School districts across the United States are working to improve online learning access as the school year begins in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Sept. 10)
Homeschooling and remote work have taken on entirely new meanings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Parents have been forced to transform their homes into places where they may be continuing to work, while their children have begun the new school year attending some or all of their classes remotely – from their bedroom, the family living room or another place in the house.
Many different strategies have been deployed. Some homeowners have taken advantage of record-low interest rates to buy a new home perhaps more suitable for the school and work from home situations.
Others have expanded their workspaces by buying – or building – a shed for the backyard or elsewhere on their property to use as a home office – to not only separate working adults, but also adults from virtual school-attending children.
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But most have taken more modest steps to improve setups within their homes for students or working adults. Several families across the U.S. recently shared their school and work from home strategies with USA TODAY.
Destiny Hamlett and her family lost their home during the Camp Fire in northern California two years ago. Now, her husband, their three daughters and his father live in a 35-foot trailer in Thermalito, California, on some friend’s property.
“There’s not much room to work with as it is tiny. I found the smallest folding table I could find” as a study place for the girls, which are in the eighth grade, fifth grade and first grade, said Destiny Hamlett, a stay-at-home mom. Since the fire, it has been hard for her husband to find work, but he does odd jobs, she says.
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This summer’s fires continued to burn around the area since the girls’ virtual schooling began a few weeks ago. “Communication with the teachers has been difficult at times because it may take them one or two days to get back to me on a problem,” she said.
Their school gave them a hotspot, “but it only allows one laptop to get on it. If I try more than one, it kicks one off,” she said. So they’ve been also been using her phone and her husband’s as hotspots, too. “That has eaten up a lot of our data,” she said.
Stephanie Eno, 45, of Los Angeles, bought a new desk for her daughter Bella, 10, in preparation for fifth grade, which started more than a month ago. When schooling went remote in March, Eno noticed her daughter didn’t have an ideal place to study.
“She would be at the dining room table, then on the couch and then in her bedroom,” Eno said. “She literally did not get out of pajamas for four and a half months.”
The desk was placed by a window, with no real distractions outside. Bella was asked to at least dress her upper body for school and an Amazon Alexa notifies her five minutes before class starts.
“Now she only goes to that desk for school,” Eno said. “I pack her lunch in the morning, so when she does have her breaks, she can go do her own thing. We definitely structured the day much more regimented as if she were going to school.”
A single parent who is the head of development for a small TV production company, Eno moved her work at home setup to the kitchen in the rear of the home, “so if I have calls, I can duck out my back door and not distract her.”
Other upgrades: a better modem and faster broadband service. “We are now having fewer Wi-Fi dropout problems than last year,” Eno said.
Better internet a must for school, work at home
Broadband connectivity has been critical for remote work and learning.
During the second quarter of the year (April-June), the largest U.S. broadband providers added about 1,245,000 Internet subscribers, compared to 375,000 in the same period last year, according to the Leichtman Research Group.
“With the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there were more quarterly net broadband additions in 2Q 2020 than in any quarter in eight years,” said principal analyst and president Bruce Leichtman in a recent report.
During the first half of the year, more than 2.4 million consumers added broadband, the highest first half-year increase since 2008, he said. Overall, about 103.4 million subscribers get broadband from top cable and telephone providers.
Faster broadband was essential, too, for Jared Craig, 22, of Houston, Texas, who is a student teacher of second-grade social studies, and his roommate, who is also teaching and studying for a master’s degree in music composition.
They bumped up their broadband speed from about 25 megabytes per second to about 50 Mpbs.
“Since we are both teaching from a live video format, we have purchased a better internet upload/download speed, and I personally keep my phone off of the Wi-Fi,” says Craig, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
He conducts classes in his room with the door closed, and his roommate doesn’t practice on musical instruments while Craig is teaching on Zoom.
Teachers have reduced screen time to 15 minutes of live lessons per subject, so students aren’t staring at screens for long periods of time, Craig says.
“Overall, for second graders, I have been impressed with their attention spans and quality of work,” he said. “Another issue we often face is Zoom randomly kicking us off. The kids could potentially sit in a Zoom call together with no supervisor and cause all sorts of ruckus.”
Demand high for desks, computers
Upgrading your home for remote schooling and continued work from home hasn’t always been easy. Some retailers had COVID-19-caused shortages of desks and chairs in advance of the new school year, as more households faced new realities of school and work at home.
Retailers expected record spending this year, with the average family with school-aged children – from elementary school to high school – expecting to spend about $790, topping the previous record of nearly $697, according to The National Retail Federation. Total back to school spending is expected to approach $34 billion, blasting past the previous record of $30.3 billion in 2012.
“Consumers were telling us they were planning to spend a significant amount more on average, particularly parents of grade school and high school students,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the federation. “Some of that is fueled by e-learning but a lot that was from having to plan for multiple scenarios.”
More than three-fourths of consumers (76%) surveyed said they planned to spend on products specifically for online learning, found the NRF survey of 7,569 consumers, conducted August 3-11.
About 37% expected to buy laptops, up slightly from 36%, in a similar NRF survey in July. Those expecting to buy desks for home studying rose to 23% from 17%.
“Lamps, speakers and headphones were another big area, which stood out for us because if have multiple kids learning at home or kids at home while parents are also working, you have to create that sense of privacy and focus,” Cullen said.
And high demand for home computers may continue on into 2021. Total U.S. PC sales rose 42% from March to August, while notebook computer sales rose 46%, according to The NPD Group. Consumers are spending more on notebooks than in the past, with average prices of Chromebooks topping $300 and Windows notebooks often surpassing $575, NPD says.
NPD projects PC sales to increase 49% in the last three months of the year and 20% in the first three months of 2021. “In response to a global pandemic that has restricted our ability to gather in person for work and education, among other things, many of us have turned to technology to keep us connected,” said Stephen Baker, NPD’s vice president and industry advisor for technology and mobile, in a recent report.
For some folks, adjusting their lives during the pandemic meant making moves. In New York, licensed real estate salesperson Christopher Totaro, 56, and his family moved from Tribeca to his brother and sister-in-law’s home on Long Island. There, three adults including his wife work from home – Totaro commutes to New York City when needed for work – and two children attend school virtually.
He has hired two virtual tutors for his fourth-grade son who assist via Zoom with grammar, writing, math, organizing and scheduling.
“It has been a huge blessing,” Totaro said. “It is not so far off from in-person learning. The tutors are very engaging and actual teachers so the Zoom is productive.”
The other upgrade many families mention adding to their lives is more about bites than bytes: More snacks.
Follow reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.
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