Tennessee children are out of school this week and for the foreseeable future as state and local governments work to minimize the spread of coronavirus.
In this one-hour special report, WPLN’s Blake Farmer explored some of the questions Tennessee parents have about how to continue educating their children amid the disruption. We also had a psychiatrist taking your questions about how to talk to kids about the threat of coronavirus.
WPLN News Special Report: Coronavirus in Tennessee — Education In Isolation is available on this page for you to listen to anytime.
Highlights from the show
Dr. Ricki Gibbs, principal at Warner Elementary School and a former elementary school teacher
How are schools managing these changes?
Metro schools are back from spring break this week — or at least as “back” as they will be for the foreseeable future. While children remain at home, teachers and school leaders are working to stay in touch with families.
Gibbs is the principal at Warner Elementary School in East Nashville. He said that for at least this week, his teachers’ role is to provide social-emotional support to families through this confusing time. Teachers are emailing, texting and calling parents to see how families are doing and to provide information about how to continue learning at home.
The goal right now, Gibbs says, is to focus on the core skills all children need, like regular reading and math practice. By having teachers keep open lines of communication with parents, he hopes to keep support for children in place during this time.
“Normally, the teacher provides the instruction and the parents provide the support. Now, we’re saying parents, can you take a couple minutes a day, read to your child, listen to your child read, practice some math, and then let’s use the teacher as a support.”
Schools are currently closed until April 3, though that date may change. If schools remain closed for the remainder of the semester, Gibbs says a big issue is guaranteeing equity for all children in the district, as not all families have the same access to online resources or supplemental educational materials.
“It becomes an equity issue if we try to go online because there are certain parts of our city [where] resources flow abundantly, when you think about families coming from higher socioeconomic status, so those families are able to access things if teachers wanted to teach virtually and things of that nature. But then we have other parts of the city that that’s just not the case.”
One listener asked if the schools should just treat this time as an extended summer and pick back up with regular learning in the fall. Again, Gibbs says, that won’t work for all students.
“We can’t just throw our hands up and say, ‘Well, summer just starts early and we’ll figure it out in the fall,’ because there’s so many boys and girls [who] are counting on the next month or two of school to continue to accelerate their progress and close educational gaps. We can’t afford to just give up the time.”
For now, he and his teachers are recommending families with internet access check out the resources available through the MNPS website. He wants to give families strategies to continue learning but says that he doesn’t expect to hold parents accountable for doing what a teacher can do.
“The slippery slope that I worry as we go throughout this crisis is everyone will think, ‘Well, if I have this information, I can be a teacher at home,’ and I think that that belittles all the training that our professional licensed teachers have gone through, and there’s a skill set that is truly required to engage a child in the learning process, to build their confidence, to make them excited about learning. That’s a magic that happens in the classroom.”
- Read with children aloud each day to practice literacy skills.
- Concentrate on one or two concrete skills to practice with children. With all the other stressors right now, do not expect home education to take the place of regular school.
- Reach out to your child’s school for support and advice.
How do we talk to children about what is happening right now?
Dr. Lloyda Williamson, chair of the psychiatry department at Meharry Medical College
Adults should keep in mind that children are observing how they are reacting to the current situation, says Williamson.
“I think the thing we have to understand is that children absorb information from their environment and from us all the time. So they are very attuned to how we behave, what they see us do, and what they hear us say. So taking that into consideration, they have thoughts about what they’re hearing about the coronavirus.”
We talk to children about serious things all the time, Williamson says, from safety when crossing the street to preparing for tornadoes. With that in mind, keeping a child’s environment age-appropriate can be helpful in managing anxieties. That could mean limiting children’s exposure to the news and explaining daily healthy behaviors, like handwashing, in a way that emphasizes the seriousness of personal health without increasing fear.
Depending on a child’s age, they may not have the words to describe what they’re feeling at the moment. Additionally, Williamson says, Middle Tennessee is still reeling from recent tornadoes, which could be an added stressor that children are currently feeling.
Williamson recommends parents incorporate activities like outside time, exercise, or cooking together to give children the opportunities to process their feelings.
“As you’re doing those activities, talk about, ‘Well, what is it like not being able to go to school? What do you miss about school? What are you looking forward to when you get back to school?’ And so you have some opportunity to talk about what’s on their mind. And they may then start to talk about things that they’re worried about or concerned about with the coronavirus or with a change in the routine.”
- Keep a routine — regular bedtimes and mealtimes, as well as scheduled activities, go a long way in making this strange time feel normal.
- Incorporate activities into the day that give children a chance to talk about their feelings.
- Look for changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping habits, as these could be indicators of stress levels.
What can parents do to support learning at home?
Lauren Cardwell, former public school teacher in Nashville, now homeschooling her four children
While Gibbs did say that parents are not expected to take the place of teachers, there is still a lot that families can do to support children’s learning outside of school.
Cardwell is a former public school teacher who homeschools her four children. Even homeschool families have felt the disruption, as daycares close and in-person homeschool groups move online. She says that this week has already resulted in more online time for her children and a more crowded house, as the whole family is home.
One listener asked how much school one should reasonably expect in a day. That depends, Cardwell says, on age and topics for children. For pre-K and kindergarten-aged children, she imagines most of the school work can happen in about an hour in the morning with reading, simple math and sight word practice. For older kids, it will depend on what their schools are sending home and expecting from them.
Because this is not regular school time for many families, Cardwell says parents could take this time to explore their own strengths with their children or dive into a topic their child is passionate about.
“Keep in mind that you cannot overnight recreate what the public or private school has been offering to your child five days a week. And that is not your job. Your job is to figure out how you can best serve your child and educate your child with the support and resources you have in this time.”
Of course, balancing everything can be incredibly difficult. Cardwell works part-time in addition to her role in homeschooling her children and says that her usual schedule involves doing her job work in the evenings and on weekends. What works for her may not work for everyone, but she says that keeping a regular schedule is necessary to having the whole family on a similar page.
“If every day looks different, it’s really hard for kids to know when they can come to you and when they can’t come to you. And you need some space to get your own work done.”
Keeping realistic expectations is something Cardwell emphasizes. Parents should anticipate more interruptions than they would get in an office, and plan for more breaks for their kids and themselves to deal with the stress of these major changes.
“I think in parenting, we are probably all very used to making mistakes as we go and trying our best to learn from those mistakes. The same goes and we are homeschooling our kids. And when we are trying to work from home, we are going to make mistakes. I make them all the time. So to try to learn, to forgive ourselves, forgive our kids, pick back up and move on.”
- Make a schedule for the family and check in regularly about how everyone is handling the out of school time.
- Focus on the core skills children can practice — reading and applied math skills, like those in cooking or counting, are great activities that can be done with lots of family members.
- Build alone time into the schedule. Having everyone at home can be overwhelming, and children and adults need time by themselves to take a break.