Here we go. Back to school is happening, but this year, it’s happening in a very different way. Most local school districts are starting the school year with three weeks of virtual learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Families will be able to choose whether kids attend school in person or virtually. Even for families with kids back inside a school building, it’s going to look and feel very different.
Whichever option we choose, we need some home organization, stat. Many families have limited space. The dining room, kitchen table or a card table might double as the classroom.
We asked professional organizers as well as local teachers for help getting ready for school.
GET THE ROUTINE READY
A daily schedule is key even if you’ve chosen asynchronistic learning (virtual learning with a flexible school schedule). Have a start time and an end time. "The actual time of day for the learning is not as important as the predictability and routines you put in place," says Carrie Ann Proctor, high school counselor at Meridian World School.
Set an alarm to wake up every day. Expect the requirement of showering, dressing, hair combing and teeth brushing. Kids will take learning more seriously if a schedule is kept every day and expectations are the same as being in the classroom.
Plan for good sleep. It’s easy, especially for teenagers, to procrastinate schoolwork until the wee hours of the night. Go to bed each day at the same time.
Get excited about the school year. Yes, it will be different, and trying to be positive will be key. "Ultimately, a positive attitude will make all the difference this year, so we’ll all be better off keeping one close at hand," says Katherine Ratcliffe, a Kealing Middle School math teacher.
Practice kindness as well. It’s going to be tough on teachers, students and parents. Bring patience and compassion to your virtual classroom each day.
Plan now for a first-day-of-school shirt. "Never underestimate the confidence and positivity a first-day-of-school outfit can bring — or rather, a first-day-of-Zoom-School top,’" Ratcliffe says. Even though the class will see only your shirt, be fully clothed in case you need to get up and grab something. No one wants to see your undies.
Consider hanging a poster board or a whiteboard with the daily or weekly schedule. It will help everyone in the house know when important Zoom calls are happening and keep you organized.
Make a sign that designates learning is happening. Just like "the doctor is in," "the student is in," too.
Set up a physical planner or use an online calendar to schedule all Zoom calls and assignment due dates. Set an alarm a few minutes before each call to allow time to log in. It’s OK to be early. It will give time to make sure everything is working and heads are positioned well in the video frame.
Make class meetings mandatory. As much as possible, have kids attend their teachers’ virtual sessions. Work on good etiquette such as using your given name on the screen, raising your hand, muting when you are not talking, asking questions and listening to others when they speak. Stay seated during class, and ask to leave the class just like you would if you were in a classroom. Teach kids how to email the teacher or use the chat function to privately alert teachers when they need more help. If your child is uncomfortable being on camera, "encourage them to speak with or email their teacher(s) in advance to find ways that they can prove their synchronous involvement in class without showing up on camera," says Julie Lass, an English teacher at Fusion Academy.
Add in breaks, physical activity, snack time and lunchtime. The younger the child, the more often breaks will need to be, but a break doesn’t need to stretch into hours. Ten minutes or 15 minutes to stretch or give the brain and eyes a break will do. If the breaks are set, kids are less likely to avoid working.
Make these breaks fun. Julienne Thorp, campus support specialist at Barton Creek Elementary, races her son up the stairs to get some physical activity during breaks. They play games in the backyard, or if the weather isn’t right, they do things like Go Noodle or dance to Kidz Bop videos. She also recommends reminding younger kids to go to the bathroom during break time.
Be ready to be helpful. That doesn’t mean you are over their shoulders doing school with them, but you might need to help set up the video meeting. Let kids know how and when they can interrupt you if they need help. Set up a time each day to review with them what they learned and check whether they need help with an assignment or to check in with a teacher. Also, make sure they are keeping up with assignments. It’s easy to fall behind.
With older kids, ask questions such as, "Have you asked your teacher?" It’s OK to walk away to allow them to figure it out.
Think quality over quantity. If you have only an hour to work with your student, it is better to make sure they understand the concept rather than flying through the lesson, says Veronica Rodriguez, a first grade teacher at Perez Elementary.
Find a way for kids to learn with peers. Find out who is in the class and see if you can organize phone calls or video chats to create connections they are missing from being physically together. "Two brains are better than one, and kids learn best from each other," says Juli Naranjo, fourth grade teacher at Cowan Elementary School.
Schedule off time with peers, too. Last spring, Proctor’s son scheduled Zoom lunches with his friends, which helped maintain connections.
Practice wearing masks and washing hands. If kids are going back into classrooms, now is the time to get comfortable with those two key items.
CREATE A DESIGNATED SPACE
Find an area where there are few distractions, including video games or toys. You might not want kids facing a window if you know they are going to start watching the squirrels and not get back to work. You can start by asking kids where they think they can work best.
Rodriguez says last spring "we had students who would Zoom from bed, a sofa and even a trampoline. They were distracted and not focused."
Avoid working on the floor or on the bed. You want a place where kids are upright and ready to learn.
Sometimes the bedroom or living room is not the best spot. Bedrooms are associated with sleep, and a living room might have the association of TV or video games. If you do have to set it up in their bedroom or living room, create a separate space.
You don’t have to buy a desk. A rolling cart, a card table, a TV table, the kitchen table or dining room table can work.
