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Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on September 10, 2020.

K–12 schools have gotten off to what could charitably be described as a wobbly start in the 2020–21 academic year. Districts have stumbled all over themselves trying to think outside the box to keep kids learning during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve been ingenious about enlisting community resources to help make school safer, from outsourcing the creation of outdoor classrooms to party-tent-rental companies, to connecting with churches, hotels, and, in one case, a closed dim sum restaurant in hopes of accommodating students who can no longer fit in classrooms that have been reconfigured for social distancing.

But in the frenzy, schools might be ignoring one of the most potent sources of help, one built into many families. These people have only the best interests of the children at heart and are likely less overtaxed than the parents of students: the grandparents.

Speaking for myself, as the grandmother of two girls ages 5 and 2, I’m devastated when I think about how much might be lost this year, for them and for their entire fragile generation. My daughter and son-in-law live in New York City, which plans to reopen public schools for in-person classes on September 21. But open this year means something different than usual: In-person classes are optional, for one thing; parents can choose to stay entirely remote. My older granddaughter will be in school just two or three days a week, depending on the week, which means that my daughter and son-in-law will have to keep juggling homeschooling and full-time jobs for the foreseeable future. (The younger one will be in day care with just a handful of other kids.) And that’s if all goes well, which I suspect it won’t. Each time even a single case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the 5-year-old’s classroom, Department of Education guidelines will require her to be sent home for full-time remote learning for roughly two weeks.

I hate that I can’t do much to help. My husband and I, happily hands-on grandparents who used to pick up the girls from school and day care every Thursday, have had far less involvement with them since March, beyond daily show-and-tell over Zoom. We took a calculated risk and shared a house with them all for a month this summer—and oh, what a balm it was for us to hold our granddaughters at last, and for our daughter and son-in-law to be able to stop juggling and concentrate simply on their jobs—but the new school year will turn us back into lonely Zoomers. Once the girls are back in school and day care, my husband and I, both in our late 60s, worry about exposing ourselves to whatever new risks they’ll likely be bringing home.

So now I feel impotent, unable to show up at the very moment my daughter could most use my help. But it doesn’t have to be this way. All those teachers and principals thinking creatively about how to make school reopening more seamless—why not turn to grandparents like me for help?

Elders have volunteered in the classroom for decades—for their own benefit as well as the children’s. In normal times, working with kids has been shown to be an especially rewarding kind of volunteer work for older people, leading to demonstrated improvements in stamina and memory, and a sense of what the psychologist Erik Erikson called the primary developmental task of older adulthood, the need “to be needed.” All of this is so much more important now, when the isolation that can bedevil retirement has been magnified during lockdown. The pandemic has taken away so many familiar routes of connecting with others—the Sunday family dinners, the weekly card games, the religious services, the regular tutoring sessions at the neighborhood school—all ostensibly for the elder person’s own good. But what’s the point of protecting Grandma’s health if she withers in loneliness?

Instead, teachers and principals, already hanging on by their fingernails, could recruit grandparents as collaborators in figuring out the new normal of pandemic schooling. It’s a classic win-win: The elders get a way to combat loneliness and bring a sense of purpose to their days, teachers and parents get teammates with experience and time, and children get another grown-up to help them through the difficulties of remote learning.

One way grandparents could help struggling schools is through remote-tutoring programs such as Eldera, a start-up that launched earlier this year.* Eldera recruits mentors in their 60s and older, and pairs them with children from the ages of 5 to 15 whose parents have come looking for help. The weekly Zoom calls that follow are pretty free-form: The mentor might read stories aloud to the child, go over math homework, show the child how to draw, or listen to him practice the piano. Parents aren’t necessarily relieved of child-care duties—in most situations, a parent is hovering somewhere nearby—but it can be liberating nonetheless to know that for an hour each week your child has the full attention of another caring adult.

The personal connection between an elder and a child—who, during this long, seemingly endless stretch of distance learning is also likely to be struggling with feelings of isolation—has helped enormously, according to the Eldera co-founder Dana Griffin. “We found we were giving kids something they needed even more than curriculum,” she told me. “They needed one-on-one adult attention, which they weren’t getting from teachers, and [sometimes] not from parents either.” During sessions with their mentors, she said, “they get to be interesting to someone. You’d be surprised how much kids have the need to be interesting to someone.”

If what schools are lacking now is direct, focused attention for each child, we grandparents might be just the folks to offer it; we know all about cherishing. And even those of us who are still working, such as my husband and me, have more time on our hands than most parents of children do; there’s no need for us to feed, entertain, educate, or bathe anyone but ourselves.

So use us.

This could work in several ways. Anyone who has spent any time on Zoom, for instance, knows that small groups are better than big ones; faces on the “gallery view” screen are easier to see when fewer people are present, and children are more likely to pipe up and be heard when fewer voices are competing for attention. That’s where grandparents could come in. Imagine a second-grade teacher trying to keep control of a remote classroom of 28 little kids. How much easier the teacher’s life would be, and how much more rewarding the lesson would be for those 7-year-olds, if the teacher could make use of four grandparents from among those 28 families, for even one hour. The class could be divided into smaller groups, each one headed by a grandma or grandpa who could review the lesson and make sure that all the children in their group understood it. The children would spend some of that time talking enthusiastically among themselves too, and they would probably enjoy the chance to meet and chat with a brand new grown-up.

We grandparents could also help in other ways. Outside of the classroom, we could donate our (relatively free) time to help schools and parents manage the complicated logistics of pandemic education. I would be happy, if asked, to assist with a phone tree or email chain to arrange learning pods or microschools for the days when kids are scheduled to be at home—or, when the inevitable happens, to help alert parents when someone at school tests positive for COVID-19. What’s more, in this fragile economy, with so many parents facing pay cuts, job furloughs, or layoffs, the “fixed income” of retirement can start to look pretty good, and I bet a lot of grandparents would be willing to share. If there were an easy mechanism to do so, I would be delighted to pitch in to buy air filters or box fans to improve the ventilation in my granddaughter’s elementary school.

School this fall is already shaping up to be just about as terrible as it was in the spring, and families are again being asked to shoulder a nearly impossible burden. By families, of course, I mostly mean parents, but it’s high time to expand that circle of obligation and concern to the older generation. Yes, grandparents are already helping in informal ways, but collectively we remain a largely untapped resource. School systems, every bit as overburdened as parents, would do well to turn to us, the local grandparents and, perhaps especially, the long-distance grandparents yearning to become a more regular part of their grandchildren’s lives. We’re smart, we’re loving, and, in every sense of the word, we’re free.


* This article previously misstated that Eldera is a nonprofit.

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