“Mom, can you fill up my water-keeper?” I looked down from making meatballs. My 5-year-old was holding a contraption that appeared to consist of several crayon drawings inside a large Ziploc that was suspended—via various forks and drinking straws—in a mixing bowl. “Sure,” I said. I washed my hands and poured water in the bowl. She nodded and walked away.
Like many working parents, I never anticipated having to keep my kids home for months. Though my husband and I already work from our home and are both lucky enough to stay employed, the orders to shelter in place filled us with dread. Neither of us are teachers. The other adult commitments we have—earning an income, doing the laundry—don’t disappear just because we’re all now trapped inside, hiding from microbes.
At first, I started panic-hopping into every online homeschooling forum. A couple of days in, I ruefully acknowledged that becoming a teacher overnight was a lost cause. I can’t run into an ER and defibrillate a patient just because I saw someone do it on House, MD. Likewise, downloading Starfall’s reading app does not turn me into an experienced educator. Nevertheless, I tried to keep the kids up to speed with lessons and activities. In those first few weeks, the hours passed in dribs and drabs, and I was counting down the minutes until I handed the kids to my husband so I could turn my attention to my work.
Along the way, though, we realized that homeschooling is a misnomer in these circumstances. Homeschoolers don’t stay home all the time. Those kids take field trips, have meetups, and do co-op classes. Isolation is an adjustment for them too.
“This is not homeschooling, this is crisis schooling,” says Jamie Heston, a board member of the Homeschool Association of California. “It’s very different. That parents make sure their families are taken care of, that everyone’s mental and physical health is taken care of, and that everyone comes through this alive—literally—takes precedence over academics.”
That helped us realize that learning doesn’t have to look the way we think it should—how it looked at my kid’s preschool. We don’t have color-coded schedules, photocopied worksheets, or educational (or even organized) toys. And that is OK. Now, used to life without pickups, drop-offs, play dates, or lessons, my family seems to have found its rhythm.
Because of my job, I spend a lot of time staring at a screen, and so my kids do too. I’m fine with that. “Now is not the time to worry about screen time,” Heston says. Whether my kids’ screens are filled with online drawing classes with children’s book artist Mo Willems, video chatting with their friends on Facebook’s Messenger Kids, or taking a group yoga class through Zoom, this is how they keep in touch with one another and the world.
Since we’re spending most of every day at home, learning can also take place anytime. My kids don’t have to be at their “school” desks from 9 am to 2 pm. If the one success we have on a particular morning is we all got out the door for a 20-minute walk, that’s pretty good. We can make banana bread later, or build a water-keeper (whatever it is), or write notes to the grandparents. The other afternoon I taught the 5-year-old how to wash windows. Our windows are now clean, and like the Karate Kid, she got a good arm workout.
Last week I turned on an hour-long episode of Walking With Dinosaurs, because I couldn’t summon the energy for anything else. If you’d told me that my 3-year-old would be able to pronounce “quetzalcoatlus” flawlessly a day later, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now we argue about—and research—whether “swimmy-saurs” are real dinosaurs or just marine reptiles, and how fast different dinos could run. We also now have a hand-drawn, hand-colored dinosaur garden in our hallway.