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What To Do If Your Child's School Is Virtual In The Fall?

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These last three months have been a tough time to be a parent, especially if you work full-time. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and state and local lockdowns, you’re now a chef, therapist, hairdresser, nurse,dogwalker, and technology consultant (for all those Zoom calls with Grandma). Worst of all, your school district expects you to homeschool your child, and your boss expects you to put in a full day at the (cramped home) office.

You’re not as good of a teacher as the professional who used to be in your child’s classroom—and you’re not as productive at work now that you’re focused on childcare and homeschooling. On top of that, you’re worried your productivity slump is starting to be noticed—all at a time when many companies are beginning to lay off staff. Should you cross your fingers and hope for the best in Fall, or is it time to start developing a Plan B?

Reality Check #1: Your Child’s School May Not Open for In-Person Instruction

New York schools may not open at all in Fall, and the governor of Colorado has floated delaying in-person instruction until 2021. Michigan’s governor has set up a taskforce to study whether and how to re-open schools, and Ohio has signaled that re-opening in Fall is contingent upon meeting certain health thresholds. And even if your state has plans to re-open, you may not be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Governors in states like Texas are giving local school districts latitude to make their own decisions regarding re-opening. Plus, states like Wisconsin have signaled that in addition to the virus itself, budget cuts may actually inhibit a full-scale reopening!

Reality Check #2: Even if Your Child’s School Opens, It Will Be Nothing Like It Was Before

The CDC guidelines for reopening schools include recommendations to keep desks six feet apart (goodbye, teamwork!), close playgrounds (goodbye, recess!), and require face masks during at least parts of the day. Many school districts are also contemplating staggered schedules or a hybrid instruction model in which children only attend in-person classes a couple days per week.

So, in other words, what awaits your child is either more of the same—inadequate digital instruction, complete with technology hiccups and teachers unused to teaching online—or an educational experience lacking most of the qualities that made you choose to send your child to an in-person school: opportunities for social interaction, teamwork, and physical activity.

How to Develop a Viable (and Even Enjoyable and High-Quality) Plan B!

Step #1: Know Your Homeschooling and Distance Learning Options

Many school districts make it seem like the only free public schooling option is your traditional brick-and-mortar school—or whatever it morphs into in the post-COVID era. But you actually have more options that you think, and many—if not most—are free.

Option A: District-Operated Online Public Schools

Many school districts operate their own fully-accredited online schools with state-certified teachers and a curriculum that typically mirrors that taught in the district’s brick-and-mortar schools. The format is typically a mix of real-time instruction and assignments to be completed alone or with a group.

Pros: Teachers are used to teaching online, are adept at using the technology, and have a lesson plan tailored to distance learning. In many cases, there are built-in opportunities for online teamwork and class discussion. Many districts also require teachers to hold online office hours. Especially for high school students, parents are not expected to teach; that’s the teacher’s job!

Cons: No in-person interaction; no access to science labs and other specialized equipment at brick-and-mortar school; electives may be limited.

This option is best for self-directed students in school districts with time-tested, high-performing online schools. To learn more, contact your school district.

Option B: Tuition-Free Statewide Online Schools

Even if your school district doesn’t operate its own online school, chances are you live in a state that does—and, in fact, it may even offer multiple options! These are typically authorized and supervised by the state Department of Education, and have state-certified teachers and curricula that satisfy all state requirements.

Many of these schools are run in partnership with an experienced digital education provider who provides the platform (much more tailored to online teaching than, say, Zoom!) and all materials and equipment you will need. The digital education provider typically also hires and oversees the teachers and school administrators, although they are regulated by the state.

While these schools meet all state requirements, they often offer electives and curricular options that your district school may not. They also generally allow for self-paced learning and can be adapted for a variety of learning styles. Some examples include the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and the Tennessee Online Public School (TOPS). North Carolina offers four different options!

Nineteen states have partnered with Destinations Career Academy to operate tuition-free online high schools with state-certified teachers and state-approved curricula. In addition to offering all the usual core courses in English, Math, History, and Science, they also offer tracks that prepare students for careers in IT, business, healthcare, or the trades.

States like New Mexico and Georgia have partnered with Connections Academy to operate similar tuition-free career academies. K12 runs tuition-free public schools with a more traditional curriculum. For elementary school students, they require a parent or other caring adult to be the child’s “learning coach” and they provide some lessons and activities that can be done offline in order to limit younger children’s screen time.

Pros: All of the pros in Option A, plus the freedom and flexibility to choose a program that best suits your child’s needs and interests. For example, Destinations Career Academy (DCA) and Connections Academy both offer technical education tracks far beyond what most school districts offer—and far more relevant to today’s workplace! (In a post-COVID era, do you want your child to be trained as a hairdresser or chef…or do you want him or her to have the IT skills to get a recession-proof, pandemic-proof, work-from-home job?)

These schools also emphasize project-based learning and encourage students to explore their passions, as well as potential careers. DCA offers virtual “field trips” and opportunities to network with professionals in different industries. In normal times, many of these schools arrange occasional in-person outings and field trips.

Cons: No access to science labs and other specialized equipment at brick-and-mortar school

This option is best for self-directed students in states offering this as a tuition-free option. The two best sources of information are your state’s Department of Education, which will authorize and regulate any statewide online options, as well as the individual websites of providers that partner with your state.

Option C: Private Online Schools

After researching Options A and B, some parents find that they just don’t like the tuition-free optionsprovided by their district or state. They may want to opt for a distance learning option with a religious curriculum, or one that is specifically geared for special needs or gifted children, or one with specialized instruction in certain fields. That’s where private online schools come in.

Pros: With this option, you have a lot of control. There are a plethora of options, so you’re bound to findone that meets your family’s needs.