Each kid needs their own space. Leslie Rosner of Found Space Organizing suggests that if everyone has to work at the kitchen table, use a cardboard trifold, like you would use for science projects, to create a cubicle. They can decorate it to add personality. If you have a garment rack, you could position it over the middle of the table and hang a cloth in between or use hanging shoe organizers with pockets to create a barrier and storage for their things.
Find a comfortable chair. If you have a desk chair, great. If not, consider adding a cushion or pillow to a folding chair or kitchen chair. Put a pillow behind their back to help them sit up straight.
Make sure you have good lighting. Do you need a desk lamp or a reading lamp, or will the overhead light work well?
CREATE THE POSSIBILITY OF MOBILITY
Don’t be locked into a permanent setup. The kitchen table might be the classroom during the day but needs to be the kitchen table at night. You have to be able to set up and clean up in just a few minutes. The stuff doesn’t have to take over your home, says Meredith Garcia of Declutter It All, who is an independent representative for the Container Store. We have to figure out how to make it work so our home doesn’t turn into a day care, a classroom or a dorm room, she says. "Our community living areas still need a resemblance of home. We need to enjoy our spaces without stepping over the school supplies."
Be open to redefining spaces. It could be a TV tray in the living room that you never thought of as a desk before. It could be the outside porch where it’s quiet away from the rest of the family. It could even be in a closet that has room for a portable table and chair.
Create storage for all the stuff when not in use. It could be as simple as a storage bin, a tote or a backpack. It could be a designated shelf with bins that keep everything organized; the bins can be pulled down each day and put up each night. For kids who have two different homes or might go to a relative’s house on days when parents have to work outside the home, being able to quickly grab everything and go will be essential.
Be ready for change. You might have kids who are physically going to class who suddenly find out they have to be at home again. You want all their stuff to be portable and with them.
PLAN FOR ELECTRONICS
Create a charging station. Workstations need a place to charge the laptop or tablet as well as the phone, though if your child is distracted by their phone, you might need the same rule as classrooms: Phones are not in sight during school hours. Place the electronics at a designated charging station at night to be ready for the next day.
Manage the cords. If you have a space that doesn’t need to be picked up each day, you can use things like oversize binder clips to attach cords to the edge of the table. You also can use zip ties, rubber bands or hair ties to keep cords together.
Buy a comfortable pair of headphones with a microphone. This is key whether kids are virtual at home or at school but attending classes virtually. Headphones help with distractions and cut down on noise in the house. Imagine everyone in the house or in the classroom on a different Zoom call at once.
Don’t go all electronic. "Students still need ways to maintain that connection between physical writing and learning," Lass says. That could be a journal, a paper planner, using scratch paper for math problems or paper outlines, or taking notes.
FIND THE ORGANIZATIONAL SYSTEM FOR YOU
Ask kids how they like to keep their stuff organized. "Do not assume that your system is your student’s system," Garcia says.
Adapt what they are used to. If they are in high school and use binders or folders for each class, continue that system. If elementary school kids are used to a homework folder, do that.
Have some way to manage paper and files. It could be standing files, an accordion file or trays. Have some way to organize the electronic files, too, such as a Google Drive with a folder for each class. Start working on checking email and cleaning it out every day.
Make it age-appropriate. "A high schooler might throw everything in a backpack and be just fine and get everything they need to find," Garcia says. "That’s not going to work for a fourth grader. He needs to be able to see the colored pencils and find them. He needs to see the workbooks all lined up. The more we can do to make it easier for our kids, the more they can do for themselves."
Make use of what you have. You might already have bins or a cardboard box for storing items. Plastic food storage containers, shoe boxes, cups or mugs work for storing school supplies as well. Picnic silverware holders, toolboxes or dorm shower caddies can be repurposed as school supply caddies. You can clean out yogurt or juice containers and decorate them as your pencil holder. Never underestimate the use of the over-the-door hanging pocket shoe organizer.
Make it easy to set up and clean up. "If a 17-year-old can’t roll out of bed and get started in five minutes, it’s not going to happen," Garcia says. "It should be as simple as plugging in your Chromebook and getting out your spiral notebook."
Ask for help. If getting organized seems like a nightmare to you, call in a professional.
GOOD THINGS TO BUY
Here are the essentials:
Graph paper for those upper-level math students
Depending on age, colored pencils, markers or crayons
For younger kids, math manipulatives they can count such as beans, macaroni, pennies
A small dry-erase board and dry-erase markers for working math problems or practicing writing and showing the teacher virtually
A printer and ink
Have fun buying supplies. This is the year when there will be no sharing of supplies. Find a favorite journal, notebook or folder. Buy the big box of crayons.
Also, take note of what you already have and know that you might not need as many spiral notebooks, folders and notebook paper packets as usual because a lot of it will be done electronically, especially for older kids.
Sources: Leslie Rosner, Found Space Organizing; Meredith Garcia, Declutter It All and independent representative for the Container Store; Julienne Thorp, campus support specialist at Barton Creek Elementary; Juli Naranjo, fourth grade teacher at Cowan Elementary School; Carrie Ann Proctor, high school counselor at Meridian World School; middle school math teacher at Katherine Ratcliffe, Kealing Middle School; Veronica Rodriguez, first grade teacher at Perez Elementary School; Julie Lass, English teacher at Fusion Academy