Cultural Context: our emotional connection to education
Across the US and Canada, widespread school closures due to the novel coronavirus have introduced a new dynamic to parenting and childhood education. In the US, more than 124,000 public and private schools have been closed, affecting over 55 million students.
For many, education represents our hope for the future. No school or school district is perfect, but the emotional connection to children’s education is based on the ideal of education as a foundation for intellectual, emotional, and physical growth.
Education is the avenue to success, whether “success” is financial stability, emotional strength, character development, or some combination of all of these. Free public education makes this foundation, at least in theory, available to all.
School closures have caused significant emotional shock waves, in part because of this emotional connection. Beyond the uncertainty about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and caregivers are now faced with potential long-term implications for their children’s future. Worries about a resulting “shaky educational foundation” cause stress as parents fear that their children will miss out, fall behind, and lose opportunities for social development.
I got in touch with both educators and parents of school-age children across the US who are “in the trenches,” directly managing their children’s educational needs. I hoped to understand how parents are managing, bring some clarity to their hopes and fears, and identify any new practices that may have long-term benefit.
Five key themes on homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic emerged.
1. Fears for children’s social development outweigh fears for academic development
Every family I met voiced strong fears for their children’s social connections. They noted how much their kids missed their friends, and they worry about the impact of not being able to play and socialize in-person with their friends. Missing school means missing opportunities to grow emotionally and socially. Parents voiced fears about their children’s depression, anxiety, and loneliness due to social isolation. While many have Zoom and FaceTime connections and phone calls, the absence of opportunities to be out of the house, playing, and socializing meant that the connection felt shallower and less satisfying.
“The fear is more mine than theirs – I don’t want them to miss out [on extracurriculars and social connection].”
In contrast, most parents I met remain upbeat and confident about their children’s educational well-being. In most places, the shelter-in-place came at a point in the academic year as to minimally impact learning new material. Academic resources provided by schools and school districts are deemed sufficient to maintain some level of academic momentum through the end of the school year, if needed.
2. Parents absorb most of the stress of the “new normal”
Parents I met are working hard to maintain an outward sense of normalcy and calm for their children. Most are balancing their own professional responsibilities with new educational responsibilities that involve both teaching and holding children accountable to stay on-task. The added stress is significant, causing more family fights, less sleep, and added health concerns.
“I’ve turned into a professional nag! But all the things I’m worried about, that I have to control – there’s only so much that I can do.”
To manage, parents report turning to a number of outlets that support both physical and mental well-being. Meditation and mindfulness apps (like Calm) help with mental breaks and focus, as do social calls with friends and family. Telehealth apps help to maintain appointments with counselors, therapists, and physicians. Parents report exercising with friends using FaceTime and ordering ahead at their nearest coffeeshop to simply have a chance to get out of the house and have “me time.”
“I need to do something for me, something to connect with family and friends, run each day – I’m even more aware of how these things help with mental health and releasing stress.”
3. Big brands are seen as the enemy: too much screen time, too much junk food
Parents, already concerned about their children’s healthy eating habits and screen time, are worried about the influence of big brands.
In a normal in-school setting, access to junk food and screens is limited – or, at least, controlled by someone else. Yet, most remote learning involves significant time in front of a screen. So, parents actively worry about Netflix, YouTube, and gaming systems that add even more hours of screen time. And being at home with all-day, non-stop access to processed foods, sugar, and fats heightens parents’ obligations to manage what their kids eat throughout the day. These worries compound their stress, as they feel led to actively manage how much junk food their teens consume in a day or how much streaming media they absorb.
“I’m trying to keep them away from Netflix, from Xbox, from the phone, from social media… keeping them away from junk food…”
4. User Experience can build lifelong users
Most households I met report relying heavily on a dizzying array of online learning resources and web conferencing platforms. Zoom, Class Dojo, Google Classroom, Flipgrid, SeeSaw, ClassLink, Dreambox, Lexia… each platform is helpful for offering different ways to connect with the class and with content, but each comes with challenges as parents and teachers get up-to-speed on how to use it. Parents and educators are scrambling to understand how to access, login, and simply use different platforms’ features, and a lack of unifying user experience and single account sign-on introduces stress, complexity, and frustration.
“I think Zoom was really nice for my kids! [As a teacher] If I have a student out sick in the future, I’ll use this!”
“I tried Facebook Messenger chat… I would not use it again.”
When the user experience is seamless and pleasing, platforms have an opportunity to engender deep loyalty and long-time usage across multiple use cases, including church group meetings, friend meetups, and family connections (to name a few I heard).
5. Teachers are heroes
No family I interviewed brought up their relationship with teachers before the school closure. But each family was awed and inspired by the resilience, determination, and sheer kindness exhibited by their children’s teachers in response to it. In many instances, school closures came with little warning. Yet parents report that teachers have gone out of their way to develop and deliver educational content, learn new technology platforms (like Zoom), proactively reach out to check on their students (and parents), and remain positive, upbeat, and productive.
“The kids are completely supported, and the teachers have provided so much for the kids, not just academically, but checking with families through Class Dojo on how the parents are doing!”
It’s clear that the school closures have had a massive effect on families, school systems, and the current educational environment. Yet most families found some encouragement in the ways they are adapting. While the change is still early, and many families are still adjusting, there is a sense that it’s not all bad. That there’s something for parents and families to learn from this.
- Remote learning may bridge the gap between school and home. While they are still adjusting to new platforms, many parents feel that something – no one could define it – might be very positive about the features and functionality they’re seeing. Further, many parents report that they like having greater insight and transparency into their children’s educational process, their skills and their struggles, and their relationships with their teachers.
- Reducing barriers to use of video conferencing platforms drives connection. As parents are exposed to Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, many find them easy to use. They value the benefit of getting to connect more regularly with far-away family and friends. Many who were previously reluctant to use them feel confident they’ll continue long past the end of the pandemic.
- Forced family time becomes fun family time. Despite the challenges of shelter-in-place and school closures, some families find that the efforts to maintain normalcy and minimize the worry for their children is opening doors to more fun, more connection, and more down time to simply be together.
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