In March of 2020, every academic setting was challenged by COVID-19. Some educational models experienced deeper obstructions than others. In addition to the educational disruption, families were strongly impacted socially, emotionally, and spiritually by the changes to their daily school schedule. Although experiences varied, I believe some educational settings did a better job than others equipping their students to excel in non-traditional environments, such as remote learning. While COVID-19 offered us all a plethora of lessons, I will share those I learned through my family’s participation in a University-Model® school.
Parents whose children attended traditional campuses (full time, five days a week) faced a challenge they had never encountered before. Adults were expected to continue their professional careers remotely, in addition to embracing the new role of “co-teacher”—an often unknown territory to them. This transition was extremely overwhelming and stressful to parents, as they also considered the health and safety of their loved ones during the viral outbreak.
In October 2020, as part of a special report called “Learning” in the New York Times, Amelia Nierenberg reported on parents who were asked to answer the question, “How are you dealing with remote learning?” Some of the answers included the following:
- “My third-grader does not like his headphones, which means as I sit next to him, I hear every loud voice, every math lesson, and every time a child interrupts. But it is important that I sit by him, as he is still trying to navigate the eight different online websites that the teacher uses to supplement the classwork. He is also easily distracted and a wiggly 8-year-old boy that needs redirection. He cannot do it alone, and I cannot expect his teacher to do it on her own from her home.”
- “Balancing is not a thing when you are parenting, teaching and working simultaneously. It’s simply not possible to do it all or do any of it well.”
- “My brain is breaking just trying to track their schedules, portals, login information, device access and so on.”
Along with parents who faced new challenges of working remotely while simultaneously embracing the role of teacher, students also faced new challenges, as they were required to complete the school year with variations released weekly and in unfamiliar methods. Similar to adults, students encountered a major transition with being asked to continue schoolwork without the physical presence and supervision of a teacher. And, of course, educators also faced a major challenge. With little warning and limited time to prepare (one or two weeks in most cases), they resumed all lesson plans and transitioned content to an online platform of some sort. To make this possible, they had to ensure every student had digital access as well as additional resources (e.g., textbooks, supplies, manipulatives) to continue the learning process for the remainder of the school year.
Our son, Levi, started at a new school in the fall of 2019. For grades Kindergarten–2, he had attended a charter school and excelled in every area. However, we transferred him when we learned about a local Christian private school that followed a non-traditional method called University-Model® (UM). Students in grades Kindergarten–6 attend in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays and receive satellite assignments from highly qualified teachers to complete at home on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Secondary students, those in grades 7–12, attend in person on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and also have satellite work to complete on the other two weekdays. According to John Turner Jr., the model was designed to equip students for college, while also providing parents the opportunities to disciple, influence, and mentor their children even during the school year. UM parents receive the title of co-instructor, as they partner with certified teachers in educating their child.
As Barry Zimmerman found, “self-regulation is important because a major function of education is the development of life-long learning skills” (66). My husband and I believed the flexible schedule of a University-Model® school would provide opportunities for our son to establish life-long learning skills, while also allowing us to remain active participants in his personal and academic development. Additionally, with two much younger children, we saw this school model as the perfect opportunity for our sons to have the close relationship we desired even with the large age gap (five and seven years) because of the increased time together.
Academic Experience before COVID-19
When we first transitioned to the school model, I knew there were several skills Levi had to develop in order to succeed academically. As a nine-year-old boy, self-regulatory skills of organizational and time management are limited without the intervention of an adult. Although he had excelled in school the previous three years, a combination of in-person and satellite days was a different dynamic to navigate without the constant direction of a teacher. I dedicated much of our satellite days to establishing routines (e.g., making his bed, eating breakfast, and reading his devotional prior to beginning schoolwork), teaching independence (e.g., setting timers, using resources, and prioritizing tasks), and bringing awareness to times of engagement (e.g., assessing which assignments require a lot of focus, when to take breaks, and how to be a good listener). We had only experienced the normalcy of a UM school for eight months when the pandemic hit; however, we had established an effective satellite day routine that I believe made the transition to remote learning nearly seamless.
During the initial eight months of “normal” UM school, I observed that Levi was mostly engaged in the mornings and typically chose to start his satellite days with math. He would then complete language arts, followed by social studies and science. I allowed flexibility to create a sense of ownership in his satellite work. I taught him how to create an organized space to minimize distractions. I also emphasized the importance of time management. He used his watch to set timers for reading, and we also established a general idea of how long each subject should take based on his competency in the content area. If he was disengaged and went over the allotted time, he faced certain consequences. If he went over the allotted time because of a heavier workload rather than lack of attention on his part, the consequences did not apply. He developed an understanding of the impact of his own motivation in regard to his schoolwork.
Academic Experience during COVID-19
When we received the email that school would resume remotely for the remainder of the year, I was confident that our routine would remain nearly uninterrupted.
UM teachers transitioned their lessons to various virtual methods, like all other teachers. However, UM teachers already had the benefit of their part-time remote teaching experience.
UM teachers used Google Classroom, where they engaged with students and encouraged them to interact with each other academically and socially. The teachers created videos to celebrate birthdays and held Zoom meetings where they continued to pray and have weekly devotionals with the students. Smaller groups were assigned for math lessons, and much of science transitioned to the outdoors, using God’s creation.
The administrative team also recorded videos where the head of school opened with the pledge of allegiance, announcements, and birthday celebrations, and closed with a prayer over the students, their families, and the staff. Communication was important, as new information was released weekly. As a private school, the school’s leadership team had more flexibility in the daily operations, since they did not rely on information provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make their decisions on how to proceed with operations. Because they closely followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, the remainder of the 2020 school year continued virtually as everyone navigated the longevity of the virus.
In my conversations with other co-instructors (UM parents), it became apparent that their remote learning experiences were quite similar to ours. Many UM parents work, and therefore had to juggle the duties of co-teaching, parenting, and working remotely. However, UM students were equipped with various skills that eliminated much of the academic “shock” experienced by so many traditional-school students, easing the pressure placed on parents during remote learning.
Kelly Sakzenian Cagle is an educational consultant and holds a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Texas at Arlington. Her research areas include alternative instructional methods, school choice, and parents as co-instructors at University-Model schools.
Swaner, Lynn E. and Matthew H. Lee. Christian Schools and COVID-19: 2020–2021 School Year Profile. Association of Christian Schools International, December 2020.
Nierenberg, Amelia. “Students, Parents and Teachers Tell Their Stories of Remote Learning.” New York Times, 14 Oct. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/14/education/learning/students-parents-teachers-remote-stories.html.
Turner, Jr., John W. Character Driven College Preparation: Parents and Teachers in Partnership through University-Model Schooling. GPA Ministries, 2001.
Zimmerman, Barry J. “Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview.” Theory into Practice, vol. 41, no. 2, Spring (2002): 64–70.