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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

At-home instruction: Families map out better distance learning strategies for new school year

Parents on social media have shared their children’s struggles with virtual learning this past spring – from tears and anxiety to frustrations. Moms and dads juggled work and supporting children’s online studies. Now that many families face distance learning again this fall, people are mapping out strategies for smoother virtual sessions.

Plus, educators have had more time to prepare resources and technology, said Heather Bybee, Spokane Public Schools chief academic officer. Some glitches still are likely, but teachers recently trained in ways adaptable for eventual in-person sessions and the digital option.

“I don’t think spring should be used as a barometer for what fall will look like,” she said. “We learned a lot through the spring as educators and as parents.” Bybee also said there is awareness that each household has different dynamics.

“I know every family will be experiencing it differently whether at home or supporting it with daycare,” Bybee said. “We know there are going to be bumps. Our model that we’re focusing on is social-emotional well-being and making sure they’re learning but also giving everyone grace.”

Overall, Bybee and others say it’s best to create a dedicated learning space at home, but then also to encourage children and teens to get away from the screen for “brain breaks,” moving around and to do some unplugged learning. Encourage your child to help decorate a learning space, said software engineer Priya Rajendran, whose 14-year-old daughter is doing distance learning.

Rajendran regularly works from her Bay Area home to help families juggle daily tasks as CEO and co-founder of the family management startup S’moresUp. She said technology speed bumps can affect anyone – from lack of internet service to power outages. She’ll sometimes help her daughter with technology issues, but she also encourages her to find solutions.


Rajendran’s daughter uses Zoom for school, and sometimes it gets stuck. She suggests letting kids practice ahead if possible with the school applications being used. “Teach them what to do if something happens, like the internet goes down,” Rajendran said. “Sometimes my daughter will bring me a Post-it with a note if I’m on a call, and I write back on it.

“It’s important for them to understand problems that might come up because if you’re busy and can’t help them, everyone’s stress level goes up,” Rajendran said. Rajendran’s daughter also uses a larger monitor for her laptop. That way, Rajendran can glance occasionally at what’s on the screen. They created an office space with a desk for schoolwork, “to separate it a little bit from other activities.”

It’s best in those spaces to remove distractions while students are working, added Margo Swanson, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Coeur d’Alene’s Lakes Middle School. Keep televisions off and cellphones put away to avoid temptations to check social media.

But try to make the space warm and welcoming, Swanson said. “Maybe they can print off pictures of family and friends to hang, have a fluffy pillow to lean against, etc.”

In the Central Valley School District, families can choose a self-paced, parent-directed model or school-paced distance learning for about 5½ hours a day, with built-in breaks and lunch, said Tim Nootenboom, associate superintendent of learning and teaching.

He encourages a consistent daily routine, “so it’s predictable rather than waiting until you have time.” As part of a routine, use that dedicated schoolwork area, he said. “Sitting in bed is not the best place.”

Reach out, take breaks

Nootenboom said he’s heard of more families networking. It might be for two friends to do socially distanced learning or families video chatting about plans so kids can connect with a peer. It’s important for families to reach out.

“If they’re struggling, talk to teachers, principals, school counselors,” he said. “I know sometimes it’s hard when you’re trying to keep them engaged, and finding that balance, but check in with people who might have other ideas, tips and tricks.

“Our teachers, principals and counselors are talking to other families that might have really good ideas,” he said. “Keep that in mind. Don’t be alone in this. Lean on your school.”

Swanson as a teacher also encouraged parents to keep open dialogue. “Every family situation is different, and some students may be caring for younger siblings and trying to help them with the online work while their parents are at work.”

“Feel free to communicate any obstacles your family may be facing during this time with teachers. The more teachers know, the better they can understand their students and adjust to meet the students’ needs.”

Nootenboom and Bybee said that this fall’s virtual sessions will include some social aspects of a classroom. At SPS, social-emotional learning curriculum has activities to build student and teacher connections. The first day likely will be more about getting to know each other along with how-to guidance.

Jim Windisch, a Coeur d’Alene fifth-grade teacher for 17 years, says “eSchool” is new to him, but he hopes students follow scheduled breaks and times for movement. While he promotes use of a dedicated learning space, he urges that it’s OK sometimes to change that up. “Go read outside or work in the kitchen while dinner is cooking,” Windisch said.

Goals and positives

Help or encourage kids to create a day’s plan: Study subjects, reading, breaks to talk to friends and lunch or dinner plans. For parents who can work from or near home, coincide a lunch with a child’s break for time together, said Rajendran, who shares her schedule each morning with her daughter. “If I’m busy during lunch, I tell her, ‘This is what you can do for lunch.’ She writes that down.”

Swanson said it can help if families develop a calendar outlining the week ahead and post for all to see. “Schools and teachers will be working to communicate with students and families about what the workload will be,” she said. Go over that schedule together so kids might better understand what is expected of them and families can better support them if needed.

Since her daughter loves movies, Rajendran has set up a projector and screen in her backyard for a movie night as a reward after completing a tough assignment. Other kids might prefer a socially distanced friend meetup or a special book.

“One of the problems of being stuck at home is we don’t have things to look forward to,” Rajendran said. “If we plan rewards, there is something to look forward to.”

Rajendran also focuses on making mornings start off well. “Without getting up to go to school, dressing up and seeing friends, all of that is taken away from them, so I try to keep mornings positive,” she said.

Keep in mind this is still new for everybody, Swanson said. “It will be difficult, and there will be struggles, but there is also so much opportunity for learning and growth. Celebrate the successes. Find a way for the child to disconnect from technology and connect face to face with family on the days where they are all online.”