How to Navigate Back-to-School (at Home): A Guide for Parents 

Back-to-school used to mean you’d pack lunches with little notes tucked inside, snap photos of the perfect “first day” outfit, and drop off the kids at the bus stop before sending your little students on their way. But as schools reopen amid-COVID-19 to offer a mix of in-person, hybrid, or remote only programming, 31% of parents in the U.S. are planning to keep their children at home for virtual learning.

Others will need to find a harmonious transition from the classroom to home if their school — at any point in the coming weeks and months — faces a virus outbreak and has to shut down unexpectedly. With the home office potentially occupied with a parent or two working remotely, and the rest of your space at home totally maxed out, what options do parents have to find some semblance of order and sanity?

Although there are no simple or perfect solutions, we chatted with seasoned home school parents, newly “podded” neighbors, and real estate experts helping clients find homes more suitable for busy families. We’ve compiled their advice into this comprehensive walkthrough for parents facing a variety of situations, whether you need to:

  • Outfit your home to support virtual schooling
  • Move into a different home that better serves your family’s new needs
  • Find or start a neighborhood school pod that supports learning in small groups
A student working on schoolwork at home.
Source: (Annie Spratt / Unsplash)

If you’re reconfiguring your home for remote learning…

Home is where the distractions are. Keeping your kids on task during the school day can be a challenge while balancing business calls or your own commitments. Here’s what homeschooling pros swear by to keep their kids engaged at home during the school day:

Provide a separate workspace.
Learning remotely can feel unfamiliar and daunting for your children, so make sure they have some space to call their own as they adjust to the process.

“We started by purchasing my son his own desk. We set it up in a small space area in the living room, which is away from my office but still close enough where I can keep an eye,” shares working mother and blogger Lucy Reyes.

The desk includes space to keep supplies, workbooks, and reading materials. Keeping everything in one spot can help kids create boundaries between work and school life, even if everything is under one roof.

Put a clock in the room, and a trash can near the workstation.
Reyes also finds that placing a clock within eyesight and a trash can nearby cuts down on excuses for her son to leave his home workstation during school hours. “A digital clock can help your kids keep track of their own schedule without constantly having to ask you what’s next,” she explains.

Don’t skip recess.
“We have set break times when our whole family goes out for short bursts of fun physical activity,” says musician, translator, and now homeschooling parent, Peter Head. Head has set up a slackline, monkey bars, and small four-square court in the yard to encourage physical activity and play.

“I find the children focus a lot more on their online studies after even just a 10-15 minute spurt of daily intense play,” Head shares.

In August, HomeLight polled real estate agents across the country about how they’re seeing parents outfit their homes for remote school. We found that parents are turning spare bedrooms or playrooms into homeschool spaces (45%), putting in built-in desks and school supplies storage (14%), or adding fresh paint to dedicated study or homeschool rooms (11%). Meanwhile, 14% of agents are seeing teachers turn spare rooms into their virtual classroom.

If you’re moving into a different house….

We also polled real estate agents about the school-related moving motivations they’re noticing in their markets. Surprisingly, a third of agents reported that they’ve seen parents move for better broadband access, more space for at-home schooling, or because they were dissatisfied with how their school system is handling COVID-19.

Whatever is driving you to look for a new house, we’ve got some tips for getting through this move. Between the pandemic, juggling the kids, selling your current place, and limited housing inventory, you’ve got many stress-factors compounding an already complex endeavor.

Be prepared to face a competitive seller’s market

In her over a decade of experience, top-selling Philadelphia-area real estate agent Erica Deuschle has never seen so much interest from buyers looking for bigger homes. “They want to get out of the city limits and they want to get into the suburbs,” she says.

Deuschle says the buyers she’s working with now have done more research than ever before, and are taking the process more seriously as they recognize that “now, more than ever, your home is very important because you’re going to be there a lot.”

Do your homework ahead of time

With a competitive seller’s market dominating most of the country, many buyers have already crunched the numbers before even meeting with their agent. They know how much home they can afford. They know their must-haves. And they know where they’re willing to compromise.

