During this pandemic, Leah Dela Cruz has taken the idea of learning anywhere to heart. Ms. Dela Cruz lives with her husband and their two children, Lauren, 6, and Rocco, 16 months, in a two-bedroom, 750-square foot apartment in San Mateo, Calif. Since Covid-19 hit, Ms. Dela Cruz’s mother has been living with the family as well, meaning that Ms. Dela Cruz and her husband share one bedroom with their children while her mother is in the other.
And with Lauren’s school closed and Ms. Dela Cruz furloughed from her own position as a Montessori preschool teacher, she took over her daughter’s education, knowing she’d have to get creative with both budget and space in order to educate her children from home.
Across the U.S., parents are weighing agonizing choices about in-person versus virtual schooling this fall. Many parents are struggling to support their children through remote learning while they themselves have full-time jobs or shift work with unpredictable schedules that can upend family lives. Some parents with the resources and with available space are trying pandemic learning pods, in which a small group of students gather together each day to learn, either through synchronized virtual instruction or with a teacher. But once the question of how children will learn this year is answered, another equally pressing one arises: Where, exactly, will this learning take place?
With the living room as her only option for a classroom, Ms. Dela Cruz gave away a big table and a bookshelf and created two tidy spaces, one on the left with a TV tray as a desk for Lauren and one on the right with a play area for Rocco. Lauren uses an old iPad for distance learning, and arts and crafts activities are done with simple materials like Popsicle sticks and colored pencils.
Ms. Dela Cruz has embraced the Montessori concept of rotating toys — bringing out only one or two at a time — both to keep her children interested and also to save space.
“My advice is less is more,” she said. “We tend to shower kids with lots of toys, but you can be creative and resourceful with what you have.”
Some people get lucky and find that, after a bit of planning and a lot of elbow grease, the solution is right at hand.
When Adil Iqbal and his wife, Roohi, closed on a new home in Potomac, Md. in July, the old barn on the property was an afterthought. Mr. Iqbal, the chief executive of a market research strategy firm, and Ms. Iqbal, an education admissions consultant, had no desire to keep livestock. They simply wanted to move from the family’s previous home in Northern Virginia so that their two daughters, Anya, 11, and Sonia, 13, could be closer to their school.
But as the Covid-19 pandemic dragged on, it became increasingly clear that their daughters wouldn’t be returning to that school anytime soon. And the barn, with its peeling paint and abandoned piles of hay, could serve as a space for remote learning, both for Anya and Sonia as well as a handful of friends.
In the Iqbals’ case, Sonia will study in the barn on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; Anya will have the space on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each girl will be joined by five other classmates in the same grade level. Parents will supervise the students on a rotating schedule, but they aren’t planning to hire a teacher. All the students will be distance learning, following along virtually in the barn with their school’s online curriculum.
“We think of it as a WeWork for kids,” said Mr. Iqbal, referring to the real estate company that specializes in co-working spaces.
The families — 11 in total — have agreed to split the costs of desks, chairs and lockers, about $250 per family. The Iqbals are putting in new floors, and have also bought a picnic table for lunchtime and a Google router to strengthen the Wi-Fi signal from the main house, and added a smart lock to their home’s front door so that students who need a restroom break can let themselves in.
The barn’s primary appeal, Mr. Iqbal said, was that his daughters will have to get dressed, take their backpacks and leave the house each morning — just as if they were actually heading to school.
“Besides the social isolation and the desire to have some interaction with other kids their age, parents are also struggling with the lack of structure,” he said. “The option of having a separate structure on our property that we could repurpose without much expense — it gives everyone, including our kids, a little separation from home. Even if it’s just walking across the backyard.”
Parents who can’t free themselves from their own jobs during school hours or don’t have the space in their homes for learning areas, as well as those who can’t afford to pay for private tutors and home renovations, worry that remote learning and the trend of pandemic pods will further exacerbate racial and socioeconomic gulfs in academic achievement
Some cities are scrambling to offer stopgaps: In San Francisco and Indianapolis, public spaces are being converted into “learning hubs”; New York City is to offer free child care for up to 50,000 students a day; a district near Denver is allowing some students to complete their remote learning from classrooms that would otherwise sit empty.
And many families like the Iqbals, eager to create the best learning space they can for their children while still keeping costs at bay, are hoping that creative thinking and a less-is-more attitude will help them ride out the coming months with their children at home.
