Dr. Stipek said that parents of elementary school kids should look to their schools for resources and guidance, and, as much as possible, supplement school learning with reading, games and activities. “Something as simple as talking about measurements and the effects of different ingredients while baking muffins can be educational,” she said. But with many families currently feeling the crunch of work and child care, “parents shouldn’t feel guilty that they aren’t doing enough,” she said. “Schools are going to have to adapt to meet children where they are.”
That’s what Greg Korchnak, a teacher at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor, Mich., plans to do. “There are parts of school and our education system that don’t make learning accessible for all students,” said Korchnak, who directs the school’s remote learning program. “This moment is an opportunity for school systems to be reflective, scrap the parts that don’t work and find new ways to reach students beyond the traditional model of education.”
In addition to students with learning disabilities, children from low-income households may also be at greater risk of falling behind. Though Dr. Stipek is confident that teachers will do everything they can to help kids catch up when they return to school, she is concerned that the lack of in-person instruction may increase the achievement gap already prevalent between socioeconomic groups.
“Affluent parents are better situated to help or hire help for their kids working online,” she said. “Children in economically disadvantaged families are less likely to have consistent access to the internet, and their parents have fewer resources to provide additional support. This situation can exacerbate a problem that’s already there.”
Amy Estes, a teacher in Sacramento, Calif., said her public school district is preparing to expand its tech offerings and paper materials to kids who don’t have access, as well as ramping up resources like meals, counseling and home visits. In addition, Estes has spent the last month helping the school draft a rigorous online curriculum that includes ways to meet the diverse needs of non-English speakers and special education students. “We’re working to get teachers the training they need to design lessons and interact with students in more constructive ways,” she said. “The benefit to pivoting to distance learning officially is that now districts can help teachers do a better job.”
Regardless of socioeconomic status, a household filled with anxiety and stress can be a major driver of kids falling behind, said Bruce Fuller, Ph.D., a professor of education and public policy at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. When parents lose their patience or don’t listen, said Dr. Fuller, children can start to shut down emotionally, in turn disengaging from reading and rich conversation inside the family.
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“Children’s cognitive learning is built on a secure emotional foundation,” he said. “If they continually see their parents unhappy or anxious, it can start to inhibit their own development. That’s worrying, because this is a really stressful time for parents. It can be hard to maintain a calm and attentive climate for kids when parents must take over schooling.”