Thousands of K-through-12 schools have opted for virtual learning amid the threat of a coronavirus outbreak, or have created hybrid models combining part-time, in-person instruction and virtual options. With students learning at home and many parents also working from home, grandparents have become pivotal figures in the education process.
In addition, more than 2.7 million children live in homes without their parents, where grandparents or other relatives are caring for them, and they're turning to grandparents for help. But most grandparents don't have a background in education and may need support on how to assist their grandchildren with everything from logging into Zoom classrooms to math homework.
"While the reality of supporting children during remote learning can be daunting, grandparents should remember that it is also an opportunity to share their skills, hobbies and time with those they love in new and creative ways, creating lasting memories, says DeLise Bernard, an education expert and consultant.
When public schools began transitioning to distance learning models in March, Bernard launched a Facebook group called Surviving Homeschool to help answer families’ questions about being thrust into the role of teacher. Bernard homeschooled three children for almost a decade and wanted to pass along her tips and tricks. Within two days, the group attracted more than 2,000 members, and now it has over 7,500.
The pivot to remote learning pushed people like St. Augustine, Florida, residents Susan Hatcher, 62, and her husband, Skip Hatcher, 71, into new roles: grandparents doubling as an educational support team for their two grandsons, in sixth grade and first grade.
The Hatchers have some education experience. Susan is a recently retired school psychologist and former teacher, while Skip is a retired elementary school principal. The pair work with their grandsons during the day to facilitate their remote learning, while the boys’ parents work from home. “Last year, students were able to be more independent and flexible with the academic demands,” Susan says. “Now, the boys are expected to be online during the full school day.”
Grandparents may struggle to support students with technology — such as helping them log in to different educational platforms and apps and making sure they get the video working for that virtual class. Grandparents don't need to be tech wizards or know how to write the perfect essay, but they can aid students in finding free online resources to assist them.
With school districts across the country following different plans and with uncertainties still ahead, there are bound to be some struggles. Juggling multiple students’ class loads, communicating with teachers and helping a student work through unfamiliar subject areas can be a challenge.
"My advice for grandparents is to remember that this is only temporary,” Susan says. “We are happy that we are retired and have the time and energy to devote to keeping our grandsons safe and healthy during the pandemic.”
Below, the Hatchers and Bernard share their suggestions for helping grandchildren to have a successful remote educational experience.
Create the right space
- Make sure there's at least one hard surface available for schoolwork (a desk, dining room table or folding table are suitable). The Hatchers’ grandsons have laptop stations and school supplies set up at the kitchen table.
- Communicate with your kids or grandkids to understand how they like to learn. Some students enjoy working from their bed or a couch, or floating around, while others want structure.
- Bernard recommends storage options like bins, drawers or a cabinet for binders, books and notebooks, as well as a holder for school supplies such as pencils and markers.
- Bernard also recommends a whiteboard, pencil sharpener, hole puncher and printer.
- If multiple students need to learn alongside one another, consider making dividers out of recycled cardboard to create “cubicles,” Bernard says.
Consider the technology
- A laptop or tablet, if possible: If a student does not have access to a device, check with the school. Many schools are providing devices to students who need them. If not, ask for a recommended brand or model.
- Wi-Fi: An upgraded router will help accommodate multiple people working on the same internet service at the same time. For families without robust internet connections, some schools and cities are providing free internet services to students. Check with your student's school to see if it will provide a Wi-Fi hot spot or whether your city offers public Wi-Fi in your neighborhood. In addition, some internet companies offer low-cost plans for students, seniors and low-income families.
- An email account: Some school districts create an email account for each student. Make sure you and your student know if such an account exists and how to access it. If not, consider setting up a designated email address for school-related communications.
- Headphones with a built-in microphone: These don't have to be fancy. Pairs with microphones start at around $15. Depending on the student's age, consider a pair made especially for kids (which have smaller frames and limit the maximum volume for hearing protection). These will help during live class sessions on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype or any other videoconferencing equivalent.
- Blue-light glasses: Bernard recommends blue-light glasses to limit overexposure to blue light, which is emitted from screens and can interrupt sleep patterns at nighttime. Blue-light filters can be incorporated into an existing prescription, but nonprescription computer glasses are an inexpensive option. Consider free programs like F.lux, a blue-light filtering software for your computer. (Note: If the student is working on a school-issued computer, downloading software might be prohibited.)
Not every grandparent or parent was expecting to be on call for schoolwork help. Here are some programs and additional resources for when you need to fact-check schoolwork.
- Grammarly is a free Google Chrome browser extension that spell-checks and proofreads for grammatical errors.
- Khan Academy is a free tutorial platform, known for its short math videos that explain concepts in various subjects. Khan Academy now also features tutorials and courses on subjects including science, reading and vocabulary, history and social studies.
- Online resources PhotoMath and Symbolab allow you to submit a math problem and get the solution or explanations on how to solve the problem.
- My Math Flash Cards is an app that helps with math facts.
- Tutoring websites can help. Bernard recommends Starfall for younger grades and Wide Open School.
- Your local library offers free access to books, magazines and newspaper subscriptions. Many libraries provide members with robust online options, including digital books and magazines.
- Explore the resources offered by your student's school and district. Many have a homework helpline and offer free peer tutoring, or access to digital tools and platforms.
- Ask for the teacher's manual. Bernard suggests communicating with a teacher and asking for a copy of or digital access to the teacher's manual of the student's textbook. Note: Teachers may decline this request to prevent cheating.