Editor’s note: As school systems across the nation continue to deal with the effects of COVID-19, parents in all 50 states have started to look to new and innovative alternatives to give their children a quality education. This article highlights several of these stories.

For parents contemplating a quick transition to homeschooling this fall, private distance learning can provide a convenient way to make it happen—as long as it’s done with care.

According to Kristy Horner, Home School Legal Defense Association Special Needs Educational Consultant, there are good reasons for homeschool parents to choose online instruction.

For example, Kristy pointed out that private distance learning can alleviate some of the pressure of evaluating and selecting curriculum. It’s a way to connect students with experienced instructors in subjects a parent may not feel completely comfortable teaching.

Online learning can also accommodate working parents who need time apart from one-on-one instruction so they can do their jobs.

Fortunately, added Kristy, there are ways to make sure distance learning works for your family.

Take care

First, a note of caution. Studies show that public school online programs have generally struggled.

Speculating on whether switching students to distance learning as a means of coping with COVID-19 is a good idea, researchers with the Brookings Institution recently looked at the academic performance for certain online public schools in Indiana from 2011 to 2017 to glean some information. Their conclusions were disheartening.

“We find the impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative,” these researchers declared.

Although the authors did not offer reasons for this learning deficit, anecdotes from public school teachers frustrated by student performance during this spring’s COVID-19 crisis may offer clues as to why online public schools seem to struggle.

The New York Times cited Colorado 7th-grade teacher Clint Silva, who lamented that his pupils “have not consistently engaged with remote assignments.”

Silva speculated that these young people have not been receiving the help and attention they need from their parents, either because their moms and dads work outside the home or because the parents lack the technical skills to render proper aid.

As Silva told the New York Times: “We want to hold kids accountable. We want to see their progress. Instead, we are logging in for an hour a day, and kids are turning their cameras off and staying quiet and not talking to us.”

Then there are the warnings by health experts that students of all ages should limit the amount of time they spend sitting and staring at electronic screens of any kind.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents restrict preschoolers to no more than an hour a day on electronic devices in order to prevent disrupted sleep, behavioral problems, and loss of social skills.

According to Education Week, new findings released by JAMA Pediatrics show that, even for older students, “more overall time on screens each day, regardless of its quality, is linked to lower language development.”

More specifically,

a long-term, ongoing study of pre-adolescents shows those who spend hours of screen time a day across phones, tablets, and video games had lower cognitive skills, particularly in translating two-dimensional to three-dimensional objects. And studies of older adolescents and adults suggest reading in digital formats over long periods of time may reduce reading flow and comprehension, particularly for longer texts.

Parents make the difference

According to Kristy, who spent 12 years as a public school distance-learning teacher, these difficulties don’t mean that students never thrive online or that parents should dismiss remote classes as ineffective. “I think it’s important to get the message across that there are healthy ways to use online classes,” she said.

As with anything else involving raising children, the key to ensuring successful distance learning is parental involvement.

Or, as HSLDA Senior Counsel Scott Woodruff puts it, “Know your child. Don’t just turn on your computer and walk away.

This advice is echoed by the researchers with JAMA Pediatrics. As Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary told Education Week: “You can monitor what kids are watching, you can kind of help children’s learning because you can tell them what’s happening on the screen. This can help children sort of make sense of what they’re watching and learn from it.”

Still other education advocates encourage students to engage all their senses, not just the few that are typically employed in online learning.

Child-development specialist Judy Arnall recently wrote that “experiential learning encompasses sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, as well as talking and feeling, which embed learning in the long-term memory portion of the brain.”

For these reasons, she urges parents to incorporate a more holistic approach to education—even if this holistic approach is added on alongside distance learning. Under parental guidance, students should draw, write notes by hand, talk about what they do or don’t understand, share their feelings, and cringe at the odor of formaldehyde as they dissect real frogs—or simply get out of their seats and move.

Choose wisely

Kristy agrees.

When appraising any online learning program, she said, “make sure it’s a good fit. Make sure it’s the best choice for your lifestyle, your family, and your kids.”

Kristy advocates evaluating each child to see if they can use the appropriate technology effectively and responsibly.

“Older kids are usually more adept and self-starting,” she said. If they appear comfortable directing themselves in an online course or two, Kristy added, “that can help you spend more hands-on time with younger kids.”

Another benefit Kristy sees in having older kids do distance learning is that it gives them experience with computers and software—essential tools in the digital era.

“They’re going to need those skills in the workplace,” she pointed out. She added that digital studies “sometimes spark an interest in technology-related careers.”

Setting boundaries

As for the dangers inherent in letting young people use such powerful tools as computers and the internet, Kristy said, “the main thing is to be intentional. Before you get started, you have discussions about what is acceptable and establish an agreement."

The important thing is that parents ensure they’re doing what’s best for their kids.

“If you’re not sure it’s a good fit, you can try an online class for free,” suggested Kristy. “That’s the beauty of homeschooling. You’re not locked in. You can always try something different.”

Kristy’s tips

Why do so many parents love online learning?

  • Makes scheduling easier for working parents
  • Lets self-motivated students work at their own pace
  • Offers something for every budget
  • Simplifies grading and recordkeeping
  • Eases burden of selecting curriculum
  • Allows customization to a student’s needs and interests
  • Helps teach computer and technology skills

Resources for keeping students safe online