KEOTA — When school was canceled for three weeks, Brandy Sieren’s younger 12-year-old son asked if he could stick to Mid-Prairie Middle School’s schedule from home.
So Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, Max spends about 30 minutes each day doing a science experiment, reading, exercising, learning about social studies and practicing math. Then he and his 14-year-old brother Mason, who has Down syndrome, break for lunch and spend the afternoon playing outdoors and walking the family’s 12-week-old puppy.
“I’m actually enjoying it — I might be one of the few,” Sieren, who works part-time at a church, said. “We’re doing all kinds of fun things, baking, learning, doing stuff around the house, cooking. It’s going OK.”
With Iowa schools closed until at least April 13, families across the state are on short notice trying to provide something resembling home school for their children, teachers are reaching out to their students via video chats and school districts are tucking work sheets into lunch bags at meal distribution sites.
“I’m asking for their input on what they want to do, so it doesn’t make it feel like schoolwork,” Sieren said. “We’re just trying to make the very best of the situation and try to enjoy it.”
Experts used to schooling from home say that’s good practice. They also recommend setting a routine, keeping periods of schoolwork short and remembering the social and emotional well-being of kids being kept away from their friends and teachers.
Tom Ertz, director of the Marion Home School Assistance Program, said while the mass closure has put parents into “the role of primary educator for the time being,” it’s also given them time they normally wouldn’t have with their children.
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“I would consider academic time secondary,” said Ertz, who manages Iowa’s largest home school program. “I’m not denying the importance of academics, but this is a unique opportunity to spend time with your kids.”
When students return to class, they’ll likely pick up where they left off before Spring Break, he said, so pushing forward on their teacher’s curricular course might not be the best choice. Instead, he recommended “doing things you never get time to do.”
“A lot of learning can happen from playing a game, reading books together aloud or watching a movie,” said Ertz, who recently watched a film about an 1862 hot-air balloon mission to study the weather, “The Aeronauts,” with his sons.
“They say ‘never waste a crisis,’ usually in the context of a political agenda, but when it comes to education — don’t waste current events,” he added. “Teach kids about science and politics and critical thinking.
“There’s a host of social studies that can be learned in the crisis.”
Flexibility is key
Traditional home-school families are carrying on as normal, apart from enrichment course cancellations, Ertz said.
Students enrolled in one of Iowa’s three public virtual K-12 programs also have been relatively unaffected as well, said Melissa Brown, director of schools for Pearson Online and Blended Learning. She works with Iowa Connections Academy.
“For the last 20 years, Pearson Online and Blended Learning has helped operate online schools — it’s taken nearly that long to perfect what’s happening in our online spaces,” Brown said. “And now we have schools who are trying to do that in a weeklong period or a two-weeklong period.”
Parents thrown into facilitating online learning should mind comfort in a routine, she said, though flexibility is important.
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“My daughter likes to sleep in, and there’s no reason we can’t delay (the start of her day) a little bit,” said Brown, who works from home in Indiana, where her daughter’s high school is closed. “And that affords me the opportunity to get some work early, and then her routine starts a little later.”
Aside from the academics, she also recommended parents make sure their children are in the right mind-set to learn.
“It’s really important for me as her teacher for now to just really make sure she is doing well emotionally, physically — that she feels safe about what’s going on in the world,” she said. “We know when students don’t feel safe, their learning can feel disrupted.”
While school districts in Iowa aren’t requiring students to attend classes virtually while school buildings are closed, Lakeview Elementary teacher Keela Uhlenkamp organized a video conference this week with her preschoolers in Solon.
“We all miss our students immensely,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not seeing them for the next three weeks.”
Her four- and five-year-old students were shy at first, sitting in front of screens at home. But soon, they were telling stories to Uhlencamp and each other about swimming, riding their bikes and playing with their siblings.
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