Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – December 15, 2020
With more school districts switching to virtual learning because of COVID-19, and many encountering challenges with the transition, parents whose children have been doing virtual learning from home since before the pandemic started — via home schooling — have some tips for both for schools and parents.
Now News Group reached out to parents and administrators with ties to virtual learning to get their thoughts. Those offering suggestions include:
- Jessica Eiche, Becky Diamond and Kelly Taylor-Schaus. All have children enrolled in the Rural Virtual Academy Charter School (RVA), a K-12 online Wisconsin public charter school based in Medford that offers custom tailored education program and materials for each of its students.
- Mike Leach, the executive director and principal of Wisconsin Virtual Learning and principal of Ozaukee High School. Leach and his wife, a teacher, live in Menomonee Falls and have three children who are brick-and-mortar taught but who have been bouncing between in-person and online learning due to the pandemic.
- Colleen Boehm of Sussex, who has two children, a sixth-grader and a 10th-grader, who are home-schooled.
- Holly Knudtson of Sun Prairie, a response to intervention coordinator at Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), whose daughter Evie is enrolled in first grade at WIVA.
TIPS FOR SCHOOLS
Collaborate with virtual schools
Diamond, whose 13-year-old daughter, Hazel, is enrolled in RVA, said she’d suggest that more school districts reach out to virtual public schools to connect.
She said many districts currently have a partnership with RVA, which allows those districts to offer online courses to their brick-and-mortar students, or for students to go part-time home virtual and part-time brick-and-mortar.
It also gives districts access to the virtual school’s curriculum and other resources, she said.
“(If) a school district hasn’t partnered with them yet, or any other Wisconsin virtual public charter school, now would maybe be a good time to consider those conversations and talk about the benefits of it, obviously during the pandemic, but even post-pandemic,” Diamond said.
Taylor-Schaus said districts could look at their curriculum expectations and decide what’s realistic for the rest of the school year. She said districts could consider stepping back on their expectations or scale them in a way to reduce stress on families.
“Whether they’re working from home or trying to figure out where to have their kids working on the computer while they’re not at home, I think it would be helpful for school districts to maybe recalibrate,” Taylor-Schaus said.
Build in nontraditional learning time
Boehm said one thing schools and teachers might try is setting aside time where students are still learning, just not in the traditional ways.
When schools first shifted to virtual instruction, Boehm said she heard from many parents that their kids picked up activities like baking, playing outside and playing board games.
“In many homes they were doing things they never had time to do before, and there is so much learning that takes place in those types of tasks and those kinds of plays — building structures with Legos and using their imagination and making Rube Goldberg machines and just figuring out how things work,” she said.
Eiche suggested something similar: having schools provide online activities that are not necessarily school-related but still address social needs.
“I think having virtual activities for the kids that aren’t just school, like the baking club and the reading club, are great ways that the public schools could maybe add to their day,” said Eiche.
Eiche, whose 12-year-old daughter, Namine, is enrolled in RVA, said a specific curriculum she’d recommend for students in lower grades is Bookshark, saying it gets them interested in reading.
Bookshark is a complete, literature-based homeschool curriculum developed for students from pre-kindergarten through high school, according to its website.
“I think it would help ease some of the stress with teachers of planning because Bookshark sends a big old box of everything you need,” Eiche said. “So it sends you all of the textbooks, it sends you all of the teaching supplies that you need.”
The only thing she said teachers might not like is that Bookshark’s provided math program, Saxon, uses a different form of teaching math than the Common Core math school districts use.
Provide feedback to students
Leach said schools should ensure that students are getting feedback about submitted assignments and have the ability to interact with teachers about them.
“So that when a kid turns something in, it’s not just, I clicked and I submitted it, and it’s done,” Leach said. “Because maybe they got some stuff wrong, or maybe they just submitted something that wasn’t of a high quality.”
Leach said that in the spring, when brick-and-mortar schools first waded into the virtual pool, many students saw assignments as a checklist of things to do rather than the actual interaction of learning.
“I submit my work and then you give me some feedback, and I tweak it and I change it and I make it better, and I turn it back in,” he said.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
The home-schoolers not only offered advice for school districts, but shared tips for parents as well.
Create a dedicated workspace
Creating a designated space where your child always does schoolwork can help, Knudtson said. She suggested using the location-based strategy for other activities, too.
“Having that designated space of, this is where you do school, this is where you relax, this is where you do your brain break, this is where you do your gym; having those designated spaces (can help),” Knudtson said.
“I think that’s really key for parents that are able to do that and have space for it because it gives the kids structure,” Eiche said. “They might be missing out on some of that stuff with virtual learning, the schedule.”
Conduct regular check-ins with the school
Eiche said it can be helpful for the parent and child to meet with the teacher at least once a week via Zoom. That way parents can see what’s working and what the child needs to get done so they don’t get left behind or stuck on things they don’t understand.
“That was one of the frustrations that I heard about,” she said. “Students just aren’t understanding the curriculum that’s being taught.”
Check in with your child, too
Leach said it’s important to check in with your children regularly to see how their classes are going.
But instead of the usual “How was your day today?” which can elicit the monosyllabic responses of “fine” or “good,” use questions like, “What did you do today?” or “What kind of stuff did you do in each subject?” and have the kids walk you through what they worked on.
Create a schedule
Knudtson said creating a schedule and sticking to it has been a big help, building in time not only for classes and schoolwork, but other things as well.
For example, she’s scheduled 30 minutes of “gym” time every morning for her 7-year-old daughter, Evie.
“So every single day from 8:30 to 9, I make her do some kind of physical activity,” Knudtson said. “We also have her do arts, and so I have that set up.”
She said they make liberal use of alarms on Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service.
“Because it’s hard to pull her away to do her schooling when she’s upstairs playing on her break, and so we use the alarm a lot and that’s been super helpful,” she said.
Explore in-person learning
Some parents may want to look into home school co-ops that can provide in-person learning for their child. One that Eiche suggested is Bright Rising Arts & Education in Waukesha. It provides classes such as American Sign Language, theater, art and history in a group setting; classes this year have been limited to no more than 20 students, according to its website, brightrising.info. There is also a virtual option available.
Keep it fun
Leach said his family has a policy in their house where they don’t want to fight over wor — or school.
“So trying to have that moment when we can just be a family, and not worry about the school side of things,” he said.
With the pandemic, and everybody at home for either work or school, Leach said it can be difficult to establish boundaries between work, school and family.
“You want to have time for your family and not worry about turning in an assignment or redoing something,” he said. “If you’re not careful, it can be the only thing you’re talking about as a family, which can be troublesome for some families.”
TIP FOR BOTH SCHOOLS AND PARENTS
Taylor-Schaus said it might be helpful for both parents and teachers to “chill out” and not get caught up in worrying about making grades and falling behind.
“They may fall behind in the sense that they’re not learning geometry on pace with people who would be in classrooms together,” Taylor-Schaus said. “But part of what they’re learning right now is flexibility and compassion and what’s important about those face-to-face communications.
“What we might lose in quote-unquote ‘pace,’ we’re gaining in being able to communicate verbally, communicate by computer, which I think we all recognize is what we’re moving forward to in our society.”
To learn more about Wisconsin Virtual Academy, visit wiva.k12.com