Practical tips for surviving distance learning while working at home

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By Melissa Henriquez | Kveller via JTA

When our kids’ school district sent out a survey in July asking parents their return-to-school plan, we checked off the “in-person” box. That’s not because we think school should be open in a pandemic, or because we had grown tired of our kids. Rather, it’s because my husband and I both work full-time and knew we couldn’t simultaneously serve as pseudo-educators for our kids and focus on our jobs.


Then, just a couple weeks before school was set to start, the district received new guidance from our state’s health department: All kids in our district were to start the school year online for two and a half weeks, and then open on Sept. 8 for those who selected in-person learning.

And now, here we are again, three months later, back at distance learning. With some time spent remote learning under our belts — combined with the hindsight of what worked and what didn’t in the spring — I wanted to share some tips that may help your family survive remote learning, especially if you’re a working parent tasked with doing both of these jobs simultaneously.

1. Be transparent with your employer about your situation.
This one is admittedly an uncomfortable one, but it’s crucial. I am blessed to have an awesome manager who’s a working mom and gets it — but not everyone is so lucky. You may need to explain that remote learning is a temporary situation — or not — or that if there’s an outbreak, you may need to revert back to online learning. This doesn’t mean you plan to shirk off work on others or slack off. In fact, I’d argue most of us have had to work exponentially harder to get it all done with excellence and will continue to do so — even if it means some projects and tasks may get done during non-business hours. By laying it all out there, you’re helping adjust expectations, making you a conscientious and courteous employee and teammate.

2. Understand the first few days may be a [email protected]#%-show, technology wise.
Maybe it won’t happen to you, but our district’s systems completely crashed the first two days — and parents were up in arms, kvetching about it on social media. I completely understood their frustration; I was upset, too, as my kids feared they were missing classes when, in fact, no one could get on. So if something similar happens, take a deep breath and forge ahead. Whatever you do, don’t take it out on the teachers or shame them on social media! Believe me, they are just as frustrated as you are, and don’t need a million Karens reminding them how awful it is going. Many of them are parents, too. And when thousands of kids and teachers suddenly get online at the same time and are using multiple platforms, there’s bound to be some kinks. It will get better.

3. Share the load.
This may not apply to everyone, but if your spouse is also working from home, tag team as much as possible. We discuss our weekly work schedules ahead of time so we can figure who will be on point each day for the kids and when. Talk the schedule through with your kiddos, too, so they understand Mommy can’t come help them until after lunch today, but Daddy is able to help in the morning. You’ll still have frustrating moments where you’re both tied up in meetings and the kids need you because they can’t figure out how to upload a project in one of the million new apps they’re using — but these moments will get fewer and farther between as the weeks pass and things run smoother (see #2).

4. Designate work spaces.
Some kids can work easily and productively side by side in the same room; remote learning in the spring showed us ours cannot. The kids have desks in their bedrooms, but we needed them close by in case our help is needed. So we simply designated the dining room for my son to work in, and the kitchen for my daughter. This way they are separate from each other, but still on the same floor as our office when they need help. If you’re in an apartment setting or don’t have a ton of extra space, not to worry – I have seen clever desk shields created out of a couple pieces of foam board set up on a kitchen table. Decorate them and make it fun!

5. Headphones for everyone.
Sometimes all four of us are on calls at the same time, and it can get really loud and distracting to hear everyone else. If your kids don’t already have a pair or earbuds, I recommend investing in them ASAP — they’ve come in quite handy during remote learning. We didn’t buy anything fancy; the cheap ones from Five Below work just fine. Headphones also mitigate the risk of your child being embarrassed by a sibling tantrum or a parent stubbing his or her toe and yelling out an expletive. Better safe than sorry — don’t say I didn’t warn you!

6. Set a phone alarm for your kids’ online meetings.
I typically live and die by my Outlook calendar — so, naturally, in the spring I made invites for the kids’ online meetings and sent them to my husband, too. But I found that if we’re both on a call or a deadline, we don’t always notice the reminder pop up on the screen. This go around, I added a back-up hack I learned from a friend: I’m using my phone’s alarm. Since my phone is usually next to me, I set an alarm for each kiddo’s class times. Trust me, if you have multiple kids, this tip is a game changer! It’s loud and distracting, yes, but it has helped us avoid missing their meetings. (If you have an Alexa or a Google Home, that works well, too!)

7. Neighborhood recess!
This one’s been a huge success for kids and parents alike in our neighborhood. Our street is full of kids, and no matter their grade, they all have a recess/lunch break between noon and 1. So if there’s a group of kids you’re comfortable with your kids playing with, send them outside to run, dance, bike or kick a ball around! This allows them to blow off steam with their friends and gives you a break from managing all the things! Plus, recess feels like a normal part of the school day and anything that resembles normal is welcome right now.

8. Make time for you.
I know, I know. I’m rolling my eyes, too. It can feel impossible to do this, but in this chaotic world in which work and home (and now school) are all bleeding together, it’s important to make time for yourself. Maybe it’s early morning meditation, creative writing when the kids go to sleep, or even something as simple as taking a work call in your backyard or walking around your block, instead of being chained to your desk all day. I’ve been working from home since we moved last year. Since the pandemic began, I started blocking off my calendar between 12-1 most days so we can take our pandemic puppies for a walk, or I can sit for 10-15 minutes with the kids before they race out for neighborhood recess. It doesn’t always work out — sometimes I have a meeting or need to work through lunch — but being intentional about that time helps force me to make myself a priority, too. It’s something I plan to do even once the kids go back to school.

9. Accept help from your village.
Last week, a friend invited my son to do remote school at her house. I worried it would be a burden for her to have an extra kid, but she assured me it wouldn’t be any trouble. They got all their work done and had a blast building some pretty amazing Lego creations in their down-time. As someone who will very rarely ask for help, I am so grateful I accepted her offer. I was able to focus exclusively on work that day (during business hours!) while my fourth-grader plowed through her assignments on her own.

10. Realize this isn’t forever.
I know it feels like this pandemic will never end. But take remote learning one day at a time. Some days will be easy, and other days will feel impossible. On days like that, my kids’ principal had some great advice. She encourages the kids (and parents) to step away and try again later or tomorrow. Of course school is important. But our collective mental health matters, too, and our children are just as confused by all these changes in their worlds. Give yourself permission to feel all the emotions — and know that although this pandemic may have no visible ending point, remote school will not last forever.

Melissa Henriquez lives in Texas with her husband and two kids. To read more articles like these, visit Kveller.com.

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