How to Build the Best Environment and Technology for School at Home
Like many families, our lives were completely upended last spring by the sudden transition from regular school to “School at Home.” Our three elementary school students hung up their backpacks, stored their lunch boxes, and started attending classes through Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever tool their teachers adopted as our school system struggled to adapt.
Given that we live in the COVID-19 hotspot of Phoenix, Arizona, my wife and I carefully tracked local infection rates over the summer as it became clear that in-person classes were not going to be viable. Our school system eventually offered two options: self-paced online learning, or teacher-led online classes that would more closely replicate the school day. We decided on the latter option since that would allow us to re-enter normal schooling once our area met health and safety requirements.
We spent the summer planning for virtual learning at home, and how to manage working from home as our children simultaneously school at home. As someone who has run multiple online training classes and has worked predominantly at home since 1997, I leveraged my knowledge to help build a good learning environment and technology base to support our children. My wife, who doesn’t currently have a paying job, took the lead on organizing the house and handling the day-to-day technical support. School is already up and running here in Phoenix, and here is our advice for making the best out of a challenging situation.
Create a Workspace
Anyone who has worked at home for an extended period quickly learns the importance of having a dedicated space for work. Aside from the organizational advantages of keeping your work tools in a consistent spot, a dedicated space allows you to separate work time from personal or family time. The benefits of this approach apply equally to children in school. They need an area to keep papers and school supplies accessible and, ideally, at least somewhat organized.
Using a shared surface like the kitchen table is far from effective, and even a desk in a child’s room can be counterproductive if you can’t monitor them or they can’t mentally separate school time from personal time. After trying a few different options, these are the ones we think work best:
- Buy or construct a desk for each child. Inexpensive desks are widely available and can make all the difference. These aren’t going to become family heirlooms, and there’s no need to get fancy with drawers.
- Use your corners. We crammed small, light desks into corners of different rooms in our house. This separation reduced the noise overlap from simultaneous online classes as we had to spread three “classrooms” around our home. When the weather is nicer (which means not too hot here in Phoenix), one of the desks moves to our back patio.
- Get creative. For my older daughter, we installed a wall desk in her room. These are basically bookshelves with one larger surface that folds down. It’s great for space, and after class, she can fold it up and hide all the schoolwork for that critical mental separation. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install.
- Plan around your outlets. Ideally, you should place desks near electrical outlets. Since our kids mostly use iPads, I swapped out the outlets in their workspaces with ones with built-in USB-A and USB-C charging ports. We bought each child a dedicated cable that they aren’t allowed to unplug. Trust us, you’ll go through more cables than socks if you don’t keep them locked down.
- Don’t forget your own workspace. If you work at home, you need your own space, even if you have to spend time helping your children get through their days. One friend has her son work part of the day in her office; later on, he goes off to a separate space when she doesn’t need to keep a close eye on him.
- Put a clock with big numbers on every desk. Kids are used to being directed around school buildings for different classes. It’s too easy for them to lose track of time and miss a class. A cheap clock with big numbers on every desk is probably one of the best investments you can make.
- Print out the class calendar and keep it visible. Even if your school provides calendar invites or a digital schedule, we found that posting a printed schedule in each workspace helps both our kids and us keep track of which virtual room they should be in.
- Buy a desk organizer and twice as many writing instruments as you think you need. Virtual learning doesn’t mean paper goes away, especially if you have elementary-aged children. Cheap organizers are widely available, and it’s worth getting one on the larger side to keep all the pens, pencils, and other accouterments off the floor. Science has shown that small black holes orbit children and selectively absorb school supplies at exactly the moment they are needed, so keep spare stock close at hand.
Build a Great Network
Not everyone has the best choices for their Internet connections, especially those of you on a budget, but few things will frustrate your child and their teacher more than a bad network connection. Losing connectivity is incredibly disruptive. We are fortunate to have a fiber connection and a powerful, business-class home network, but I’ve been called in to help friends and family members optimize their less robust networks:
- Get the best Internet connection you can. Most videoconferencing services adapt to lower bandwidth connections, but reduced video resolution, frame skipping, and dropped audio is hard on both students and teachers. Such things probably make you crazy too, and most kids lack the patience and understanding of adults.
- Buy a decent Wi-Fi access point. When a friend or family member calls me to help fix their network, the most common culprit is their reliance on whatever Wi-Fi access point came from their Internet service provider or the access point they bought 10 years ago. Newer technologies are both faster and work better in the increasingly crowded wireless spectrum.
