When Jenifer Doane of Englewood realized that her daughter would have to return to in-person learning, she knew she had a decision to make. Children at the school would need to wear masks, maintain proper social distance from other kids, and remain in their home rooms most of the day. The school, which they had chosen for its focus on the arts, also laid off most of its specialty teachers.
“We didn’t want to introduce her to school in this situation. Kindergarten is supposed to be fun with a great deal of social interaction and play-centric learning, which is very difficult to achieve in these COVID times,” says Doane.
All across the country, families like Doane’s have been put into an impossible situation: trying to find the best way to educate their children in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. To say it’s been a struggle for many to balance school, parent’s work schedules, mental health, and the looming threat of COVID-19 is an understatement. Here in Colorado though, many parents and other members of the community have found new and creative ways to handle their children’s learning experience.
Having a background in education herself, and the flexibility to work from home, Doane decided to homeschool her daughter this year. She’s also created a nature-based learning pod for her daughter that she set up with a few other local families to supplement their education. The group is meeting twice a week, and includes four hours of nature and play-based learning including lessons in math, science, literature, Spanish, art, and music. Some of the children are homeschooling while others are enrolled in their school’s virtual learning program.
Mother-of-three Beth House is also opting to homeschool her two school-age kids. Her eldest attended public kindergarten last year, but struggled with remote school in the spring. The Hudson-based mom says her little family is enjoying the mixture of structure and freedom, especially the one-on-one attention and being able to incorporate gameschooling—learning through board games—but it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes kids have to be reminded that I’m not just Mommy. I’m also Teacher, and as such, need another level of respect and listening,” says House.
How Businesses Have Transformed
Not all parents are pulling their kids from virtual schooling, of course. And many local businesses stepped up to offer their own services to help fill the gaps. The Zoom Room, located in Wheat Ridge, is one such place, run by Tammy Franklin. After COVID-19 forced Franklin to shut down her performing arts space, she looked into finding a new rehearsal space and discovered a new way to help some of the families who are part of her theater company, The Curtain Playhouse, at the same time.
“We decided to take on hosting…pods, and actually built the whole thing in 39 days,” says Franklin.
Kids enrolled in their home schools arrive at the Zoom Room daily for assistance with remote learning as well as socialization. Once classes end, young learners can remain and enjoy additional enrichment activities like photography and other visual arts, as well as domestic arts like baking and sewing.
“We also use 10 percent of tuition to go to scholarships for families who cannot afford support for their families,” adds Franklin.
Denver-area Craftsman & Apprentice—a local maker space for youngsters that typically offers classes, workshops, and camps—also made adjustments. While COVID forced founder Delanie Holton-Fessler to rethink the way she operates the space (they are currently only open for small groups), she also recognized an opportunity to continue offering services and helping families in the process. Today, they are hosting small cohorts of children for virtual learning help and additional enrichment.
“[Children] will arrive each day and log into their morning meeting with their classroom teachers. We’ll help the kids navigate their learning tasks, then spend the afternoon working on maker projects like building ball ramps, bee hotels, and simple machines. It is our goal to balance online learning with hands-on experiences and social interaction,” says Holton-Fessler.
The space was reconfigured to allow for socially distanced workstations for each child. The kids are also asked to wear masks, wash hands frequently, and complete a symptom check every day they’re in attendance.
There are even more places offering to help parents figure out how to balance educating their kids, keeping them safe, and still making time for their jobs—sometimes in the most surprising spaces. Surge Kickboxing, a gym in Arvada, is hosting a Virtual Learning Camp where kids can get assistance with school assignments as well as enjoying things like daily martial arts training (as part of their physical education), plus craft time and other activities. Red Hen Createry, a crafting studio in Littleton, is offering learning groups as well as creative arts enrichment. Owner Jennifer Highfield-Windslow says they’re also hoping to open a larger community learning and enrichment center in one of the empty spaces next to their location. Abrakadoodle of Denver Metro, an art school, is offering on-site and online solutions to aid in filling the gap currently in arts education.
For parents simply seeking a space in which to work while their kids blow off steam, Kids Wonder, a children’s play center in Centennial, created the Big Workers Wonder Workspace. This co-working experience features dedicated adult workspaces by reservation (with social distancing in mind) complete with wifi, beverages, and snacks.
Help in the Search for Help
In addition, new resources popped up to simply help facilitate finding pods and more for families. For parents who aren’t sure where to start, there’s an e-book created by Lara McCarver Frankovitch and a few of her friends which explains the basics of how to start your own virtual learning pod. TeachMyStudent is another service which helps facilitate connections between families, pod leaders, tutors, and other educators. LearnInKIND offers tutoring services for kids who may need assistance with remote learning, while also committing to providing a no-cost hour of tutoring to students in need for every hour of paid tutoring. And if that isn’t enough, you can always take to Facebook where numerous groups have already been created to help parents seek their pods, microschools, and related resources, including ones that are for BIPOC families.
The Unschooling Option
Parents like Jessica Yegge of Boulder and Van Townsend of Keystone have another answer: unschooling—learning through natural life experiences. Yegge’s son completed kindergarten last year at their neighborhood public school, but the pandemic caused her family to re-evaluate their choices as well as their collective mental health (her son struggles with anxiety).
“He is now happy, thriving, regulated, self-motivated, and academically sound—all qualities which had never existed simultaneously before adopting unschooling practices,” says Yegge, who herself was educated in a number of ways during her childhood, including unschooling.
“I don’t believe educating our children has to be a challenge. I believe it can and should be able to happen organically and fairly effortlessly. It can even be fun!”
Townsend is raising two kids, in sixth and second grade respectively, and says he has several friends who unschool their kids. His youngest, Phineas, was having trouble last year sitting for long periods at school and having to relearn things he already knew, so unschooling has helped give him the freedom to focus on things he actually wants to learn versus the standard curriculum.
“No deadlines, no needless stressful testing, no unnecessary learning of things that even I as an adult don’t know…Every day is fun,” says Townshend.
Overall, Coloradans are doing what they can to ensure their kids have a good learning experience this year, in spite of all the pandemic has taken away. And while parents have spent many a night stressing over these decisions, there’s no doubt everyone will learn a great deal more about flexibility and perseverance before this is all over.