Pandemic Education: Grandparenting in the New School

I am a former K–12 teacher and current college professor, yet not at all prepared to help our twin girls finish the K5 Learning online remote reading and math programs for lower school. While working full-time, I was in charge of class logins, setups, passwords, making sure the Internet connection was strong enough to carry all of the devices, and that the devices worked.

During the week, my husband handled the non-electronic packets of schoolwork and I was able to work until someone (usually my husband) had a question on math. Fridays were the worst; the twins were to log in to their “classroom” and I had meetings. I would log in to a meeting on my phone, put it in my pocket, and log in to two classrooms in two different areas of the house at two different times. I hooked up two old laptops and crossed my fingers for working audio, software updates, and sufficient Wi-Fi strength. All the while I was listening to my meeting and answering as appropriate.

My college students who were no longer on campus were calling about Wi-Fi access, and laptops, so I made a simple resource list. Call here, go here, ask this person. Just call me. I can mail you stuff.

Reality hit in May, and we decided to homeschool the twins this fall. We are older (I’m in my late 50s; my husband is in his mid 70s) and have health concerns, so the twins would not be returning to campus. Friends, friends of friends, coworkers of friends, moms, aunts and grandmas called to ask if I could help them navigate homeschooling or if I could point them in the right direction for remote learning assistance.

I realized how incredibly privileged I was to work from home, to just “happen” to have two older laptops, be able to update the software and to understand the logistics needed to prepare class meetings. What if I had none of that?

What if I didn’t have Wi-Fi? Who would I call? How would I pay for it? I made another simple resource list. Call here, do this, ask this person. Use this resource. Call this state agency.

This Is Real for So Many Without Resources

With nearly 7.8 million children in the United States being raised by grandparents or other relatives (kinship families), many of us in that older age group will be navigating remote learning at some point. As I write this article, New York City just announced it was closing its school system and one grade at a local school is under quarantine.

Education has certainly changed from prior experiences of raising children in a non-digital age. While many of us may use computers in our work, we may not be technologically equipped to navigate their set up. This is not an ageist assumption. Many of us have benefited from IT departments at work, and are not equipped to do this sort of work at home. For a multitude of others computer and Internet home access is a socioeconomic issue.

‘The biggest gift you can give the children is knowledge. School is not the only place to learn.’

There is a gap in Internet connectivity for households with an annual income less than $30,000, where students use cell phones to complete homework (43 percent), use public Wi-Fi (40 percent; at a library or fast food location) and do not have access to a home computer (36 percent).

In kinship families, 21 percent live below the poverty line. For the record, kinship families save taxpayers $6 billion each year by reducing foster care numbers. For every 25 kinship family children, there is one child in foster care.

Fortunately, many schools and school systems have stepped in to help, distributing iPads, Chromebooks or other laptops to students and teachers (K–12 teachers are learning how to navigate remote teaching, too).

Nonprofits worked to close the technology gap. New Life Tech Group out of Atlanta recycled and refurbished laptops so students could begin the new school year with personal technology. Atlanta Public Schools asked for donations to help close the digital divide with Comcast via Get Our Kids Connected. And there are Internet services offered to Veterans, K–12 students and others who may qualify. ConnectHomeUSA is one such resource available in many communities such as Albany Ga., Columbus Mo., Little Rock Ark., Memphis Tenn. and Chicago Ill. Other companies have signed on to help with connectivity as well.

But many older adults live in rural communities that still have limited broadband access—what can they do? This depends on the child’s grade level. I spoke with several grandmothers and aunts who opted to use workbooks with lower grade children. Low or no technology is appropriate, fairly inexpensive and included in most state homeschooling options.

Walmart and teacher or office supply stores have sections of age- and grade-appropriate workbooks, colored pens and pencils, scissors and glue. They also have flashcards, or they’re easy to make. Learning to read and write, as well as add and subtract are easy, cheap and beneficial to younger students. Local libraries can recommend materials for specific grades.

The biggest gift you can give the children is knowledge. School is not the only place to learn. Cooking breakfast? Discuss how much is in a cup. How do you boil eggs? Is butter a liquid or a solid? Children learn with some of the most basic materials—cereal boxes, comics, measuring cups, counting Legos, macaroni, dry beans.

Stability and calmness during this frightening time is also a huge gift to the children, so deep breaths are in order. We all know this is difficult. We are all concerned about our children or grandchildren’s educational progress. Perhaps we need reminding that age and grade norms are not concrete, but fluid.

Some children learn to read by age 3, others by 5 and some later, at 8 or 9. Some graduate from high school at 15, 17, 18 or 19. Students can take a gap year; we can make up the learning missed. What we can’t make up is a stable family with people who are still living at the end of COVID quarantine. Stay safe.

Pamela Pitman Brown, PhD, CPG, FAGHE, is an assistant professor of Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences at Albany State University in Albany, Ga.