Distance Learning Isn’t Working

Instead of trying to move classes online, schools should support parents in educating their children.

A high schooler in Hong Kong working on homework.
LAM YIK FEI / The New York Times​ / Redux

As a homeschool mother, I’ve spent recent weeks giving pep talks to girlfriends. These friends tell me they’re spending their day troubleshooting lessons given over videochat. When they aren’t standing over their kids’ shoulders showing them which math problem to do, they’re printing their worksheets or scanning them to send back to the teacher. It’s exhausting for parents with one kid, but with three or four, it’s practically impossible. Many of these parents have told me they’ve ended the day in tears—or spent the entire day in tears.

The frustrations of these moms echo those of an Israeli mother of four who recently went viral in a screaming, pleading video to teachers, recorded in her car. She told the camera, “Listen. It’s not working … this distance-learning thing. It’s impossible!” She was “falling to pieces,” she said. “If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die of distance learning … Please. Turn it down. Foot off the gas. Leave them be.”

It’s a fine message for teachers and administrators who are working around the clock to create ad hoc curricula with absolutely no notice. But it’s not necessary for parents to plead with teachers to ease up on the gas. Parents can, and should, simply opt out.

Many school districts have attempted to shift schooling to home, but you cannot simply school at home. That’s why many homeschoolers call what they do “home education,” not homeschooling. Home education involves an understanding that children can learn while doing everyday tasks; baking can teach math, science, and home economics. Sitting on the couch reading Charlotte’s Web to kids in grades five and three and kindergarten counts as “school.”  So does taking a nature walk and creating a nature journal.

As a homeschool mother, I set my own curriculum and my own schedule. We have the flexibility to plan our schedule around baby and toddler naps, my work schedule, and the activities my children once did. My kids’ education is my responsibility, and it is designed to fit our family’s individual needs.

The situation into which almost every parent in America has now suddenly and unwillingly been thrust could not be more different. One-size-fits-all education barely works in a classroom, but it is completely unmanageable with kids spread out across their various households working independently.

Most kids aren’t going back to school this calendar year; school districts have already conceded as much, as have many universities. Parents are in this not just for a few weeks, but for a few months.

And is this how families want to be spending the next months? Sitting inside staring at a computer screen for six hours a day? Most adults have a hard time in online meetings for that long for one day; it’s completely unreasonable to expect it of a child for months on end. And it’s leading to behavior issues, too. On one recent Facebook thread about screen time–generated outbursts, one mother wrote, “This is a major conflict in our family because we do not believe in this amount of screen time, and the kids thrive without it. Yet it is expected in order for online learning to occur.”

Schools can still play a constructive role, even if they aren’t holding online classes for kids stuck in their homes. Instead of spending time on online lessons and hours of videochats, schools need to provide a crash course in education for parents, provide loose individual lesson plans and suggestions, and operate as a help line. When I chose home education for my children, I had the benefit of years of reading about educational theory and philosophy and best practices, in anticipation of teaching my children when they became school-age. Parents across the country have been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and they could use much more support.

Parents, teachers, and administrators need to understand the unique nature of education at home. Every family looks different and has different needs. Some children have no siblings; some have many. Some children have parents who don’t speak English as a first language, but who could provide instruction much more easily in their native languages. Some families have two working parents trying to fit in school with their kids. Some families have an out-of-work parent because of the financial crisis that has resulted from this pandemic. What would be the best use of a kid’s time in the next few weeks and months? If an out-of-work restaurant chef is now home with his kids, will they gain more if he helps them do busywork problems in math, or if he teaches them how to cook?

The next few months will radically alter how parents think about the education of their children. For the time being, they are responsible for it. That’s why it’s time for parents to take charge of their kids’ schooling. Parents, not teachers or administrators, are the ones in the trenches—and so parents, not teachers or administrators, need to set the schedule and priorities.