Millions of parents are emergency homeschoolers now. They’re adapting gamely to school closures necessitated by COVID-19. But parents are worried about learning in this brave new world. In a Gallup poll released April 8, 49% said they’re concerned the pandemic will negatively impact their child’s education. 

Full impacts are unknowable. Learning is different; life is in crisis. But there’s reason to be heartened about at-home learning. A former homeschooler, I recall the ethos of a longtime homeschooler friend: “School is life; life is school.” 

It’s true for everyone now. 

Emergency homeschooling has its own irregular contours, of course. Schools, though closed, are open for learning. They’re working intensively to deploy resources: 83% of parents, Gallup found, are using online distance-learning programs from their child’s school. 

Emergency homeschooling is a necessity, not a choice. Parents are simultaneously shouldering work, health, and financial burdens. Yet, 24% in Gallup’s poll are homeschooling with materials they’ve chosen themselves, 16% are leveraging free online learning programs, 3% are using paid programs. Some are clearly combining approaches or supplementing school programs.   

Emergency homeschooling underscores serious inequities. Four percent of parents aren’t using any approaches above. Moreover, Gallup’s poll, administered online, didn’t include homes without internet. Concerned about inequities, schools are varying distance-learning formats. They’re deploying devices, mobile hotspots  even Wi-Fi-enabled school buses for student access. Still, supports and resources vary widely. 

“The variability is a source of stress,” says Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success. “Everyone is in such different situations.” She encourages parents: Do the best you can, understanding that “learning happens all the time.”   

Emphasize skills over content, Pope says. Many non-academic things kids do at school, they’re doing at home. “Those are skills,” she says, referencing problem-solving, critical thinking, communication about coping. “There is stress in every family, even if you’re well-resourced.”   

Give kids “voice and choice,” Pope adds, building engagement. Once formal lessons end, kids can delve into intense interests. She also favors abundant “PDF”  playtime, downtime, family time. 

For younger children especially, reading skills are “connected to academic achievement,” Pope says. Longstanding research shows pleasure reading during summer school closures mitigates learning loss.   

Voice and choice matter here, too. A three-year study from literacy expert Richard Allington, evaluating summer reading programs for disadvantaged students, found giving kids self-selected books  even the delightfully silly “Captain Underpants” series with its talking toilets  boosted reading achievement. Kudos, Professor Poopypants!   

Kids do like funny. Scholastic’s latest reading report found 52% wanted books that made them laugh; 23% wanted books that helped them forget real life. Humor and literary escapism? More important now. 

Meanwhile, learning supports for families are growing. First Book aims to distribute eight million books to kids in need. Virtual visits from Durham-based Book Harvest provide “a lifeline of literacy coaching to parents who find themselves homeschool teachers, as well as moms and dads,” says communications manager Daniele Berman. Book Harvest posts a daily resource and hosts a weekly Facebook Live broadcast. Wide Open School, newly launched by Common Sense Media, offers online resources. 

My three-year homeschooling experience was long ago. Its contours were regular, predictable; I chose it. Yet the most resonant learning was unplanned. It happened the year my daughter and I volunteered, weekly, for an organization serving adults with disabilities. That experience shaped us for life learning, later: helping my elderly stepfather cope with a disabling injury. 

That daughter is a college freshman now. She’s back at our kitchen table, distance-learning through semester’s end.  

Here, again, and everywhere: School is life; life is school. 

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.