Educational Family Co-ops
- July 7, 2020
- Posted by: Olga Werby
- Category: Supermarket Science Background
The levels of COVID-19 infections are rising exponentially, even in a state like California that spent almost three months in lockdown. We can hope that schools will reopen in the fall despite the raging pandemic, or we can make alternate plans. And for some families — families that have members with medical conditions that raise the health risks even higher — sending kids to school in the fall is just not an option.
So if not school, then what?
Having one or more kids at home requiring homeschooling puts a tremendous burden on the whole family, but particularly on mothers. Not only do women make less than men for comparable jobs, but more women lost their jobs during this pandemic. This disparity is even reflected in less women-written scientific papers submitted to academic journals. For women of color, the outlook is far worse. Even when both parents are working from home, mothers do the brunt of childcare. The amazing thing is that no one is even fazed anymore by kid interruptions during Zoom meetings and other online activities, but it is very hard to be simultaneously productive at work and in charge of childcare and household. And home-teaching kids on top of everything else and all other responsibilities is almost unmanageable. Certainly, the quality of work from parents working from home, locked in a small space with their children in need of constant support and supervision, is lower than it would have been if all these professionals had to do was their jobs. Careers and parenthood have never been easy — both are too demanding of time and energy. Most women had to make hard choices and sacrifices. But now, even those with financial resources to provide private schools and nannies for their kids are not able to do so due to infection fears — “will my babysitter be a COVID vector?”
So what now?
What do we do now that the initial shock of losing the school educational support structures is gone and might not be coming back? The uncertainty of having schools open and close and open and close is very difficult to manage even with the most understanding employees. We need another solution…at least until we have vaccines and reliable curative medicines (as opposed to just palliative care) and we have enough of those to go around. Saying that kids will be fine and most don’t get a very bad case of COVID is insane. We have no idea what the long-term consequences of having had this disease will be. We do have some inkling as to how damaging having had COVID-19 is not only on the overall health but also on patients’ cognition. And then those who do get sick might end up being sick for months and years. We should not take the difficulties of overcoming this disease lightly.
And teachers are worried, too. New York Times has been publishing articles on education and COVID and one of those is “Colleges Face Rising Revolt by Professors”. Frankly, at college and high school levels, lots can be done online. Given curriculum flexibility, college students can take all of their breadth requirements or pick up a minor or two during this quarantine time. And that could work for high schools kids as well if we allowed a less regimented curriculum, if we let kids take courses that don’t require labs or in-person interactions this fall (and perhaps in the spring, too), and if we then provide the opportunity to make it all up once the vaccine or good therapeutics become widely available.
We don’t have to return to default. We can do something else. The fear of trying something new has to yield to the real concern over the effects of this pandemic on our society, on our health and welfare, and on our children.
Practical Suggestions for Starting Educational Family Co-ops
So here are some practical suggestions. First, expand your bubble. Find a few other families with kids of about the same age as yours and agree to form an educational co-op. It’s okay to have kids of slightly different ages. In fact, it’s a plus. The only reason we stick all kids of the same age into the same classroom is that it is cheaper for us to educate them this way — there is no need to account for cognitive, physical, or emotional differences. Just assume that all kids of the same year model are the same. But they are not. So having kids with different abilities and acknowledging those differences is a positive, not a negative.
There is an optimum size for such co-ops. Too many kids, and it will be difficult to manage not only the educational outcomes but health ones too. Too few and there are not enough adult resources to manage such co-ops successfully. One rule of thumb is to start with about five families — five families to take charge of all kids each work day of the week. One day a week, one family takes on supervising all of the kids working through a set of materials. Both or one or any combination of parents can take on this responsibility. This will give families maximum flexibility to also do their jobs. And while it is good to have a stable schedule of such responsibility, flexibility is key. If one household has a pressing deadline, schedules can be negotiated to accommodate that. Flexibility and fairness are the important principles behind educational family co-ops.
While schools work with a set regiment — if it is 1:30, it must be history for the next hour — educational family co-ops don’t have to and shouldn’t fixate on delivering an hour of each subject per day. Curriculum materials don’t have to be divided into such strange time intervals. Allow kids to pursue a topic and dive deep. A full day can be given over to writing a short story or creating an art project. Math can be explored and elevated to a position of one of the most fun subject matters there is. (It is absolutely the most fun subject, just not the way it is taught at school.) Kids can engage with science and even incorporate into other areas of study — why can’t reading about science count towards reading? Or writing about science be part of learning how to write clearly?
Schools enforce unnatural time divisions by the nature of their factory set up. But families don’t have to adapt the factory model of education. And if a particular parent is interested in teaching a particular subject matter, then that’s okay. A mom can teach computer science or biology or writing. A dad can focus on Shakespeare. All is fine; it’s just a matter of careful negotiation. There is an opportunity to allow adults and children to pursue their passions.
Educational family co-ops don’t have to focus on producing homework assignments. That was never the point of education. Kids know when they are asked to do busy work that has no meaning.
The time spent together in educational co-op groups should focus on co-operative group projects. Everyone could learn together about optics, for example. This includes adults — modeling learning is one of the best gifts a parent can give their child. Nowhere but a traditional classroom do we drill that there is one individual in the room that is an expert from whom all knowledge flows and everyone else is just there to absorb wisdom. People learn new things all their lives; we should model that to our kids. We should model how to say, “I don’t know” when we in fact might not know something. The important thing is that we can learn something new if we acknowledge our ignorance. This skill will serve our kids in the future more than blind deference to expert opinions.
Don’t assign homework! Working together all day to learn something new is enough. Allow family time for when kids separate to go to their respective homes for the night.
Negotiate with school districts to get help. This fall, schools will be in a full-blown panic mode. There will be thousands of teachers who simply can’t return to their classrooms due to health concerns. The same is true for children. If parents self-organize into educational groups ready to take over and manage a bunch of kids, the districts should offer support. Such support can be Zoom conversations with teachers or resource specialists; books and computers; or simple encouragement and a way to stay in contact with other families and students. For those families that need it, districts could also provide nutritional support. There are a lot of interesting possibilities here once families and districts take a plunge to try something new.
And finally, all of the families that commit to forming an educational co-op have to agree on the same standard of quarantine measures. The whole point is to reduce the possibility of infection. Everyone has to agree including the kids. Kids have to be partners in this educational endeavor.