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Remote learning for kids means more work for parents

The fall is going to be better than spring, but that’s a low bar to clear.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley spoke during a March coronavirus news conference with Governor Charlie Baker.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley spoke during a March coronavirus news conference with Governor Charlie Baker.Sam Doran/Pool

It’s the question on so many working parents’ minds as it becomes obvious the school year will be far from normal: Can I survive remote learning?

Some of you reading those words might start to break out in hives, just remembering what it was like when schools had to close abruptly in March to contain the coronavirus. Overnight, it turned many of us into tech support for our kindergartners and first-graders.

At least in the spring, there were few expectations from public school districts. Now, with more time to figure out what to do, schools will be demanding more accountability this academic year. Among other measures: giving out grades and taking attendance. In normal times, that’s a good thing. In pandemic times, that means parents will be expected to keep their remote learners on track.

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For straight talk on what we’re facing, I went straight to the top of the K-12 food chain: State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who tried to assure me that the parents will be all right.

“The education sector owes a debt of gratitude for families for really diving in last spring during this pandemic,” Riley said.

That was a good way to start our conversation, but then the reality of education in the age of COVID-19 set in. Riley confirmed that remote learning will be “more robust” than the spring. The good news: Your kids will actually be learning something. The bad news: Parents will still need to help.

“We’ve issued strong guidance about how to ramp up the educational experience for kids,” said Riley. “While that will never completely absolve parents from having to be involved, we hope they have to be less involved than last spring with this guidance.”

To which, I replied: “Really?

“We are going to put out more guidance that will allow for a better experience for both students, teachers, and families,” Riley added.

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That’s not exactly the same as saying parents won’t become part-time teachers and/or part-time IT workers again. Each child is different; some will need more hand-holding, while others are quite independent.

I believe Riley when he says it’s possible for the experience to be better than the spring only because it was so awful then. But the longer duration is what might send parents over the edge: nine months of some form of remote learning versus three months.

Even with about 70 percent of school districts in Massachusetts going hybrid or in-person, that still leaves a lot of students taking classes online. This is the hybrid schedule for my kids: two half-days one week, three half-days the other week. That works out to six to nine hours of in-person instruction a week, while the rest is remote. The logistics of in-person instruction alone (8:35 a.m. to 11:35 a.m.) are enough to drive a working parent batty.

For those parents who are able to work remotely, being worried about finding the time to help with your kids’ online classes can feel like a first-world problem. Parents whose jobs don’t allow them to work from home are in a much more precarious situation. That is why more than ever employers need to step up to help with this pandemic-induced child care crisis, in the form of such things as flexible schedules and increased subsidies. The impact on workplaces is real: A recent Care.com survey of working parents found that if schools don’t reopen fully and stay open, 73 percent said that they may have to make major changes at work, including amending their schedule and or even quitting.

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What gnaws at me is how students, parents, and teachers will launch a herculean effort to get through this abnormal school year, yet it will pale in comparison to what could have been.

“Education is not going to be the same right now as it was pre-pandemic. But the more students can get into class [in person], the better the educational quality is going to be,” Riley said. “Remote learning can work, and it can be effective. I don’t think it can be as effective as in-person instruction.”

Teachers unions, however, have fought tooth and nail to start the school year remotely because they are concerned about safety. Data and many doctors support reopening most Massachusetts schools for some in-person instruction. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is really about public health and how much is politics.

”Some have questioned the motivations of the teachers unions,” said Riley. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say one way or the other.”

But Riley didn’t shy away from pointing out that based on the data, more school districts should be offering in-person instruction. Just compare Massachusetts with Connecticut, two states with seven-day positivity rates well below 5 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Only 70 percent of Massachusetts districts are offering some in-person instruction, while 98 percent of Connecticut districts are.

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“One would ask why our numbers are going to be lower than that, and I think it is because of the teachers unions,” said Riley.

Riley delayed the start of the school year to give teachers an additional 10 days of training to prepare for their return. For those with child care issues, Riley issued guidelines last week that teachers in districts with remote learning be allowed to bring their children to school with them, and that children of teachers get priority, along with high-need students, for full-time, in-person instruction.

“We want to support our teachers,” said Riley.

Riley himself has two children attending public schools. He said when their schools are ready for in-person instruction, “I’m sending my kids back.”

If being in school is good enough for Jeff Riley’s kids, it should be good enough for the rest of us.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.