Cons: These aren’t as heavily regulated by the state, so you need to really do your homework to makesure the school provides high-quality instruction. Another big con is, of course, the cost.

The private online school option is best for families who can’t find a tuition-free online curriculum they like. For families looking for a religious option, the best source of information is probably your faith community.

Families with gifted students should check out Niche.com’s 2020 Best Online Schools for Gifted Students in America ranking. And those interested in pursuing a career and technical education track not offered through their public online school should check out Destination Career Academy’s private school options.

Option D: Homeschooling

In the prior options, parents play a supporting role. With true homeschooling, however, you are your child’s teacher. That means you’re choosing the books you read and the pace at which your child learns. You’re setting the schedule, assigning and grading homework, and overseeing science experiments in your kitchen. It can be as online or offline as you choose, and you can teach your child alone, bring in tutors, or join forces with other homeschooling families.

Although this option offers the most freedom, be aware that each state has its own rules governing homeschooling. In most states, you need to notify the school district, teach state-required subjects, ensure your child is assessed on a regular basis, and comply with record-keeping requirements.

Pros: Even greater freedom than Option C—which is saying a lot. Homeschooling is opportunity to bond with your child and be a partner and guide in their learning journey.

Cons: You need to stay-up-to-date with all requirements. There have been cases of school districts taking homeschooling parents to court for allegedly failing to comply. It’s also the most exhausting option—for younger kids, plan on spending 6 hours a day on instruction and, for older kids, perhaps 3-4—and one that’s probably infeasible for households without a stay-at-home parent.

This option is best for families who want maximum flexibility and have a parent (or other relative) with ample free time and the necessary energy and aptitude for teaching. To learn more, start by getting an overview of your state’s homeschooling requirements on the Home School Legal Defense Association website. Then contact the relevant state oversight agency to confirm these requirements, as requirements can change quickly.

Also start researching the textbooks, curricula, and other educational resources you might want to use; talk to other homeschooling parents and also peruse this helpful listing of available homeschooling curricula by grade level.

Step #2: Be Honest about Your Limits

Homeschooling is the most time- and energy-intensive of these options, and it also requires the parent to be both good at teaching and capable of teaching many different subjects. Many successful homeschooling parents are former teachers themselves. Other homeschooling parents mitigate this challenge by enlisting grandparents, other relatives, or paid tutors as instructors.

Distance learning options—whether district-operated or state-run, public or private—remove much of the burden on the parents. Most of the online elementary schools will still require parents to serve as a “learning coach,” supplementing the online school’s instruction with one-on-one guidance, so it’s important to understand what sort of parental time commitment is required.

Most online high schools eliminate nearly all parental involvement. Most parents, however, will still want to be home with their teen during the day just to keep an eye on things… but that is much easier in the post-COVID work-from-home era! The important thing is to be honest with yourself about what sort of time commitment you’re willing to put in, and whether this is sufficient for the learning options you’re evaluating.

Step #3: Know Your Child’s Learning Style, Interests, and Future Goals

Involve your child in the decision, and focus on what he or she is looking to get out of the experience. Discuss which instructional styles have worked best for your child in the past and, if you’re not sure, ask their current teachers.

Consider what subjects really make your child come alive—you’ll want to find options that will allow himor her to explore and nurture those passions, whether it be foreign languages or coding and gamedesign! And finally, use this as an opportunity to discuss your child’s educational, financial, and professional future. Will your family be able to afford college, and is this even something your child is interested in?

Or is he or she looking to move into the workforce after school? Or does your family want to hedge your bets and allow for either option? If the latter, check out options such as Destinations Career Academy that allow students to gain real-world, ready-for-the-workplace skills in hot fields like IT and healthcare while still gaining college credits.

Step #4: Research, Research, Research…and See if You Can “Test Drive” Your Preferred Options

Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few options, evaluate each of these against the following:

  • Curriculum. Will your child be able to take electives to pursue his or her passions? Will he or she be able to take Advanced Placement classes and/or classes for college credit? Will he or she be able to take career and technical education classes and, if so, in what fields?
  • Teacher quality. How long has the average teacher taught in an online setting? Are the teachers certified in their subject? What percentage have master’s degrees?
  • Track record of success. What percentage of students passed the state’s proficiency exams? For high school students, what was the average SAT score? What percentage of students were accepted into college, and to which colleges were they accepted? If your teen is more focused on entering the workforce after graduation, what percentage of graduates were employed in key industries like IT? What was the average starting salary?
  • Student and parent satisfaction. What percentage of students and parents say they are satisfied with the quality of instruction? What do they emphasize in any testimonials? Also try to talk to students who aren’t on the website and the glossy brochures. How was their experience?
  • Format and schedule. What percentage of the day is real-time instruction? Are there opportunities to work with other students on virtual projects? Are teachers required to hold office hours?

These questions will give you an idea of the extent to which this experience will replicate a traditional school and allow for meaningful interaction with faculty and students. Then try a little “test driving.” Most online education providers have videos of past actual online classes offered through their school. Watch these with your child and see if they find these engaging.

Better yet, see if your child can enroll in an online summer class or online summer camp. This will give him or her a much better idea of the mix of real-time instruction, class projects, and individual assignments; the quality of the teachers; and the level of instruction. And if you’re considering homeschooling, use the summer to tutor your child in his or her weakest subject. If he or she thrives, and you still have your sanity, it’s probably a sign this is the right option foryou!

Step #5: Create a Timeline for Finalizing a Schooling Option…and Then Relax

Note the registration deadlines for your preferred “Plan B” option and commit to making an informed decision by then.

Good luck, and remember, your Plan B may turn out even better than Plan A!