Help Kids Succeed in School During the Pandemic

Renee Casteel Cook

The current school environment is one that no student, parent or teacher ever imagined. From virtual graduations to masked first-day photos, the pandemic has altered milestones big and small and turned day-to-day learning on its head.

Though we’ve had eight months to settle into the “new normal,” anyone with school-age children understands just how hard e-learning and hybrid instruction have been—on students, parents and teachers alike. With COVID-19 cases spiking, this educational model is not going away anytime soon. Feel like you need a hand? We gathered advice from educators and parents on how to help kids succeed, whether they’re in the classroom, distance learning or both.

Check the Tech

Marti Post, mom of Marisen, 11, and Carson, 6, is no stranger to technology, having founded a’parently, a consulting company focused on working parents, as well as a parent resource group on Facebook. But even Post says it was challenging to keep track of the four websites, 10 passwords, different media and access points for her children’s schooling. “It took orientation for the parent[s], and kids were surprised at how little we knew about their day, tools and curriculum,” she says.

“It’s very self-motivated,” says Emily Whittaker, a drama teacher at Dominion Middle School in Columbus City Schools. “Unless the student sets them up, [parents] have to log in to see notifications, so if they aren’t checking it frequently, they can miss things.” She recommends asking your student to show you the platforms they use and setting up assignment notifications to help kids stay engaged and accountable.

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Mix It Up

Jim Silcott, principal at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School, says teachers there were most successful keeping kids engaged this spring using a combination of live online instruction and offline resources, which parents could supervise on their own schedule. “Online activities need to be varied and change about every eight to 10 minutes,” he says. 

Post found success carving out blocks of time for school, chores, getting outdoors and movies rather than using a strict subject-based schedule. As a single parent, she had to navigate the differences when her children were with their father. “We also reimagined their specials,” says Post. “It can be a positive if parents are allowed flexibility on what constitutes gym/art/music/languages.” 

Shiva Scotti, whose four children range in age from preschool to fifth grade, says that for her oldest in particular, “Attention and control need to be in the right balance to have an effective day.” Scotti created a plan around 10 “assignments” ranging from a five-minute dance party to twice-daily, 30-minute reading sessions, but gave Myles, 10, and Maxx, 9, responsibility for when to do each and cross off tasks as they were completed.

Andrew Theado, principal of Upper Arlington High School, made a Google Calendar for each of his four children to sync their daily assignments with his work schedule. Theado and his wife spread the kids’ work throughout the week, with planned breaks including physical activity, household chores and a family lunch. This provided “enough structure so we could all function semi-independently in the house,” says Theado, adding that a balance between flexibility and structure is important at all grade levels. “This is a good time to transition high schoolers towards becoming independent adults, teaching them to make structure out of unstructured time.” 

Acknowledge Emotions

Perhaps an even bigger concern during the pandemic has been students’ mental health. Fortunately, it’s a situation that many Central Ohio districts are acknowledging.

Several months ago, the Hilliard City School District added mental health days as excused absences, and Superintendent John Marschhausen in late October implored teachers in an earnest Vimeo message to focus more on students’ well-being than cramming an entire year’s worth of material into a hybrid schedule. 

Tami Santa, coordinator of student well-being and mental health for the Westerville City School District, says this is a trying time. “Isolation is not helpful for preexisting mental health, and kids have stress and family dynamics added to their plate,” she says.

Westerville and other local districts, including Dublin, Hilliard, Olentangy and South-Western, have developed COVID-related student well-being resources to give parents tools to talk to their children. At the high school level, where counselors routinely come into classrooms, Santa says, “We can lean into the fact that they excel at technology, and sometimes we even learn a bit more talking to them digitally.” 

Don’t Do the Work, But Get Involved

It can be tempting to make your kids redo work until they submit perfection. Theado suggests parents instead focus on making sure work is completed and that enough time has been spent, but to allow teachers to check for accuracy and provide feedback.

At Dominion, Whittaker offered several projects that had room for family involvement, which helped “students feel supported by that involvement and parents have a pulse on what is going on in that class.” She also found a silver lining in the pandemic. “It really was more of a one-on-one experience for the students, and I feel like I got to know some of them a lot better than I normally would in a class with 35-plus students.”

Stacie Osborne, a second-grade teacher in the Dublin City School District, agrees. “Barriers between home and school were broken this year, and I’m grateful for that,” she says. “Parents and I were honest with each other about difficulties and the balance of home life and schoolwork.”

Osborne says her 2019-20 class “bonded more than any class in my 16 years,” albeit virtually. They read books with a shared screen, shared virtual breakfasts, got to know each other’s pets, put on a “beach day” and created virtual play dates. “Oddly enough, during this time, I have never felt more connected with my students and families.”

Scotti and her husband, Michael, engaged both of their older children as well as Logan, 6, and Nova, 3, in virtue-based reflections to talk about their day. (Did they experience kindness? Joy? Respect? How?) “We have tried to center our thoughts around gratitude,” she says, including mailing handwritten cards to those they can’t be with in person. It has helped the whole family understand that “we are very fortunate to be spending more time together, instead of the usual hustle-bustle of activities, especially considering lots of families are struggling to make ends meet or ensure they can feed their kids each day.”

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

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