When I was a kid, homework was not my strong suit.

Day in and day out, I’d moan and groan to my mother that this or that assignment was impossible, that the teacher was trying to torture me, that I’d never get past (fill in the grade) without help from on high.

“Ask your father when he gets home.” she’d reply while juggling a younger sibling with one arm, loading the washing machine with the other and then, with a sigh, heading for the kitchen to start supper.

Dad would arrive home. I’d hear him clumping up the stairs, weary from his own workday, to once again save me from a life of utter ineptitude.

But never, not once, did he give me the answer to whatever problem vexed me. Instead, much to my impatience, he’d calmly ask me question … after question … after question … until suddenly, and miraculously, the answer popped right out of my own mouth.

“How did you do that?” I’d ask.

“I didn’t,” he’d reply with a smile. “You did.”

Memories of my Dad, God rest his soul, fill my head these days as schools everywhere prepare to reopen in one fashion or another amid a COVID-19 pandemic that was supposed to have abated by now but, to put it mildly, hasn’t.

My wife and I thank our lucky stars that our five kids are all well into adulthood and our three grandsons are of pre-kindergarten age.

Yet at the same time, our hearts go out to the parents and guardians of school-age children who never dreamed that public education would ever look like this: one or more kids hunched over computers at the dining room table, navigating a school day rife with challenges not only for the teacher and students, but also for the parents.

Last spring, it was all online learning. This fall, in most districts across Maine, the curriculum will shift to a couple of days a week in class, a couple days plugged in online and a fifth day for everyone to catch their breath and pick up the pieces.

And in the middle of all that?

The parents.

Some have the time and energy to shepherd their brood through the maze. Others have full-time jobs and precious little availability to keep one eye on work (or the family toddler) and the other on the kids. Still others worry about access to a working computer, or the internet, or …

Whatever the challenges, most look ahead to the looming school year worried sick that their child’s future is hanging by a thread – and they are that thread.

“Take a breath. Calm down,” advised Ruth Crowell, president of the Maine Association of School Psychologists, in an interview. “Wait for (still-evolving school reopening plans) to play out. And then see what you can do to fit it so that it works for you and your kids.”

All of which, she readily conceded, is “easier said than done.”

Crowell, who works as a school psychologist/specialist for the Windham Raymond School District, said that even as school districts statewide put the finishing touches on how they’re going to launch the 2020-21 academic year, so should parents be thinking about how they’ll handle their enhanced role in whatever form those reopenings take.

In short, she said, you need to have a plan.

That includes not only injecting as much structure as possible into the at-home school day but also recognizing the importance of maintaining your own well-being throughout whatever lies ahead.

“One of the first rules of the caretaking professions – and parenting is a caretaking profession – is that if you don’t take care of yourself, the well runs dry too quickly,” Crowell said.

Meaning that going for that early morning walk, or reading that book for a half-hour, or doing whatever floats your boat, is just as important as making sure Johnny is listening to the teacher on Zoom instead of making goofy faces at his classmates on the screen.

It also means looking around to see who might be able to help you – be it a grandparent or other relative, a babysitter, anyone who might share the load. Crowell said she’s heard of some parents planning rotations from one home to another on specified days – giving kids much-needed social contact while they attend school online, while parents get a much-needed break on days their children are elsewhere.

What the new education paradigm doesn’t mean, Crowell said, is that the parent has to morph into an at-home teacher.

“It’s not your job to teach the academic material to your child,” she said. “That is still the school’s job. So don’t feel like you need to own that.”

Where parents can help, now more than ever, is by communicating to the teacher the one thing they know best – their child.

“There are lots of things parents can do that don’t require them to know algebra or fractions or calculus,” said Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, a Washington. D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to helping parents connect better with what’s happening in their child’s classroom.

First and foremost, Hubbard said in an interview, parents are the experts on their children – what excites them, what doesn’t, how they learn best, how they don’t. As this anything-but-typical school year begins, such information is critical for teachers who won’t have the normal opportunities to get to know their students quickly.

As a parent, Hubbard said, “you’re not an instructional expert, which takes skill, pedagogy and good practice. But parents have so much to offer that’s critically important to their child’s academic success.”

Looking for an assignment you can easily complete? How about a 150-word essay for your child’s new teacher titled, “Meet my Kid.”

Learning Heroes surveyed more than 3,600 parents and guardians in the spring, when virtually all education was online, and found that most parents “leaned into” the challenge, Hubbard said.

“It was hard. It wasn’t pretty in many circumstances,” she said. “But the parents we’ve talked to throughout the summer were proud of what they did and what their children did and they got through it. But they are hoping for a better experience this fall.”

High among parents’ priorities, Hubbard said, is a better understanding from the schools of what exactly is expected of their child and how well they’re progressing toward those goals. At the same time, parents need to now how best (and how often) they can communicate with the teacher about meshing the home and classroom experiences.

In short, everyone has a role to play here.

Will it be perfect? Far from it. Already there’s widespread acknowledgement that the so-called COVID Slide – the ground that many children inevitably lose with the reduction in real, in-person classroom time – will need to be addressed when things finally return to some semblance of normal.

Still, as school psychologist Crowell insists, “we can get through this together.” Parents need to know that they’re not alone, that there are resources out there to help them be there for their kids, and, above all, nobody expects them to know all the answers.

They just need to ask the right questions.


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