By Dr. Kat Cohen, IvyWise CEO & Founder
I consider myself a “decider.” I gather all the facts, weigh my options, and make an informed decision. But being decisive these days is hard, with more things to consider than ever when it comes to the health and wellness, both physically and mentally, of our families. While I can’t make decisions about back-to-school for you, I, as a parent and college consultant, understand what families are up against this fall – and I’m here to help you get the facts you need to make a plan.
Whether you have a middle schooler, high schooler, or college student, there’s A LOT to think about this fall. What will the school year look like? Is it safe to go back? Will my child succeed in another virtual semester? Making a plan for back-to-school starts with answering the difficult questions and making decisions on what is best for your child.
Weigh Your Options
Fall reopening plans at schools across the country are changing daily. Colleges that previously committed to in-person instruction are walking back on their decisions and pivoting to online-only or hybrid instruction with an emphasis on virtual learning. Primary and secondary schools across the US are doing the same, with some starting virtually this fall with plans to return to in-person classes if COVID cases are under control in the community. Others are committing to completely virtual instruction this fall. There are a lot of scenarios at play, and you need to weigh your options in order to develop the best plan.
- Parents of high school and younger students: If your student’s school is in-person, is it full-time or a mix of in-person and virtual instruction days? Do you have the option to choose one or the other? If so, what makes the most sense for your family? For some, especially those with at-risk family members at home, doing virtual instruction might make more sense. If your student’s school is going completely virtual, how can the family adjust – especially if you have multiple school-aged children? First, get all your schedules together and work out a new family calendar that accounts for your children’s classes and assignments as well as your own work and personal tasks. Some families are forming “learning pods” where parents share the responsibility of keeping a small group of students on task during the week. This allows for socialization for the students as well as for parents to pool their resources in order to support one another. There’s also the possibility that your student’s school can’t provide enough support for your child’s needs this fall with either virtual or in-person lessons, so is homeschooling an option? Or engaging a tutor to supplement what your student is learning might meet your needs. Weigh all possibilities and decide what will help your student learn and stay engaged this fall.
- Parents of college students: As if sending your children off to college wasn’t hard enough, now you have to do it in the middle of a global pandemic with little or no financial reprieve. Some colleges are discounting tuition for fully virtual instruction, but others are not, and with some schools opening the dorms to students, families are paying full price with tuition and room and board. Many students are considering gap years, but in many cases that may require students to reapply next year – when tuition rates are likely to go up even more because schools need to make up for their financial losses. Not to mention delaying college for a year can cost students about $90k over their lifetime. Get all the details on the reopening plans for your student’s college or university. Will they be expected to live on campus? Or can they take a full course load from home (saving on room and board)? Will they need to do a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes to meet their course requirements? Every student’s circumstance is different, so it is important to find out as much information as you can that pertains to your child’s specific needs. If they’re in a major that requires a lot of in-person labs, can they instead take more virtual gen-ed courses? Find the right balance that makes the most sense for your student – and your family overall.
Examine School Policy and Precautions
The primary back-to-school worry used to be whether your student had all the school supplies they needed for the year. Now, parents have to not only weigh their child’s education and baseline safety, but also how protected they are from COVID-19 while learning.
- Parents of high school and younger students: Does your student’s school have solid protocols in place for in-person instruction? Will PPE be required? How many other students/teachers will they interact with per day? Some schools plan to form their own in-school “pods” with students taking all classes with the same group in order to minimize contact among the student body.
- Parents of college students: If your student is going back to a college campus, will dorms be singles? How often will common areas be cleaned? Is the dining hall fully open or just grab-and-go? What’s the plan for quarantine if a student does contract COVID-19 on campus? If cases spike and the campus closes, will students have to move out of the dorms or will they quarantine there?
Find out every detail possible about the COVID-19 policies and precautions your student’s school is taking this year. Ask questions and get firm answers. If at any point you feel your student’s school is not doing enough or that you’re still uncomfortable with sending them – trust your gut!
