School students across Palm Beach County, the State of Florida and the nation had an unexpected week off from school — and due to the COVID-19 coronavirus emergency, students are likely to be home for quite some time.
However, while students will be away from school, that doesn’t mean there will be no school. In a press conference Wednesday, March 18, Palm Beach County School District Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy announced that schools would be closed until at least April 15.
However, Fennoy and the school district’s senior leadership detailed plans to roll out remote instruction via computer, internet and television by the end of March.
Parents can find details of the “District Instructional Continuity Support Plan” on the “Coronavirus Information” page at www.palmbeachschools.org.
While students were to have March 23 through March 27 off for Spring Break, this new development has left parents with no other choice than to homeschool their children for weeks, if not months.
Along with the many challenges that follow this new reality, families are also struggling to navigate the stormy seas of “social distancing,” self-quarantines and business closures.
Acreage resident Laura Cooper — a mother of four children under 10 and co-owner of two small businesses — is accustomed to the challenges of everyday motherhood. Now, with her two school-age daughters stuck at home and calls to social distancing on high alert, Cooper has contracted another type of illness: cabin fever.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t just stuck in the house the whole time,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be really difficult until we get into a groove.”
Cooper has always limited her children’s screen time, but said that she has found herself having to rely on the tablet to occupy her toddler so she can continue working and helping her older children complete their studies.
“You kind of have to go with the flow and do the best that you can do, because that’s all there is to do,” Cooper said. “I think that as the weeks go on, it’ll get easier because you’ll form a routine.”
Despite these early challenges that many parents are facing, Cheryl Trzasko, the chair and president of Palm Beach County Homeschoolers Inc., said homeschooling may end up working in their favor.
“Many who start homeschooling because of a crisis find their kids learn more and enjoy it more,” Trzasko said. “Many stick with homeschooling long-term.”
Jenny Heyman, a Wellington resident and homeschool mother of five boys, sympathizes with parents like Cooper, who are doing all they can to adjust to their new role as teachers.
“I don’t know if I would have ever thought I could homeschool if I had to start with all five at once,” Heyman said. “I got to get my feet wet in kindergarten, where there’s no pressure. So, I do really feel for people who all of a sudden have all this responsibility.”
As Heyman has been a full-time, homeschool mom since her now 16-year-old was able to enroll, she offered some personal tips for those parents who have been, in her words, “thrown into the deep end.”
“I think that one thing that parents probably are feeling like they need to do is to take up the whole amount of hours that their kids would have been in school,” Heyman said. “I would say to realize how much more you’re probably accomplishing in a couple of hours than they would be doing in a day.”
Because of the smaller “classroom” size, children whose parents are available to work with them can take advantage of the one-on-one attention they may be lacking in traditional schooling.
“When we’re talking about elementary kids, how long is it going to take? The recommendation is that you read for at least 20 minutes a day,” Heyman explained. “So then, let’s say you do math for 30 minutes, you do writing for 20 or 30 minutes. You’ve got your major bases covered there, and you’ve barely even hit an hour and a half.”
Heyman also encouraged parents to not be afraid to think outside the box, as there are multiple educational resources out there, such as healthy, engaging and informative YouTube channels.
“It doesn’t all have to be the kind of traditional things and ways that they would have learned in school,” Heyman explained, “but it doesn’t mean they’re not learning.”
Heyman also suggested joining some of the homeschool groups on Facebook to find resources and help from those who have done it before.
“I think that the people who are in those groups right now are the kinds of people who are more than happy to point people in the right direction and help people get started,” Heyman said.
In the past, the Heymans also engaged in a week of non-traditional schooling in which the children learned some everyday life skills that they wouldn’t typically learn in school.
“One year, when we were just kind of getting burnt out of school, we took a week and we called it ‘elective week’ or something,” Heyman said. “They each got to pick two things that they wanted to do, and one of them did pick cooking. So, he learned how to make scrambled eggs and chicken breast during the week.”
Kim Gentry, a Loxahatchee resident and mother of four, raised her children in homeschool and shared similar advice.
“Research a topic your child is interested in learning,” Gentry said. “Work on a project. Cook or bake. Have fun working on some life skills.”
Gentry also encouraged parents to use this time to enjoy their children.
“Be the parent first before the teacher,” Gentry said. “Spend time together, read together, listen to music together.”
But whatever form of education you choose for your children, Heyman encouraged parents to find a routine that’s tailor-made for them.
“That’s my biggest advice. Keep trying things until you find something that really fits your personality and your temperament,” Heyman said. “Because there’s so many different ways you can make it work.”
The school district’s Wednesday press conference detailed a variety of ways that schooling will continue in Palm Beach County, allowing teachers and principals leeway to determine which way works best for them.
Parents and students should expect to begin getting lessons and work assignments from their regular teachers the week of March 30 — on a computer screen or television right in your own home.
“We are all in this together, and we will all get through this together,” Fennoy said. “It’s not life’s challenges that define us; it’s how we overcome those challenges.”
To follow updates on educational changes during this time, visit www.palmbeachschools.org/coronavirus.