On Gaps in Education During a Pandemic

April 8, 2020

All photo credits: Beth Stevick

I have a confession to make. The first week that school was closed due to the pandemic, I think I might have helped my sons (4th and 8th grade) get through somewhere around 25% of the school work they had been assigned. Maybe less.

But let me go on to tell you that I am actually my sons’ teacher, and I am the one who assigned the work in the first place. They are already used to doing school at home, we have established routines, and I already had this really nice checklist to help me stay focused on what we should be doing. In fact, this is my 18th year homeschooling four children for a grand total of 37.5 grade years.

The rapid changes, the stress, the fear, the uncertainty flattened even a veteran homeschooler, and I had fewer changes to contend with than many of you. I’m wondering if you might feel a little bit better now about whatever it was that you managed to accomplish in the last few weeks.

Maybe I can do more, though. As you face the coming weeks and possibly months of having kids home who are normally in school while you are still trying to do all of the other things you normally do, and in far from ideal circumstances for all of it, I wonder if it would help you to know that I’m also really not worried about how badly we did.

I figured we’d probably do a little better the second week, and indeed we did. Some better. (Let me tell you, there is a LOT of room for improvement over 25%!) But even if we hadn’t, I still wouldn’t worry. I know both from my many years of homeschooling and from my own life that gaps in education can be filled in remarkably quickly when the student is developmentally ready and motivated and not compromised by emotional upheaval.

Over the years, our family has experienced numerous disruptions to our homeschooling plans and ideals: difficult pregnancies, sweet newborns with merciless demands, the rigors and distractions involved in constantly trying to keep toddlers alive and constructively occupied (especially certain toddlers), moving across the country, health problems, learning disabilities. All of these initially flooded me with anxiety and self-doubt. Would my divided attention and inadequacies prove disastrous to my kids’ education? But, over time, I began to see that, somehow, it always worked out.

Then, I began to count on it. I saw that, sometimes, while I was busy dealing with life, other good things were happening in their lives that I was not directly responsible for—sometimes increased independence and self-direction, often quite a bit more reading, sometimes new interests developed, sometimes a little more maturity. Often, when we were able to get back to the books more steadily, they made up the “lost time” and then some, as if the down time or the “less than usual” time had been just what they needed—maybe it was the rest, or time for things to percolate and gel.

I don’t know exactly how or why, but it has always been fine. I’ve seen that there are surprisingly wide margins of error in the education of children. There was always plenty of time for me to learn how to proceed amid distractions of all sorts, to make mistakes and learn from them, then to make more mistakes and learn from those as well.

Stevick siblings celebrate their older sister Katherine’s Houghton graduation in 2019. Ally is a current Houghton student from the class of 2021.

Well, you might say, that’s because you’re homeschooling. I’ve heard that, with homeschooling, kids learn more in less time, so that’s why you have these generous margins for error and for the messiness of life.

Then, let me tell you a little about my own schooling. I had one of the most fragmented educations I can imagine. I attended a total of 10 different schools in 11 years (in three different states and representing three different countries’ educational systems). When I arrived on campus my freshman year, I was very young and terribly underprepared. And I did not thrive. I floundered for a solid two, maybe two and a half years of my college experience. But then, finally, by my junior and senior years at Houghton, the efforts and demands of Houghton’s professors; my own efforts to read, to think, to write; and all of the many stimulating conversations with friends, late-night theological discussions, arguments over campus and national controversies—all of these had a long, slow effect on me, and, by my final years, I had learned to be a successful college student. Even more importantly, I had learned to think and learned to learn. I left Houghton with lifetime gifts that I didn’t even fully realize I had been given at the time. Sure, it would have been ideal if I’d come to campus all ready for college as a freshman. I would have gotten so much more out of it. But even with the disadvantages I brought in, Houghton still managed to have me leave campus ready for the rest of my life.

I’m not saying that the packets your children’s teachers have sent home don’t matter or suggesting it will all magically come right if you just don’t worry about it.

Here’s what I am trying to say: You are likely feeling pressure from many sides. Keep the pressure you may be feeling about your child’s interrupted and less-than-ideal education this year in perspective. It is a very small part of their whole K-12 experience. Children are remarkably resilient in all possible ways. It’s almost like God knew when he made them that they were going to be cared for (and taught) by people like us—adults who are creative and resourceful but also poor and needy, sometimes brittle and snappish, and whose best laid plans and strategies for life can and did get unceremoniously tossed in the trash in the face of a tiny virus we can’t even see.

Their school work does matter—it is important—but there are some things that matter even more. Make sure you are doing those things first. Then, if you have time and emotional energy to tend to their formal education, great! If not, hear me when I say: Their prospects in life, their ability to get into a good college, their likelihood of becoming curious, creative adults who love to learn and keep doing it their whole lives will really not be significantly affected one way or the other by this year’s disruption.

Even that first crazy week, I got outside for a good, long walk every day. Solitude, exercise and the beauty of nature are a wonderful help to me every day, but I need it more than ever right now. In the long run, it will be much more important to my children (and to their education) that I am as healthy as I can be, especially when the world is going crazy. If I’ve taken time to calm myself, to remind myself of God’s presence in my life and his care for me and my children, I will think better and be better able to figure out what my priorities should be and to make a plan for what to try differently tomorrow. For me, this is one of the things I need to do first.

A sanity-saving walk around Moss Lake

Of course, even when we do the most important things first, we will still make plenty of mistakes. Are you afraid that maybe the mistakes you will make in these next months will somehow be more detrimental to your children’s education than the many I’ve managed to make over the 18 years with my kids?

Well, if worse comes to worst, and they emerge from college still feeling that they somehow never really recovered from the pandemic disruption, there is one final, though admittedly extreme, recourse they can take. I’ve found it to be one of the most thorough ways of finding holes in my general knowledge and skills and, on the whole, one of the most delightful ways to fix them: They can always homeschool their own children!