Doing your research ahead of time will help you focus on a smaller selection of properties that you’re more confident could be a good fit before you book a showing. “10 years ago, I would take people out on a weekend and they would see 15 houses. Now, you’re lucky to see 5 before pulling the trigger,” says Deuschle.

According to Deuschle, most buyers are more interested in homes with large yards (they’re thinking about putting pools in) and home offices — or at least a basement that can be made into a home office or schooling space. So, expect to face competition for homes with these features and amenities.

Make a strong offer

When you find a house you love, be ready to make a strong, clean offer. It’s not a time when you can really get away with asking for closing costs to be covered, or request any seller concessions upfront. And think twice before trying to add a pesky home sale contingency to your terms — it’s sure to weaken your position with sellers.

Finally, it’s helpful if you can offer flexibility to the seller who will likely be in a similar position as you: scrambling to find a new home they like enough to make an offer on.

“We’re doing a lot of rent backs, where the seller rents their home back from the buyer until they’ve closed on a new home,” Deuschle says.

A man decluttering a home before going back to school.
Source: (nito / Shutterstock)

If you’re selling your current home, too

Even in a seller’s market, selling a home with kids is never easy. Many of these challenges you already face have only intensified in the time of coronavirus when leaving the home isn’t as simple as popping out to a restaurant or gym. Now, more than ever, keep these expert tips in mind:

Work with your agent to promote your listing with a virtual tour.
In 2020 you have an array of robust tools and technology at your disposal to give buyers a highly realistic experience of your home online — which allows them to either identify your home as a strong match for their needs, or rule it out entirely. This helps cut back on showing requests immensely.

“We ask that the buyer’s agent shows our listing video to their clients first before ever stepping foot into the home,” says top-selling Spokane, Washington-based agent Cambria Henry.

In addition to quality listing photos, make sure your listing features one of the following:

  • Recorded video walkthrough (guided by the person behind the camera)
  • 3D or 360-degree self-navigable tour (allows buyers to interact and navigate a home virtually at their own leisure)
  • Listing video (produced, usually with high-quality video and music, to show a home’s highlights).

Create a showings schedule.
With everything else up in the air, now is not the time for miscommunication or last-minute showings if you can avoid them. Work with your agent to create a showings schedule for your home that works for you and your family. Plot out certain days of the week and blocks of time when your family can be out of the house completely (in a nearby park or friend’s backyard) without it totally disrupting your life.

Donate what you can, and stash everything else into storage.
Paring down clutter will make it easier to pack and move, and it’ll help to keep the house ready for showings. Work with your kids to sort through their toys and clothes, helping them decide what they might like to donate, and what they need to keep. Then, put everything you can into storage, including seasonal wardrobes and infrequently used items.

When in doubt, order out.
Selling a home is stressful enough, so feel free to relieve yourself from cooking duties. Keep a steady stock of pre-cooked frozen meals, and don’t hesitate to order takeout when reheating a meal sounds like too much work. Not only will this cut down on cooking chores, but it’ll also avoid big kitchen messes that you have to clean up before a showing.

Keep a cleaning checklist on hand.
No matter how hard you try to keep the house spotless, when you have kids, it will get dirty — and there will be that unexpected showing request right when the mess occurs. For those stressful moments, consult the checklist below to get your house whipped into presentable shape in record time.

If you’re stressed about the move (and your kids’ reaction)…

More than ever, planning ahead on your move matters. Here’s what you can do to keep kids stress-free during the move:

Order all the supplies you’ll need ASAP.
The ripple effects of the pandemic have created shipping delays and unexpected product shortages. Start ordering moving and sanitation supplies early, giving you time to find substitutions if necessary. Having all your supplies at hand when it comes time for packing and moving eliminates the last minute, stress-inducing errands with kids in tow.

Pack in shifts.
“For families in a two-parent household, try to switch off having a parent in charge of the children during the day while the other handles the move details,” recommends Travis Miller, ADT’s VP and Residential Moving Expert. Instead of splitting focus between two tasks, each parent focuses on one task, resulting in less stress, and fully attentive parenting.

Add some love to your day-of bag.
Moving pros and real estate experts all encourage movers to pack a “day-of” moving bag with essentials you’ll need immediately at your new place. But Miller also recommends adding in some cherished items to it for your kids. “Create a bag of their favorite toys and ‘lovies’ (such as plush toys, blankets, or stuffed animals) that the child can carry with them. This will give them a sense of comfort that their favorite things are with them and help them settle in easier.”