- Consider a Wi-Fi extender or mesh network for better coverage. A Wi-Fi extender works with your existing access point to extend wireless networking coverage. While they aren’t the most efficient option and increase latency, they help significantly if distance or walls degrade your signal. Alternatively, consider stepping up to a mesh networking system like Amazon’s Eero (see “Eero Provides Good Wi-Fi Coverage in a Handsome Package,” 25 June 2016), Linksys’s Velop (see “Velop Provides First-Rate but Expensive Wi-Fi Mesh Networking,” 9 July 2018), or Netgear’s Orbi. Mesh Wi-Fi systems are like advanced extenders that use two or more devices spread across your home for better coverage. Unlike extenders, they often use a dedicated backhaul for traffic and include additional intelligence to optimize connections.
- Use wired backhaul connections where possible. Newer houses and apartments may have Ethernet cables running to multiple rooms. Many Wi-Fi extenders and mesh networks can use a wired connection for the backhaul between access points, which may dramatically reduce latency and improve connectivity.
- If all else fails, move closer to the access point for a better signal. ‘Nuff said.
- Consider creating a guest network for less secure devices. Many newer home network devices support the idea of a guest network, separate from the main network. You may find yourself having to use older or less secure devices from the school system. Placing them on a guest network will keep such devices from being a bridge to attack your personal or work devices.
My home network was already in great shape thanks to using business-class hardware from Ubiquity and wired access points, plus a 1 Gigabit fiber connection to my ISP. However, I still upgraded my primary firewall/router for better security. Doing so also improved our overall traffic management since we now have at least four simultaneous video chats running for most of the day. I then created a dedicated wireless network, using the same hardware, for school-owned devices to isolate them from our personal devices.
Pick the Right Devices and Peripherals
Our kids have long used their own iPads, but my son’s iPad was older, slower, and couldn’t run all the software he needed very well. Although our school system provides Chromebooks and iPads, we decided to upgrade his iPad and return the school-owned devices for less fortunate families in our district. As with your network, it is critical to provide your child with a stable, functional device.
School-owned devices might not be the best option, or they might be your only option. School systems aren’t known for their well-funded IT departments, and many rely on older and outdated technology that might be difficult to get working at home. On the other hand, these devices are already pre-configured with all the required software and may even include tech support. Some schools might even require you to use them.
Be conscious as to the needs and experiences of your child and the requirements of the school. Check with the school system to ensure they support your operating system and device type. In our experience, we’ve been able to run everything we need on all our devices, but there was a bit of a learning curve, especially with Google Classroom on the iPads.
Speaking of iPads, now is a great time to pick up a keyboard and maybe a trackpad or mouse. Most children today are tablet natives, but as they move from content consumption to content creation, the addition of input devices will open up more screen real estate. We found that the onscreen keyboard often obscured important parts of the screen, especially in browser-based applications, and adding a physical keyboard was the only way to make certain sites work.
Since I have a bit of a technology addiction, we started this journey with a mix of old and new gear and let the children migrate to what they were most comfortable with. My 7-year-old-son stuck with his new iPad and a keyboard. We considered adding an Apple Pencil or Logitech Crayon, but he hasn’t needed that for any of his assignments yet. He has headphones available, but we tend to keep him on speaker since he isn’t the most dedicated student, and that allows us to keep tabs on his studies. My wife spends much of her day checking in on him and helping him as necessary.
My middle daughter uses her iPad and a keyboard, but she backs it up with the school-provided Chromebook. She likes to video conference on one device while typing her work on the other. She asked for some cheap Bluetooth headphones and uses them pretty consistently.
My oldest daughter absconded with my late 2012 MacBook Pro. I restored the stock operating system, and it performs significantly better than I expected. She also has an iPad but hasn’t used it that much for school since she picked up the laptop.
We also have a family iMac available, but the kids just use that for larger projects like making presentations or editing videos. I also have an old monitor and adapters for the iPads and laptops, but, so far, they sit unused.
Prepare for Your Shifts on the Help Desk
Depending on the age and experience of your children, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of being the family’s tech support. Then again, some of you might have been leaning on your kids for years to keep your tech running. Here are some recommendations for handling issues we’ve been experiencing as we started schooling at home:
- Prep their apps ahead of time. If possible, spend some time learning the main applications your school uses and test them out before classes start. Our school switched video chat to Google Classroom, and we nearly missed the first day of classes since we didn’t know Classroom had integrated video chat, but you had to install the app and know where to tap on the iPad. I then quickly installed all the Google apps on the iPads since my kids had previously just run them in the browser.
