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How to gear up for a year of long-distance remote learning

Angelina Hidalgo, left, helped her five-year-old daughter Angelys with her pre-kindergarten studies in April.
Angelina Hidalgo, left, helped her five-year-old daughter Angelys with her pre-kindergarten studies in April.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

OK, parents, whether we like it or not we’re about to begin a school year like no other. And for many of us, that means our living rooms are now classrooms.

The challenge ahead for parents was underlined by Boston’s decision on Friday to begin the delayed school year with all classes conducted remotely. And even when Boston returns to the classroom, students will continue to spend much of the school week working from home.

So it’s time for a crash course in tools and skills that will make this a little bit more manageable.

It won’t be easy, especially for low-income families who might not have reliable Internet access, much less the ability to purchase a computer for every child. But even the most affluent will face massive challanges mastering not only the technology of remote learning but also the right teaching techniques and even the proper management of each child’s time — the stuff we usually leave to the teachers.

Technology alone can’t solve these problems. But it’s the right place to start.

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Begin with a decent-quality computer —ideally one per child. Your best bet is a laptop with a built-in camera and microphone for video conferencing. It doesn’t have to be state-of-the-art. You can even buy used. But it should be no more than three or four years old.

If you’re running a Windows machine, get Windows 10, because Microsoft no longer provides security upgrades for the older Windows 7 operating system. Apple’s Mac machines are a somewhat more expensive option, or you can go for a Chromebook. Low-end versions can be had for as little as $200, and they’re more than adequate for most students.

But don’t buy anything without contacting your local school system. Some are handing out computers to students who lack them, at no cost.

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In Boston, the school system will loan a new Chromebook to every student, including those who already have computers. Chief information officer Mark Racine said Boston had planned to distribute the computers before the pandemic, as part of an broader effort to make the system’s network more secure and to provide consistent schooling to all students.

In addition, Roxbury Community College says it will provide a loaner laptop to each part-time student on request, while a new full-time enrollee will be given a machine they can keep after completing a degree or certificate program.

If the schools won’t come through with a computer, you have other options.

Tech Goes Home, a nonprofit that serves Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, and other communities in Greater Boston, offers 15 hours of introductory computer training. Anyone who completes the course is eligible to buy a new Chromebook for just $50. The national organization PCs for People sells refurbished Windows computers to low-income families for as little as $75.

A computer is nearly useless without an Internet connection, yet thousands of low-income families remain unplugged. Boston has already handed out 2,600 Internet hot-spot devices to low-income households, Racine said, and is working to provide still more. These hot spots connect to 4G cellphone networks, which deliver sluggish but adequate connection speeds, at least for a single user.

Still, “a hot spot is a bandaid,” Racine said. It’s better to get a basic cable broadband package with much faster connection speeds.

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Verizon, for instance,has a low-income broadband plan that charges $19.95 a month for a 200-megabit connection. Rival Comcast offers 25 megabits per second for $10 a month, with the first two months free. Comcast also lets eligible families buy a refurbished Windows 10 computer for $150.

Racine is working with these companies to get more homes connected and said the Boston city government’s Digital Equity Fund will pick up the monthly tab for some households.

Make sure there’s a strong Wi-Fi signal in the home classroom. If need be, spring for a new router. A good one runs about $80, but for $150 or so you can get one with the latest Wi-Fi 6 technology, designed for high performance even with lots of wireless devices connected to it. Only a handful of today’s computers and smartphones are compatible with Wi-Fi 6, but it will soon be the new standard, so it’s an investment in the future.

I geeked out during the pandemic and ran an Ethernet cable between the first and second floors of our house for a big boost in online speeds. But if you’re less ambitious, consider a powerline Wi-Fi adapter. These little devices plug into power outlets and turn your home’s electrical wiring into a high-speed data network. An entry-level kit costs less than $100.

Put your children in front of electronic devices all day, and they’ll be tempted by time wasters like Roblox or Minecraft — or worse. Consider using software tools to block access to useless or harmful sites. Many broadband providers let you block access to certain sites, permanently or only part of the time. That way, your son can still enjoy Roblox, but only after, say, 3 pm.

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I didn’t own a printer until the schools shut down. But my 9-year-old boy needed an HP monochrome laser printer for making hard copies of his school worksheets. It was $150 or so and prints well.

If you insist on a color inkjet, consider signing up for a service like HP Instant Ink, which automatically sends you refills at a discounted price when cartridges run low. Or consider buying an Epson EcoTank printer, which you can refill by pouring in fresh ink from a bottle — so no more of those half-used cartridges going to waste.

The toughest challenge, however, may be time management, not technology.

“The number one thing for parents . . . is setting up a routine and trying to get kids to keep to this schedule,” said Tanner Higgin, of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides tech advice to families.

If possible, dedicate a part of the home as a classroom. Get the children out of bed, neatly dressed and ready to work at the same time each day. Insist they keep to a schedule, ideally printed out so they can review it at a glance. And store the schedule online so parents can easily review and update it as needed.

One handy option comes from Google. Up to six family members with Gmail accounts can sign up for a unified Google calendar accessible to everyone in the household. This makes it easy to create study and play schedules for every child. You can do the same with other online services, such as Yahoo Calendar. There are also smartphone scheduling apps like Cozi and TimeTree.

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With luck, the new school year should be better organized than the ad-hoc remote teaching of the spring, with schools trying to reproduce the traditional classroom experience through online “learning management systems” such as Google Classroom, Clever, and Moodle.

Higgin said parents should find out which system their schools will use and even take a test drive to better understand what will be expected of their children, and themselves.

Those of us with younger children will have no choice but to stay home with them, or make some other child-care arrangements. But while teens can be safely left alone, they still need adult supervision. Consider an inexpensive security camera such as Amazon’s Blink Mini, which can transmit live video to your smartphone. These $35 cameras also offer two-way audio, so you can pop in for a friendly chat. It seems less like spying that way.

But it still won’t seem like schooling. We learned the hard way last spring that real schooling happens in real classrooms with caring teachers and friendly classmates. Until COVID-19 is defeated, we’ll have to settle for technology. It’s a poor substitute, but it’s all we’ve got.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.