Homeschooling during a pandemic: 6 things we’ve learned from providing education in emergencies

September 8, 2020
Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith

Education in emergencies is one of Concern Worldwide’s areas of focus. Here are 6 things we’ve learned from that work that may be useful if you’re homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s be clear: COVID-19 is not, as some have said, the “great equalizer.” The effects of this pandemic are having, and will continue to have, a larger impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities of any country. 

However, it is true that the novel coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, and right now in the United States, many families are still living under some form of lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. With many schools still closed (or with parents opting to keep their kids at home), how the coming academic year will unfold is far from clear.

Education in emergencies is one of Concern Worldwide’s areas of focus, both in building systems of quality education in emergency circumstances, and making sure that these same circumstances are accounted for when creating safe spaces for children to thrive. Here are 6 things we’ve learned from providing education in emergencies that you can use if you are entering another school year of homeschooling during a pandemic.

Lilongwe Demonstration Primary School in Malawi, closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Henry Mhango / Concern Worldwide)

1. This isn’t normal — and that’s okay

The uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic — When will cases subside? When can I go out again? Will I still have a job next week? — combined with shifting information as more is learned about the virus (as we saw, for instance, with face masks) are understandably stressful. Many emergencies come with uncertainties, as well as a shift in “normal” life. For children whose cognitive functions are still developing, this stress can hit especially hard. 

“It may be necessary to adapt former activities to a new environment and to a situation of ongoing stress,” explains Shezleen Vellani, Concern’s Education Advisor. “Having regular schedules and activities allows children and families to feel more secure.” 

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2. When the way we learn changes, what — and how much we learn — will change, too

In the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic, Concern’s teams in Sierra Leone were able to serve the country’s large population of children under 14 with radio school programs and community learning groups that were smaller than a traditional classroom. It was a great way of ensuring that children continued to have some normalcy in their routines and also continued them on the path to learning goals. 

When schools reopened in Sierra Leone, however, the school year was truncated, and we knew that a home with a radio was not necessarily the same experience as a school and a blackboard. It takes time to adjust to new routines, and so we made sure that, as schools reopened, the curriculums were adapted for both the shortened year and to help those who may not have thrived with radio classes catch up.

3. Have a ritual to start and end each day

Transitioning from school to home (or work to home) is easier when they’re in different spaces, or even in different zip codes. This isn’t always possible in a home environment, but one way you can create a sense of structure and predictability with your children is to have a small routine that begins and ends a school or work day (this is even something you can do for yourself to transition from work life to home life!). 

With younger children, this may be a song you sing together in the morning and in the afternoon (or even two different songs). With an older child, you may have a daily conversation in the morning and evening where you ask each other 1 to 3 of the same questions as a way of checking in. 

Refugee children at school in Lebanon

Concern Worldwide education officer, Nour Al Hajal, with a group of children attending a non-formal education program that focuses on early childhood education in northern Lebanon.

4. Spend time together outside of “work” 

When your home is also your workspace, it’s helpful to dedicate some quality time to non-work activities with your children. Invite them to help you prepare dinner (even if it’s simply setting the table) and check in with them on their day and how they’re feeling overall. This is also a good time to remind them that you’re taking care of them and will continue to do so. 

Family time is also shown to relieve stress, offering a healthy support system that can reduce the pressures of responsibilities at work, school, and beyond. Shezleen Vellani points to Concern’s educational work, which has also shown that quality time strengthens bonds between parents and children. 

Dedicated play time with age-appropriate activities is also important, and is another way for children to learn about themselves and their surroundings. 

If you have a backyard area, an outdoor activity can also be a great way to reduce stress levels with some light exercise, like playing catch or tag, or taking a walk around the block. If you’re in a city where staying indoors is imperative, try an unplugged activity like putting together a puzzle or playing a board game. Research from Scholastic shows that board games are especially good for teaching children about teamwork, patience, and how to win and lose gracefully, offering benefits for emotional and language development. 

Dedicated play time with age-appropriate activities is an important way for children to learn about themselves and their surroundings. 

5. Keep a community connection — while at a distance

One thing we’ve learned from creating Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) in informal settlements and displacement camps for Syrians is the importance of emotional support. When you approach a CFS in one of these settlements, the first thing you’ll notice are the warm greetings as you pass by neighboring tents within the community. It’s not just a nice welcome, it’s also a way of reinforcing a child’s self-esteem and resilience by creating a nurturing, supportive environment and building a sense of belonging. 

Many parents on the Concern Worldwide US team have seen this same sense of welcoming and community created through their children’s virtual classrooms. Even outside of school, consider virtual playdates for them and their friends (or distant family members) to help them maintain their community virtually. Using a service like Zoom or Skype will also give them a conversational experience with more weight than a text or email. 

6. Prepare for school re-openings

As schools reopen, the top priority will of course be continuing prevention measures. Understand what your child’s school is doing to ensure health and safety, and make sure you know what is expected of your child and help them to remember things like the importance of wearing a mask or the proper way to wash their hands. 

However, it’s also important to keep a continued focus on learning, and many schools that are reopening for the 2020-21 academic year will likely work with some form of accelerated curriculum to help cover gaps in education from this past spring. Understanding the lesson plans and supporting your child at home will help them to catch up. If your child’s school is continuing distance learning this fall, you can still either reach out to their school to better understand what the learning objectives are for their grade level, and how you can help support that environment at home. 

Students in a classroom in Sierra Leone

Students attending class in Masaka School, Sierra Leone, after the end of the 2014-16 West African Ebola virus epidemic. Photo: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide

Extra credit: Why all of this matters

Around the world, including in the United States, COVID-19 threatens to increase poverty levels. There are some obvious short-term effects, like job losses. But there are also some not-so-obvious long-term effects, like education, which is instrumental to ending extreme poverty

A public health crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can be just one of many barriers to education for children around the world. Whatever the reason for schools being closed, the long-term impacts are the same: Continuing education during an emergency not only helps children to continue learning during and after a crisis, but also has a long-term effect on international development.