- Record login credentials on stickies. I strongly recommend that you write down all the usernames and passwords your kids need to use, even if you use a password manager. We ran into problems on the first day of school because the district wasn’t clear about which logins went with which services and didn’t support single sign-on. Password managers are great, but they may be too hard for younger children, and regardless, you might need to move quickly between devices and accounts, so having a paper backup is a good idea. Yes, I realize the irony of a security expert recommending that you write down your passwords.
- Make bookmarks. You and your child will be visiting the same sites repeatedly. Take a few minutes to bookmark all the school sites and give them useful titles so they make sense to you and your child.
- Get ready to call tech support. No matter how technically capable you may be, you might need help with internal school systems. Many schools and districts now offer remote technical support. Write the number down and stick it on the refrigerator even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
Get Creative, and Build Good Habits
My wife has become the master of making the day at home feel like a day at school or summer camp. Our days start at regular times, and the kids have to wake up and get dressed just as they normally would. My wife then makes lunches and sometimes even puts them in lunchboxes, just as if the kids were going to school. She converted a small table to serve as our cafeteria and lays out the same snacks we would send to school for their breaks. At the end of their scheduled classes, small group activities, and project work, the kids have to clean up their workspace to prepare for the next day, even if they’ll have to do homework later.
We treat every weekday like a school day, on a school schedule, and try to replicate the structure to the extent possible.
We’re also concerned that they get enough physical activity, so I converted our garage into a gym and playground. While winters in Phoenix are mild, the temperatures have been over 110ºF (43ºC) for over 40 days. We pulled out the cars, put in a portable air conditioner, bought some cheap gymnastics mats, and bolted some gymnastics rings to the ceiling. I won’t say their aerial shows are up to Cirque du Soleil standards yet, but we’ve had surprisingly few injuries.
Don’t Forget Mental Health
These are unprecedented times, with levels of persistent fear and uncertainty permeating society in ways not seen for generations. In many ways, children are more flexible and resilient than adults. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the short and long term impacts not only of school at home, but also of the changes to family dynamics, social activities, and personal concerns as kids return to in-person education.
Our children need time to be children. Just as all work-at-home experts recommend stepping away from the home office at the end of the day, it is incredibly important to allow your children the same separation. Most kids have lost a lot of the milestones that define childhood: birthday parties, play dates, summer camps, vacations, and regularly scheduled activities. My wife and I are trying to temper their losses with creative approaches.
Our kids get a break when their school requirements end, just as I used to go to a friend’s house or veg out in front of the TV back in my elementary school days. We encourage them to play out in the garage, including participating in virtual dance or gymnastics classes, or head out to the park around the corner with plenty of water and sunscreen. While we’ve cut off indoor playtime with friends, we accept the moderate risk of outside play with a little social distancing. With fewer kids occupied by scheduled activities, the park around the corner is now home to evening pickup soccer games with groups of kids that never even knew they lived in the same neighborhood. It’s a risk, but one we decided to accept.
Our children don’t get to skip homework, but the time is blocked no differently than when they attended in-person school. Some parents feel they need to put extra time in to compensate for less effective online learning, but we feel providing mental breaks is more important. We also try to provide evening and weekend diversions, including movie nights (sometimes outside using a cheap projector and a sheet), trips to a nearby pool, geocaching (see “Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Geocaching,” 9 June 2003), and takeout dinners from their favorite restaurants. For my 9-year-old daughter’s birthday later this month, we let her pick out a house nearby to rent for a weekend for a little staycation.
We also have one last and hard rule—my daughter just barged into my office to ensure I included it in this article. We don’t allow them to have devices in their bedrooms at night, but we make sure they always have a block of time before sleep to read from paper books.
Make the Best of a Bad Situation
School at home is challenging, especially since we don’t know how long it will last. Even in locations that are offering in-person schooling, there is always the risk that an outbreak will send students back home.
No one—parents, teachers, politicians, or employers—consider this an ideal or even good situation, but it’s the reality we now live in and must accept. The only rational response is to make the best of it and try to provide the most normalcy possible for our kids.
I fully recognize that our household is in a far better situation than many due to our economic stability and having an available parent who can keep the kids on track. But I hope others can learn from these tips while adapting to online schooling.
Great article, Rich, thank you! I especially like that the kids aren’t allowed to have devices at night but still get to read (paper) books before bed.
Thanks for the article. I quickly discovered one other challenge with distance learning from home: how to ensure my son (a Freshman in high school) joins Zoom class sessions on time. On campus, school bells take care of this. My solution: I used the Due reminder app to create a bell schedule on my son’s iPhone. Here is a link to a post where I explain what I did in case it’s helpful to TidBITS readers.
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