As we enter into a new school year, many of us are struggling with this strange new landscape that is Distance Learning. Still others are enrolling in virtual school or switching to an entirely homeschooled option.
Last year millions of parents struggled with balancing working at home (or not at all) with supervising their child’s education over the computer. So, before we head off back to the digital classroom, I thought it was a good idea to take a moment and get some advice from those who’ve been at it longer – Home School Parents.
But, before we get into that – home school, distance learning, virtual school? What exactly are they and what is even the difference?
Distance Learning is when your child is still enrolled in the same school that they were in person. They still report to the same principle, they still organize their classes the same way, they still have the same teachers for the same subjects. The only difference is that those classes are now online.
The teachers are still 100% responsible for creating course material, giving assignments, proctoring tests, providing instruction, and grading. That does not mean your child will not ask you for in-person help, just as they would in normal circumstances with any homework they might bring home, but you are not the creator of their coursework.
These classes can be at a designated time, students can be required to attend virtual classes during particular windows, a certain number of days per week, a certain number of hours, or none of the above as long as their assignments are completed.
The individual scenario will be entirely dependent on your child’s school district, their school, their teachers and the particular subjects they are taking. For good or for bad there is no real uniform system for Distance Learning, which means that understanding your students systems and their individual requirements will ultimately be on an individual basis.
The biggest downside to distance learning is that it is, ultimately, at the discretion of your child’s school. If your state, school district, and the individual school say that they are opening for physical classes, then your child is expected to show up to class as if it were any other school year. If the number of new COVID cases increases or if your child’s school faces an outbreak, then you will likely face an emergency shut down and switch back to distance learning. You have no input and your child will be expected to attend regardless of the format.
For some students, the stress and uncertainly can be more disruptive than the actual online classes themselves. If that is the case, I recommend exploring a 100% virtual school option.
Many states, including Florida, have provided a 100% online school option for students completely free of charge for several years now. These operate in a very similar way to distance learning where a teacher, or several teachers, is responsible for creating your childs lesson plans.
These are, for the most part, privately owned and operated companies that contract with the state to create an independent digital ‘school’. With a virtual school option, your child will actually be transferring to a different school that operates entirely online. They will have new teachers and a new system to operate in, but largely similar classes.
The advantage of these systems is that, ideally, as they are entirely online schools they have more experience in helping students excel in an online environment. In practice, however, because these are privately owned and operated companies, they can often have their own flaws and foibles. As a general point of concern, schools owned by Connections Academy are often described as ‘point and click’ educators, with a lot of screen time and busywork and little focus on actual comprehension. Other virtual schools have minimal login requirements, which can be difficult for students who are natural procrastinators and may end up with all of their course work still not done by the end of the term.
There are many options and it would ultimately be up to you and your student to explore what option might be right for your family as each is suited for different learning styles. Additionally, because they are virtual they often do not have geographic restrictions, so you are not limited to schools in your county because… well, there are no ‘counties’ on the internet. Broward Virtual School is a great option for south Florida students.
There are also other online schools that are ‘private’ and require tuition. This can range anywhere from fifty to a hundred dollars per school year to several thousand per semester. Some offer scholarships, some don’t.
Check with your state education board for complete lists of both ‘public’ and ‘private’ virtual schools that operate in your state. You can also check out listings through Niche.com, an online educational review guide that is essentially the YELP of schools.
Home School is the most unique. It is the most demanding for parents but can also be the most beneficial for students in the right environment.
*NOTE – Some virtual school programs will market themselves as an Online Home School. This is not reflective of the actual program, and they are in fact still virtual schools. It is just a marketing tactic.
With true homeschooling, parents are responsible for creating a lesson plan within state guidelines. You need to find the materials, create a lesson plan, find or create test materials and assignments, and proctor all of the material. Parents are 80% in control (because they have to follow certain state guidelines) and 100% responsible.
The advantages of homeschooling are that because your child has one teacher, aka You, they are able to work as quickly or as slowly as they need in order to master the material. The teacher is not pausing to help 30 other students at the same time. This means students may spend as little as 1-2 hours per day working on class material to achieve the same results as a traditional classroom.
Parents who want to take on homeschooling should consider a few factors before they dive in. How well their child will respond to the parent taking on the role of teacher, child age and grade, learning style preferences, how many kids you have at home, whether or not you have to work during that period, and, in all brutal honesty, whether you can handle being a teacher (more on that available after 9/1 HERE).
If you are homeschooling a younger child and a teen you could do hands-on class time with the little in the morning and by the time the teenager is up at noon you are able to help them with their assignments if needed. Likewise, if you have a middle-school-age child but need to work at home, there is absolutely nothing that says school can’t be between 5 and 7 pm.
Additionally, with middle and high school age students, once coursework is assigned, students often will not need an adult to be directly involved the entire time. They could very easily get started on assignments at 2 and then have ‘teacher’ help them with anything they struggled with later in the evening.
Home School in a Pandemic
A NOTE OF CAUTION
I do NOT recommend homeschooling for parents who have not otherwise at least considered this option before. Not only can there be a lot of time commitment involved in setting up lesson plans and finding course materials but, to put it bluntly, not everyone is meant to teach.
Being able to explain complicated subjects in a way that students can easily understand.
Knowing what material is important to focus on as a foundation of future learning and what is not.
Understand the balance between ‘helping’ students and doing the work for them.
Being able to separate the rolls of ‘teacher’ from ‘parent’.
These are just some of the things that home school parents need to be able to juggle. It is a balancing act that home school parents have years to learn as their child grows older. Beyond learned skills, some personality types are just not a good match for teaching. If you lose your patience easily or are often in a rush, homeschooling will be more difficult. But there is one additional area that is especially important for parents of older children who are considering homeschooling –
How well do you understand the materials you are teaching?
I have said it once and I will say it again, confused teachers create confused students. If your high school sophomore is taking AP physics, unless you are an actual engineer, you will likely struggle to understand the class material, let alone being able to teach it. But even at a more basic level, if you struggle to remember the difference between an adverb and an adjective how well can you actually expect to be able to teach it?
Home Learning during a Pandemic
The abrupt transition from in-person to distance learning in the middle of the previous school year gave parents and students a glimpse at the virtual education experience. And while this means that this year parents will be better armed, or at least familiar with the programs at hand, the previous academic year was also filled with panic, last-minute patches, and the overall feeling that this entire situation was, ultimately, temporary.
This means that, for many, the lessons learned were soon forgotten. Both with course material, and course operation. Both for parents and students.
That is not inherently problematic. It is a completely natural and understood psychological phenomenon (Psychology Today). Educators have long since understood that stress inhibits learning (Strauss, 2011). Not only does that affect the amount of material our students manage to learn but, more importantly, it affects our ability to learn how to effectively navigate a new learning environment.
The stress of the initial switch combined with the tumultuous months since then, our brief brush with Distance Learning can feel as though it took place in another lifetime. Which makes our memories of how to navigate the digital learning environment somewhat blurry at best.
As the weeks turned to months and new COVID cases continue to rise, many of our students will be returning to the digital classrooms soon. And with only vague recollections of how to navigate this new landscape, It might be worth getting a few tips from those who have been through the distance and virtual schooling.
Coming Soon: Top Tips for Distance Learning Newbies from Home School Veterans
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Personal Recomendations -Karen ‘High School Junior’
Jori Krulder, English teacher of 23 years