schedule and structure of the day? Log-in issues? Assume that those will also be problems this fall and start working on solutions. This is also a good time to start stocking up on masks, hand sanitizer, and other items you’ll need to help keep your child and everyone around them healthy and safe—and to practice using them consistently.

Communication is particularly important here. Make sure your schools understand what you need in order to set your child up for success, and don’t be afraid to ask for it. If you need access to tablet, name it. Access to a wifi hot-spot? Name it. Schools cannot provide support if they are not clear that it is needed—and you deserve their help figuring all this out before school resumes.

3. Check your child’s academic progress

Many schools stopped gathering formal data on student progress when school buildings closed, given the challenges associated with administering any type of assessment in a remote setting. So how did your child finish out the year? While it’s difficult to replace the type of comprehensive information that individual teachers can provide, here are a few tools you can use to get a sense of where your child is relative to their grade-level expectations.

  • Learning Heroes Online Readiness Check: Learning Heroes offers a free Readiness Check for students entering Grades 1-9 that will help determine if your child is on track in Reading and Math, then provides a list of resources you can use at home to support your child’s learning based on their responses.
  • Prodigy Math Diagnostic: Prodigy offers a free math diagnostic and tailored daily activities based on their results. Prodigy allows students to get valuable math practice while playing interactive games they will love and the site will send you updates on your child’s skills and mastery.
  • State Learning Standards: If you’re interested in delving deeper into the content your child should be working on, check your state’s department of education to view learning standards by grade level. This is important because it will help you understand what your child was supposed to learn last year, and what they’re expected to learn this year. Knowing that learning fractions is especially important this year, for example, can help you understand why they are doing certain activities remotely and how to prioritize what they focus on when you’re drowning in links and worksheets from school.

4. Talk to your kids

Have a conversation with your kids about what’s to come. Be honest and think carefully about what their concerns will be, like not having time with friends, missing teachers, or dreading more video-conference class time. Talk about what will be different, what will be the same, and what they can look forward to.

For younger children, emphasize that change does not have to be scary and that you will work closely with their teacher to support them throughout this new normal. For older children, this means a new level of responsibility and independence, prepping them for what’s to come in the future. Consider emphasizing how they are a part of a unique class of students who are pioneers on a new journey for everyone during extraordinary times—empower them with the notion that their experience, persistence, and feedback is important.

For all kids, this not-quite-back-to-school season will be tough, so also give some thought to how you can inject some of the excitement and anticipation of a normal year into the last weeks of summer. Maybe that means doing some back-to-school Zoom outfit shopping, restocking key supplies like headphones, or helping them set up a quiet space of their own at home to do school work. No, it may not be the same or as good as a “normal” year, but different doesn’t have to be all bad.

We hope these action steps help you feel at least a little better prepared for whatever back-to-school looks like in your area. For more information and ideas, check out our back-to-school checklist. And if you have access to a Navigator, be sure to connect with them for additional support. They can help you decipher your school’s plan, anticipate challenges, find local resources, and map out your options.