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The halls inside Bothell High School in Bothell, Wash. stand empty. The suburban Seattle school is part of the Northshore School District, which closed earlier in March and has since paused its online learning program. Credit: (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

NEW YORK – Like it or not, we are suddenly a nation of home schoolers, with little preparation. The rapidly spreading coronavirus is instantly changing the way education is delivered, as school and home become the same place.

Millions more children and families are involuntarily joining the 1.7 million kids already home-schooled by choice. “How to homeschool” is trending on Google. For many families, the switch is a crippling inconvenience. For others, it’s an even bigger catastrophe: they may not be able to afford proper meals for their children, much less the technology and connectivity needed for online learning.

Some 70 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students come from low-income families, and thousands are homeless. In Los Angeles and Chicago, where schools closures were previously announced, the rates of poverty are even higher.

For some children hastily thrust into this new way of learning, school offers far more stability and predictability than their home lives. Shuttering schools in the face of coronavirus will shine a light on the many other roles schools provide beyond academics for fragile families, from caring adults, friendships and predictable routines to breakfast, lunch, music lessons and sports.

In addition, most schools and teachers are unprepared to take their lessons online, and the education they can offer over the internet, on the fly, could be rough and wildly uneven. In New York, officials admitted as much as they announced that schools would close Monday, and that they needed a few days to plan for new ways of instruction.

Related: Many schools could beam the internet into students’ homes — if the bandwidth hadn’t already been sold to businesses

A list of homeschooling activities organized by teacher Jamie Matus Credit: (Photo by Jamie Matus)

In the meantime, remote workers who are parents are fretting over how they’ll have time to oversee lessons and keep their children on top of Common Core math. Working parents wonder how they’ll arrange childcare so they don’t lose their jobs. Advocates and educators everywhere worry the poorest children will be hurt the most.

“This is an enormous educational equity challenge that can have life-altering consequences for vulnerable students,’’ said Ian Rosenblum, director of The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit group that released a host of recommendations for the coming weeks. Any response “should address the specific instructional continuity needs of students who are low-income, English learners, students with disabilities and students in temporary housing,” he said.

It is clear that families with the least resources are likely to feel the hardest impact — one reason why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed and struggled before deciding to close schools.  Some 70 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students come from low-income families, and thousands are homeless. In Los Angeles and Chicago, where schools closures were previously announced, the rates of poverty are even higher. In addition, museums, recreation centers, libraries and other places that offer alternatives to schooling will also be closed, as they have been in Seattle and other parts of the country hit hard by the virus.

“It belies any logic to say it will be the same thing as a student in a classroom with a teacher.”

“I have no words for how horrible this is,” de Blasio said during a press conference Sunday, where he announced schools would close for at least four weeks, and possibly through the end of the year. “It’s going to be difficult for a lot of families.”

Along with Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, the mayor pledged to offer pick-up meals at schools, and said that starting March 23, the city would designate enrichment centers that will remain open for children whose parents are on the frontline of battling coronavirus, including healthcare workers and first responders. In the coming days, city schools will begin training teachers in remote learning while “practicing social distancing,” Carranza said. Then, they’ll be given three days of training to learn how to teach virtually, which he acknowledged is not ideal.

“We feel confident students will be able to engage academically,” he said, although he added that “it belies any logic to say it will be the same thing as a student in a classroom with a teacher.”

Other school districts are tapping older technologies. LA Unified, for example, plans on teaching students remotely by partnering with local television stations.

Related: Coronavirus is poised to inflame inequality in schools

Parents whose children attend the American School of Dubai took turns teaching their kids and classmates while the school is shut during the Coronavirus Credit: (Photo by Jamie Matus)

Carranza said New York City is making arrangements for students in poverty to get the devices and internet support they need – a critical issue with the gaping digital divide  between wired, well-equipped districts and others that lack resources. He also wants teachers to understand that their relationships with students will continue, even if they are virtual.

“They are still your students, and you will be helping them remotely,” he said.

Until school is up and running, many parents figuring out how to homeschool while also getting get their own work done are worried they’ll need to rely on television screens and computer games to keep their children occupied, hardly ideal for the littlest learners. Social distancing guidelines will mean fewer playdates and group activities, along with concerns about isolation and boredom.

Related: Why your toddler can’t learn from screens

In some parts of the world, parents have tried to organize play groups to keep kids engaged and social — and to take the burden off parents. Jamie Matus, a former New York City public school teacher who now lives in Dubai, immediately organized a homeschooling group for more than 30 of her children’s classmates after the American School of Dubai shut down earlier this month due to virus concerns.

“I said that if everyone here takes one morning a week with four or five kids, they could keep their routine and see their friends,” said Matus, who taught third-grade in Brooklyn for many years and knows how to keep young learners occupied. She drew up a detailed schedule with circle time, show and tell, and even skip- counting with Hot Wheels cars.

Jamie Matus, a former NewYork City public school teacher, organized a homeschooling playgroup for her kids and their classmates in Dubai after their school was shut. Credit: (Photo by Jamie Matus)

School districts elsewhere are sending out resources for desperate parents, including education sites that are making their usually paid sites free. But trained educators don’t always know which tech is good for kids, and which isn’t, leaving parents befuddled about navigating options.

An education consultant in Brooklyn, Laura Caito, sent a list of recommendations to parents at her child’s school, including a new broadcast, prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, of recorded daily lessons in popular Common Core curricula that will launch Wednesday, March 18. The New York City schools offer a “Learn at Home” page with printable activities for each grade. And there’s always Sesame Street, also en español.

But much of the communication about these resources is happening over email. New York officials urged parents to sign up for school accounts if they hadn’t already and to watch for messages and updates in their inboxes. How will parents who may not communicate by email regularly, who lack regular internet access, or who were already crunched for time — trying to make ends meet before an economic crisis hit — find what they need to keep their kids engaged and learning in English, which may not be the first language for many parents?

Other questions loom, from standardized testing to grading. How will students ever catch up after losing what could be months of instruction? Will schools reopen in time for summer school, which allows struggling students a second chance at being promoted to the next grade?

The many worries and unanswered questions are reasons why de Blasio waited till the last possible minute to close schools. Julie Kashen, director of women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, called the decision, made under duress and much pressure from parents and the United Federation of Teachers Union, the right one. “There’s no question that there is deep and real concern for families who need schools open because parents have to be at work or because those children rely on school for their meals,” she said.

The fast-moving and unknown nature of the virus means many questions will remain unanswered, for now. But the little playgroup in Dubai shows just how quickly coronavirus is changing life. By Monday, the group homeschooling experiment that Matus organized was down to just two children – hers – after a father in the group developed a fever.

This story on how to homeschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. 

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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