Parents, teachers, and students scrambled to figure out remote learning once the COVID-19 pandemic began. Here's what experts say parents can do to be ahead of the game for the 2020-2021 school year.

By Maressa Brown
Updated August 25, 2020
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As summer draws to a close, school districts nationwide are scrambling to make plans for the 2020-2021 school year. Some have tentatively resumed in-person classes, knowing that COVID-19 still remains a threat. Others chose either virtual learning or “hybrid learning”—a mix of remote education and traditional classroom experiences catered to individual students. In each scenario, your child can expect school to look different this year. 

"Thinking ahead, the very first thing is for parents (and kids) to pause and realize that nothing is ever going to be like this past spring semester," notes Joaniko Kohchi, LCSW, IMH-E, director of Adelphi University's Institute for Parenting in New York. "We were collectively in shock and had to respond the best we could. We now know a lot more about how to teach, what our children need in order to learn, and what we parents need in order to work. We can all build on that experience and plan accordingly."

Here are seven moves experts recommend parents and kids make to prepare for the school year—especially since remote and hybrid learning are facts of life now.

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1. Reflect on Last Year in a Formal Way

Chris Rim, the CEO of Command Education, a college admissions consulting company, encourages parents and kids to each set aside time for self-reflection. "Depending on how they best process and communicate information, you can ask them to create a list or drawing of what they think worked and what they think didn’t," he says. "Having discussions with your student now will help them mentally prepare for a return to school."

There's also some benefit to having this reflection period during a less stressful time like summer break, explains Rim. By having taken a step back from last school year, kids will have an easier time preparing for and addressing issues they previously faced while wrapping their heads around expectations and challenges on the horizon.

2. Set Up More Social Learning Opportunities

The pandemic has made it clear to many parents that it really does take a village to raise a child. Rim recommends that parents lean into that as much as possible to prep for the 2020-2021 school year, thinking ahead about ways their child might be able to get more support from fellow students or friends. "Don't shy away from asking for help," he advises. 

This might look like working with the school to match your child with an older student who can help virtually tutor them in a particular subject they struggle with, or encouraging your child to do their schoolwork with friends over FaceTime or Zoom. "You can reach out to other parents and students to schedule weekly homework dates or study dates," says Rim. "Social opportunities are one of the main losses students will suffer from continuing remote learning." Even hybrid learning, which has some classroom time, deprives students of important social interactions.

3. Help Kids Create a Designated Workspace

As schools quickly transitioned to distance learning last year, parents and kids likely had to throw together a makeshift space for schoolwork. Now's the time to help kids set up an area that is devoted and conducive to focused, effective learning, says Megan O’Reilly Palevich, M.Ed., Head of School at the Laurel Springs School, a private online K-12 school that has been providing distance learning for nearly 30 years.

"With many parents working remotely and students learning online, 'home' transforms from a living space to an office and classroom simultaneously," she says. "Creating separate, quiet work stations for both parents and their children where possible can help alleviate distractions, stress, and conflict."

Julia McFadden, an architect with Svigals + Partners who has designed education spaces, suggests utilizing an extra room or guest bedroom, if possible. "In general, you should try to create three kinds of areas, which can be near each other or spread out," she says. Opt for an academic area for studying and tutoring, which may be more formal with a standard desk (a kitchen table also works). Try and create a comfy reading nook, as well as a place for kids to sprawl out for things like crafts and other school projects (that can be done using a dining table or a folding table). "The goal is to create the most ideal environment you can for boosting focus, minimizing stress, and inspiring and nurturing learning," says McFadden.

4. Focus on Physical Activity as Much as Possible

As abnormal as last school year was, this summer was different too, given a variety of social distancing measures and limitations like closed camps. But educator Janet Wolfe, head of The IDEAL School of Manhattan, a K-12 independent inclusion school in New York, urges parents to do what they can to keep children engaged in fun and creative activities. After all, research suggests that increasing physical activity and physical fitness may improve academic performance.

"The more active children are over the summer, the more ready they will be for the start of the school year," says Wolfe. "This is always true, but even more so now, as many children weren't as active as usual in the spring." She suggests simple routines like a daily walk or doing yoga as a family.

This goes hand-in-hand with setting screen time limits. "Zoom and the lack of availability of other, more interactive social opportunities since March increased the already excessive time many children spend with technology," notes Wolfe. "Limits we place on screen time now will make it easier for children to engage socially and academically at the start of the school year."

5. Make Time for Reading & Math Practice

Daily reading—whether you read aloud or take time to dive into books individually—can build critical thinking skills and prevent summer slide, which will likely be even more prominent in the coming year, notes Wolfe.

Think in terms of fiction and non-fiction and reading-related outings, as well. "Discussing a news article a day as a family is a great way to practice respectful dialogue, open conversations about current events, and build critical reading skills in older children," says Wolfe. "A weekly trip to a local library can cultivate curiosity and foster readiness for learning. This activity can also fill out your child's weekly routine, while many more traditional summer activities have yet to reopen."

At the same time, you'll do well to engage students in practice of math skills and facts. "Some kids love workbooks but, for others, parents might try building a grocery list based on weekly menus and a budget," says Wolfe. "This is a great way to practice reading and writing, financial literacy, and executive functioning skills, while reinforcing basic math concepts." 

Rim says some older students might also enjoy taking an online class through Coursera or UDEMY, which could prepare for a tough class ahead, such as a review of pre-calculus to prepare for calculus, or to explore a passion or interest that may not be offered at their school, such as anthropology.

6. Dive Into Meaningful Passion Project

Set the stage for kids to get into a refreshed, productive headspace by starting a meaningful project, says Rim. This might look like building a website or publishing their work or art. "This project should lay at the intersection of students’ passions and community oriented work," he notes. "For example, a student interested in environmental science might create a website providing tips for environmentally friendly practices in the home." For older students, projects like these can help kids stand out in the college application process, he adds.

Rim also recommends looking into virtual volunteering opportunities on sites such as VolunteerMatch.org or DoSomething.org. He urges kids to explore options like hosting a food or supplies drive, or dropping off groceries for local elderly community members.

Learning in a hands-on way and making a difference for others during this difficult time offers students a break from at times monotonous virtual or hybrid learning, while rejuvenating their spirit and energy for the next school year.

7. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Holding space for kids to talk about their emotions—the positive and the negative—can help them head into another year feeling more calm and confident. "Ask open-ended questions about how they are feeling," recommends Wolfe. "What are they excited about? What are they concerned about? Engage them in conversations about how school might look different in the fall, so children have time to prepare emotionally and socially for the changes they might expect."

The bottom line, according to Wolfe: "Let them express their fears and concerns openly. We assume children know we as adults are there for them, but open conversations are simple and natural reminders of the security we as adults can offer in difficult times."

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