Family Strategies During COVID-19 School Closures

Perhaps some of the most dramatic and challenging changes for families during the pandemic are found in how they’re educating their children. At the beginning of the pandemic, many schools quickly switched to full-time remote learning or “hybrid” models with a combination of in-person teaching and remote learning. We knew so little about how the disease was transmitted from person-to-person at the time. Schools were doing what they thought was best to slow the spread.

The Consequences of School Closures

Day after day I witness the balancing act my CPTC colleagues perform to do their jobs and parent during these unprecedented times. I decided to ask them about these challenges and how they adapted to the situation.

Consider the experience of Executive Producer Eden Pontz and her daughter: “She missed her friends and being able to spend time with them after school, whether it be in clubs, doing sports, or just hanging out. Instead, she got stuck in a rut of staying up late, sleeping late (when her schedule allowed), and literally spending too much time in bed – taking online classes, doing homework, or speaking with friends. The days went by in a blur, and I’d realize that she hadn’t been outside all day because she had so much on her plate related to school. Her schooling was keeping her in bed, in her small room, with little natural light. It was potentially depressing for her.”

School closures across the US in spring 2020 were linked with fewer cases of COVID-19 and fewer deaths, so it may have been an effective way to limit the spread of the disease. Yet, many experts agree school closures may also have unintended consequences for the most vulnerable families. Students from low-income families rely on free or reduced-price school lunches to combat hunger and food insecurity — meaning there is uncertainty about where kids will get their next meal. Online learning typically requires a computer and stable internet connection that may not be available to all families. This places more pressure on parents to create a healthy learning environment for their children. Meanwhile, parents are also trying to complete their work. According to a report from Challenge Success and NBC News, these circumstances are leading to high levels of stress for students, especially young women and students of color.

Reopening Schools Safely

Since the initial outbreak, we now know that young children have a lower risk than adults of getting very sick or having major complications. Young children are also inefficient at transmitting the virus, though older teens have transmission rates similar to adults. For both children and adults, wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and washing our hands remain the best ways to reduce the risk of virus spread. With this knowledge and vaccinations now underway across the US, many school districts are making tough decisions about reopening safely under government guidelines.

Families Can Overcome Challenges Together

There are some strategies families can use to try to stay resilient in the face of these challenges. They involve working together to turn teens’ new “classroom” into a space for learning and achievement.

Eden accomplished this by creating a productive learning environment for her daughter and setting some rules. “We made some changes, starting with bringing up a very small desk and chair that we’d had down in the basement. We established that she would take all classes out of bed – either at the desk, or at our dining room table. We let her know that her school was encouraging all students to use their cameras and be seen – that it was helpful and encouraging for the teachers to actually see faces while teaching — so she should be using hers as well. That meant having to swap pajamas for clothes. Just the action of getting up and dressed helped some. We also worked to slightly re-arrange what was in her room to make for a background that she felt comfortable with other people seeing.”

Be a Balanced Parent

Now that many children are learning from home, parents have a unique opportunity to practice balanced parenting throughout the day. This parenting style involves being warm and supportive toward teens while also setting appropriate rules and boundaries. There is a clear link between balanced parenting and better academic performance in teens that was established long before the pandemic. In these challenging times, expressing warmth and kindness to your teens can be as simple as asking them what they learned today instead of if they completed a recent assignment. Online learning means teens are spending a lot more time in front of the computer. Set rules about limiting screen time elsewhere, like at the dinner table.

Stay in Communication with Educators

Speaking with your teen’s teacher is likely more important now than it’s ever been before. In-person school orientations and parent-teacher conferences may not be possible because of COVID-19 restrictions. Find out how your teen’s teacher prefers to communicate with parents and carve out time to do regular check-ins. This way, you can stay on top of your teen’s progress and address problems early on. For more suggestions, check out this article.

Make Time for PDF

PDF stands for Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time. It’s one of several helpful ideas from Challenge Success. Playtime means allowing your teen to have unstructured time to have fun pursuing their hobbies and interests. Downtime involves ensuring your teen has time to rest and relax to prepare for the next part of their day. For CPTC’s Director of Strategic Partnerships Jacques Louis, this meant allowing his two teenage sons more time on their phones to chat with friends: “Rather than focusing on their screen time, we focused on relationship time. Were they connecting with friends? We encouraged them to check in on friends. Many times, it was in virtual/digital spaces. It was okay with us. We didn’t want the boys to feel isolated.”

Family time is structured activities where parents and teens unplug and enjoy each other’s company, away from work or school stresses.

Explore Other Learning Opportunities

There are several ways you can supplement your teen’s education. Museums are offering virtual tours. Many authors are going on Facebook or Instagram Live to interact with readers. Free educational resources like Khan Academy can reinforce what your teen is learning in school. TED Talks can help you and your teen learn about new ideas and perspectives. Jacques says watching the news together has allowed his family, “… to share, discuss and grapple with issues together.” Find out what interests your teen and use that information to explore what’s out there.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested families and educators in many new and different ways. Long after we have passed through this time, we want our teens to remember that we stood by their sides when the world seemed less predictable.

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About Andy Pool

Andrew Pool, Ph.D., M.Sc. is Senior Research Manager at CPTC. He has a doctorate in Public Health with a concentration in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Temple University.

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