Homeschooling Your Kids Because of the Outbreak? An Expert (My Mother) Has Some Tips

Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

Public school systems are shutting down because of the novel coronavirus, stranding children at home. Parents who can afford to work from home thus find themselves juggling child care with a new role: that of teacher. Families should homeschool if they can, Donald Trump said during a Monday afternoon press conference. But that’s easier said than done. Homeschooling done well is difficult even for parents with years of experience; stories of abuse and educational neglect are common.

But parents who can’t send their children to school also don’t have many other options at the moment. Though school systems have made lessons available or switched to digital instruction if resources allow it, someone has to supervise, and that someone is probably a parent. So I decided to interview an expert. Melody Jones is a former Sunday school teacher, a fishing enthusiast, and a longtime assistant band instructor in the local public school system. She is also my mother. Not only did she give me life, she homeschooled me and my younger brother for many years. Having trouble with all this social isolation? Are your children getting on your nerves? She remembers your pain and is here to sympathize.

This interview has been edited for length and condensed for clarity.

First things first. Did you get the penguin video I sent you?

Yes, I loved it!

The penguins are having a better time than the rest of us at the moment. You live in southwest Virginia, where schools have shut down for two weeks. Everything else is mostly open, right?

Well, there are things closing as we speak. Our local Chili’s has even closed.

Oh, God. 

Yes. So things that you could go out and do if you felt comfortable going out, you might not be able to. But all the restaurants are setting up a pickup or delivery service.

Okay, we should talk business now. How would you describe your role in public schools at the moment?

Well, I’m auxiliary staff; I’m not on salary. And that is a problem because anyone like that, people like substitute teachers and tutors, when the schools aren’t open, we’re not getting an income.

So you’ve lost two weeks of income, right?

That’s correct. Over $400.

With the schools shut, you’re not only losing income. Kids are home, and their parents are trying to supplement lesson plans. During a press conference, Donald Trump, your favorite person, even suggested to parents that they homeschool for now. [Ed. note: Trump is not Melody’s favorite person.] What do you think about all this? 

I did not hear about the press conference. My reaction is that it’s a good suggestion but easier said than done. You know, I think parents should get involved and try to supplement lesson plans. It will give them some really good insights into what their children’s teachers do all day, if they haven’t ever tried that.

What advice do you have for parents who aren’t used to having their kids around all day?

Well, you’ve got to sit down and get organized. We’ve all been thrown a curve here. Everyone’s anxious. No one was planning on this. You have to sit down as a family and make a plan and say, Okay, we know we’ve got two weeks, maybe more. And so you need to come up with a structure to your day or, you know, the inmates are going to take over the asylum.

I know a lot of parents are going to focus on not just supplementing the schoolwork but teaching life skills, like here’s how you clean a toilet, here’s how you fix your lunch. You know, different things, or do a load of laundry. Whatever is age-appropriate. They’re going to try to come up with some life skills for their kids to engage in.

You don’t need me to remind you, but we often didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. What advice would you give to families who are in a similar economic situation right now? 

First of all, get your kids involved in cooking. Cooking from scratch saves money. You’re also teaching how to be frugal. A chicken carcass can be turned into soup. Things like that. So you’re showing how to utilize the resources you have. And even if you have money, it teaches you to be respectful of your resources, I think. So it’s a win-win situation to learn how to cook, to learn how to care for yourself. The other thing is, the outdoors is safe, as long as you’re not close to people. And the outdoors is free.

That’s hard in New York City.

Yeah, it’s hard in your setting. But in Maine, where I grew up, the outdoors was a free playground. Also, you can learn a lot from a trip through an old cemetery. In the old cemetery in Camden, Maine, across from my childhood house, you found the results of the influenza epidemic that swept the country. You found plots with entire families buried within a few months of one another. So you learned history. Grim history, but you learned about history.

It was a morbid lesson for kids!

Yes. But it’s a reminder, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

So if your kid’s not washing their hands, just take them to the cemetery and say, look —

See what’s going to happen!

So, you know, there are lots of things you can do. Of course, it’s probably not wise to go into your public library right now, but maybe they have stuff you could access online. That would be interesting to look at.

What was the most challenging thing about homeschooling for you?

Being able to afford to do it right. Many homeschoolers would disagree with me on this, but I say it takes money to provide the best textbooks and other resources for your kids.

Is it weird to be in this moment where Trump’s talking about homeschooling and a lot of other parents are kind of having to try to figure it out on the fly?

Yeah. Because we did it, it seems like no big deal to me. I also had teaching experience, so it didn’t seem foreign. But I think parents, if they start to think about it — you’re a natural teacher more than you think you are. Are you going to be perfect? No. But start out with what you do know and learn. You know, you’re only going to learn by diving in.

Thanks, Mom. I’ll try to find some more penguin videos. 

Well, that’s good. And your dad loves cheetahs, so if you found any cheetah cub videos, he’d like those. They’re his favorite animals.

I don’t think I knew that. 

Well, we’ve been watching things on PBS, and he just really loves them. He thinks they’re beautiful animals, and they are. I have to agree.

I will do my best. 

Okay. Good luck with your article.

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A Few Homeschooling Tips, Courtesy of My Mother