Embrace Online Learning
I’m here to give you a reality check that you probably don’t want: no matter what, your student will be engaging in some sort of virtual learning this fall, whether it’s part-time or full-time. High schools with in-person instruction might have to pivot to virtual learning if cases spike. Same applies to colleges campuses that have hybrid virtual and in-person models. Your college freshman might have to go from some virtual and in-person to fully virtual at the drop of a hat. While it may not be ideal for any students, it’s a reality for the foreseeable future. Embrace it!
- Parents of high school and younger students: Zoom fatigue is real, and it gets to us all at one point or another. Help your student develop a reasonable approach to online learning. Schedule in breaks between online sessions to help your student adjust to this new routine. Find rewards, like some time on social media or a favorite treat, to motivate students to complete assignments in a certain time frame. Also, create a dedicated classroom space, if possible, so students can separate their school day from the rest of their day at home.
- Parents of college students: College is the true test of independence, and even if they’re at home this semester, college students still need their space to figure out how to navigate this new learning environment. Get together and figure out what their schedule will look like and where they’ll be in the house when learning. Be supportive and offer some assistance (like a wakeup call if they haven’t gotten up for a morning class) but let them get into their own groove. If after a few weeks they’re still struggling, then it’s time to step in and help them get back on track. If your student is on campus, let them know you’re there for them if they need help! Many classes will still be virtual, and it will be a very different vibe on campus, so be their sounding board if they’re struggling academically, socially, or with their mental health and work with them to find on-campus resources and solutions, if needed.
Have a Backup Plan
If there’s anything we’ve learned over these past few months, it’s that we have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s already hard to plan, much less have a second, backup plan. But there are some things you can consider now and prepare for, should you have to toss your current game plan out the window.
- Parents of high school and younger students: The current school year plan could change at any moment, so prepare for an at-home learning scenario if your student is currently planning to be in the classroom. This can mean setting up a dedicated learning space in the home in case instruction pivots to virtual and ensuring that things like the home’s internet connection can handle the extra strain. If your student is learning virtually and struggling, it might be time to look into an outside tutor or even switching to a homeschooling model to have more control over their learning and progress.
- Parents of college students: If your student is on campus and suddenly needs to come home, how will they do it? Can they drive? Will you pick them up? If so, can they bring all their stuff or should they find a storage facility for larger items? Will flying be safe? If not, are there relatives nearby they can stay with? If they need to quarantine, where will that be? Just like you make a plan for a regular campus move-in or move-out day, make a plan for an emergency move. Understanding your options beforehand, like available flights, rides, trains, etc. will help make the return home much more seamless if it needs to happen quickly.
Stay on Top of College Prep
On top of all of the new adjustments, students still need to focus on all the “normal” aspects of the school year, like making good grades and preparing for the college admissions process. While that will look very different for a while, students still need to find time to get back to the basics with these simple college prep tasks that will make them feel a little more normal. Work on their balanced college lists, do some virtual campus visits, make a plan for testing, if possible. Try to stay on track with college prep as much as you can without overwhelming your student. Our College Planning Checklist is a good place to start in order to see where you are and what needs to get done this year.
We’re all doing the best we can, and no solution is one-size-fits all. Every family is unique and will have a set of challenges completely different from everyone else. It’s important to plan and try to give our children as much of a “normal” year as possible, while acknowledging that, despite our best efforts, this year (and probably more to come!) will be very unusual. Parents, give yourself some grace during this time and remember the ultimate goal isn’t just to ensure our students are excelling academically, but also growing into “good humans” with empathy and an understanding of the patience we need to have with one another in this moment in history. With some patience, planning, and adaptability we will all come out of this experience with even better perspective.
At IvyWise, we’re working diligently with families to guide them through every aspect of this college admissions cycle, from advising on educational plans to helping students determine where to apply given their dramatically altered applicant profiles. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your family navigate this school year and college application cycle.