“Parents shouldn’t think they need a lot of money or space to set up a meaningful learning space,” said Tasha C. Ring, an educational consultant who has been hosting home-school co-ops, which she calls micro-schools, through her company Meridian Learning for more than a decade. “Meaningful learning can happen anytime and anywhere, but it helps if the environment is prepared to meet the specific needs of the children and young adults in it.”
For some parents, the simplest way to do that is by turning their entire home into a school.
Nwamaka Unaka built a micro-school from scratch in her four-bedroom home in Houston. Called Black Girl Magic School, the pod consists of five preschoolers, including Ms. Unaka’s daughter, Ure, 4, who previously attended a private church preschool together. The girls’ parents have hired their daughters’ previous teacher, Shekela Banks, to now run the school in Ms. Unaka’s home each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and each family pays a total of $250 a week to cover costs, which include Ms. Banks’s salary, daily cleaning, supplies and utilities.
The spaces for learning are everywhere: Ure’s upstairs playroom has been converted into a Montessori classroom; the downstairs bathroom has been made into a sanitizing station for each child to wash her hands before she enters the home. The kitchen counter serves as a STEM center for science experiments and hands-on learning; in the tidy backyard, play equipment has been added for exercise and outdoor fun.
For Ms. Unaka, who continues to work remotely as chief of staff for a Houston city councilwoman, school days can now feel like a game of whack-a-mole, where she is constantly on the move to find quiet spaces to sit with her computer. “Wherever the kids aren’t, that’s where I go,” she said. “I often work in my daughter’s bedroom. But it brings me joy during such a crazy, scary and lonely time to hear their five little voices upstairs.”
Tracy Walton, who is separated from her husband and lives in Elizabethtown, Pa., has given up her laundry room and her closets to maintain a semblance of order. Ms. Walton shares a two-bedroom apartment with her daughters Guiliana, 8, and Allison, 3, and when lockdowns began in March, the first thing she did was empty her daughters’ walk-in closet and turn it into a study space for her elder daughter.
“We call it Giuli’s office,” she said. “If she has Zoom meetings, she goes into her ‘office’ and shuts the door.”
For the upcoming school year, Ms. Walton has agreed to have two other children — a third-grader like Guiliana and a preschooler — join her daughters at home each day, and so the oft-vacant laundry room is now an additional study space (Ms. Walton does laundry at her mother’s house nearby). Both third graders will be learning remotely; Ms. Walton will supervise them while caring for the preschoolers.
To make a play area for the preschoolers, she put a loft above her older daughter’s bed and created a fort beneath the raised frame, adding a tiny table and decorations of dinosaurs.
“The best part of this thing is I haven’t spent any money so far,” she said. “There are some really cool, fully decorated spaces I’ve seen online, and that’s awesome but expensive. For something that is hopefully temporary, I wouldn’t be willing to be put in that time and effort.”
Other families are creating outdoor spaces that they hope will outlast the pandemic. Amy Winston is involving both her children, who are 5 and 7, in the process of building a tree house in their Boston-area backyard. They will do their school’s virtual learning inside the tree house, joined by two other local children. They plan to use the treehouse during all four seasons. The children are graduates of a preschool that followed the German idea of “waldkindergartens,” or “forest schools,” so in colder weather they know to wear extra layers or, if need be, move lessons inside the main house.
The key, Ms. Winston said, is that they feel a connection to the space where they are learning. “We wanted them to feel like it was theirs,” Ms. Winston said. “I don’t want my children to hate school, and here, I hope we’re creating something that will help them love school this year.”
Samia Masood, a former elementary schoolteacher and mother of two boys, offers consultation and educational support to parents through her website, ThinkandTeach.com. Her younger son is also immunocompromised, so her family has been completely quarantined in their Richmond, Va., townhouse since March.
Her advice for creating a successful home learning environment comes down to three key points: plan, be flexible, and put yourself in your child’s shoes.
The ideal home learning environment, Ms. Masood said, is not the one that has the most floor space or the most Instagram-worthy design. It’s the one that most empowers a child to take control of their learning.
“Place items where children can reach them so they have a sense of independence. Get down on their eye level and figure out what is in reach and within their space,” she said.
And most importantly, think about your unique child. Ms. Masood’s older son has A.D.H.D., so when sitting at a desk becomes troublesome for him, she offers him an indoor trampoline.
“Most parents already know this stuff, it’s just about bringing it into awareness,” she said. “It’s about trusting your gut, and creating a space with that in mind.”
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