This spring, families across Washington made the abrupt transition to learning at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents stepped up and assumed the new role of teaching their children academic subjects amidst stressful current events and while juggling work and other responsibilities.
Ready Washington spoke to several Washington families about their experiences with distance learning this spring, summer learning plans, and how the pandemic impacted conversations around career and education goals. Many unknowns remain and each family faces unique circumstances, yet parents share an unwavering commitment to supporting their students’ education.
A difficult transition
For many parents, shifting to at-home learning took a psychological and emotional toll. Challenges included scheduling, access to laptops and internet connection, difficulty communicating with students’ instructors, and safety and equity concerns about reopening plans.
“We went from a routine, a steady diet of learning throughout the school days, to suddenly having to provide structure for a student in unconventional ways,” said parent Shirline Wilson. “That crossed over with our normal work schedules each day.”
Families made major changes in their day-to-day lives. Due to parent Dehlia Winbush’s work schedule, her third-grade daughter went to her grandparents’ home during the week, which proved to be a difficult adjustment. Winbush’s daughter, who is considered special needs, also struggled with losing the social aspects of school.
“That was extremely hard for her,” Winbush said, adding that they learned online school will not be a future option for her daughter. “She is extremely smart, but she thrives off of being with other children. Because we had to homeschool, it seemed like she came inward.”
Navigating the new responsibilities of being your child’s learning coach was challenging, Wilson said.
“We could never replace our child’s teacher,” Wilson said. “We have all kinds of other dynamics with students that teachers don’t have. It’s a whole new level of parenting. I don’t feel like parents have received enough appreciation. It’s work that can easily go unacknowledged.”
In response to the frustrations voiced by many parents, Shereese Rhodes reached out to other parents across districts to hold a community listening session. They found that many parents felt unprepared and that families faced even more challenges if English is a barrier or if their student takes special education classes. The parents collaborated to share resources and best practices, such as how to support students in special education.
“Sharing this information helped parents realize that we can do this,” said Rhodes, who lives in the Kent area. “It made it a little easier to know that I wasn’t the only one sinking. We learned that while we don’t have educational degrees in teaching, we have doctorates in our children. We know how our children best learn.”
The parent group held sessions where they engaged with experts about topics such as different learning styles.
“That helped me learn that my daughter learns best visually and by asking questions,” Rhodes said. “I also learned that my child is more productive in the afternoon. It was nice to relieve my daughter’s anxiety and build her up. We were able to find out where she shined.”
Rhodes’s daughter also had positive experiences learning remotely from her English and Language Arts teacher, who personalized homework to allow students to do their best work. For example, Rhodes’s daughter created PowerPoint presentations – an area she excels in – for certain assignments.
“My daughter went from not doing that well to ending up above grade level at the end of the year,” Rhodes said. “In the end, she did phenomenally.”
By the third week, school expectations were clearer, and Wilson’s family became more accustomed to their new routines. Wilson’s ninth-grade son worked independently through weekly homework assignments posted every Monday. He focused on a new subject each day and attended optional office hours twice a month.
Wilson credits her son’s success to the family’s focus on education, limiting screen time, having a calendar, and using time effectively.
“I learned that my student is capable and self-sufficient,” Wilson said. “I was rewarded by the opportunity to see Miles take responsibility for his learning, with very little coaching.”
However, Wilson added that her enthusiasm is “reserved” until her son’s academic progress is assessed.
Incorporating learning into summer activities
Families developed creative and educational ways to keep their children learning this summer and on track for this school year.
Each day, Winbush’s daughter completed two math lessons and read at least one or two book chapters. The family used math in real-world contexts, such as practicing fractions while measuring cooking ingredients.
“Seeing the lightbulb turn on in her head is great,” Winbush said. “She is starting to understand how math works.”
Rhodes’s daughter also built practical skills this summer while caring for a new kitten and learning about nature in the family’s backyard community garden. She enjoyed Khan Academy, read books, used math flashcards, went on virtual museum trips, and participated in math or English sessions taught by parents in their community. Screen time was earned.
“We just take it in stride and try to learn new things, such as grow plants or roller skate,” Rhodes said.
Wilson asked for specific tools from teachers for each of her son’s subjects to maintain learning over the summer. Activities included working on reading and writing 30 minutes every day. The family also read the newspaper and identified the writer’s argument, evidence, and sources.
“Our kids are presented with so much information right now,” Wilson said. “I want my son to develop the muscle to think critically about what the environment around him is saying about what’s happening now, and why there is violence against people who look like him.”
Planning for the future
Wilson said her son has the privilege of having two college-educated parents, including a father who is an entrepreneur.
“Miles sees models around him of parents and older siblings with different types of jobs and careers,” Wilson said. “From that perspective, the way he thinks about his future career is going to be aligned with what he’s passionate about and most interested in. I suspect he’ll be interested in law, since he enjoys deep thinking and debate.”
As Wilson’s son works toward his goal of attending postsecondary education, the family added High School and Beyond deadlines into their calendar to keep him on track.
After having a supportive instructor, Rhodes’s daughter now wants to be a teacher. While only in fifth grade, she is concerned about how all students are treated and is unafraid to speak up about cultural insensitivity in the classroom. Recently, she showcased her culture and heritage for a history lesson, encouraging other students to do the same.
Winbush’s family is discussing their options for the next school year.
“We’re trying to figure out the best ways to make sure she has a good education, and that’s where we’re stuck,” Winbush said. “I need her to continue with her education, even if that means getting extremely creative. I need her to thrive.”
Thank you to these parents for sharing their experiences with Ready Washington. And thank you to all Washington parents and guardians for their tireless efforts to support their children’s education during school building closures!
Writer’s note: Shirline Wilson is a member of the Ready Washington coalition through her leadership of Education Reform Now.