Two students working on schoolwork at home.
Source: (fizkes / Shutterstock)

If you just need better internet…

Whether you’re in the midst of hunting for your pandemic dream home or just need a Wi-Fi boost to handle the full-time office and home school that’s taken over the house, these tips will help you find a plan that works for your household:

1. Optimize the physical set up.
Wireless routers tend to send their signal out and down, so avoid placing yours on a bottom shelf in the corner of your home. Place the router on a higher shelf or even on your fireplace mantle (especially if it’s in a central location) to make best use of your signal. If you haven’t solidified exactly where the kids’ new home school learning setup will be, try to find a spot on the same floor as the router, if possible.

2. Tally up your family’s bandwidth needs and upgrade plans accordingly.
Idaho’s Department of Education recommends that student’s at-home internet speed is no slower than 5 Mbps, or megabits per second, to handle the now-essential Zoom lessons but ideally 25 Mbps for 4k video streaming. If your child is constantly frozen in video calls, your provider’s speed may not be able to keep up.

Free sites like Speedtest are a quick way to check your internet speed. You may need to upgrade your plan or shop around for a new high-speed provider to meet your home’s demand. Also, check out the provider’s policy and consider choosing a plan with no data caps, especially if you have four or more household members.

If you have one, your internet speed will slow down after a specific amount of data, commonly 1TB, is transferred each month. While hitting that 1TB limit might have seemed far-fetched pre-coronavirus, providers are temporarily lifting or increasing data caps to meet the increase in volume.

3. Fill in the gaps with ethernet and Wi-Fi extenders.
If you need more of a quick fix rather than an overhaul, plugging your computer back in with ethernet cables or adding a Wi-Fi extender can be a great option for your setup. Wi-Fi extenders, which run as low as $30, help eliminate dead spots created by obstacles like staircases or load-bearing walls in your home by extending the signal to the remote area.

Happen to have a computer setup right near the router? You can guarantee the highest possible internet speed and eliminate a device from the family competition for Wi-Fi by using an ethernet cord. Simply plug in the cord to the back of your router and, if needed, into a usb-to-ethernet converter for laptops (available for $16 on Amazon).

And if you are moving, you can get an idea of which providers offer service in your new area with this FCC usage map.

If you’re creating a neighborhood schooling pod…

For parents opting for remote school in the fall, “pods” have become all the rage, “it’s very much the talk of the town right now,” agrees Deuschle. In our survey, 8% of agents have seen clients move into a new house or neighborhood for the opportunity to join a homeschool pod, a significant portion considering this concept barely existed a year ago.

In fact, in August 2020, search interest for the phrase “homeschool pod” reached peak popularity of 100, up from 0 the year prior.

Source: Google Trends (search interest for “homeschool pod” YoY)

Mother of two and creator of parenting blog C’MON MAMA Christina Cay had never considered homeschooling her children before this fall. However, she knew there was no way she’d get her two young children to sit in front of a computer for virtual learning, so she teamed up with two other families to create a homeschooling pod.

Here’s how Cay and her pod are operating their tiny school:

  • Find the right fit. For Cay, it was important not only to team up with families who had children of a similar age, but also the same attitudes towards social distancing and coronavirus exposure. “The only way to form a cohesive little unit is to make sure we are all on the same page,” Cay says.
  • Hire professional educators. “We hired teachers who chose to leave the classic school system this year due to exposure concerns,” explains Cay. With the focus on kindergarten and pre-K, the pod set out to find educators with experience in their kids’ age group.
  • Rotate “classrooms” week-to-week. The three families in the pod are switching off classroom hosting duties each week, so no one family has to host all the time. While each family is creating a dedicated workspace, they also aim to hold as much school as possible outside.
  • Take advantage of new opportunities. Cay’s pod is making room for exploration and adaptation in learning styles. From nature walks to kitchen cooking lessons, “we plan to capitalize on the non-traditional aspects of our ‘school’ and use them to complement what they are learning in their curriculum,” Cay says.

The pandemic has changed the way we spend time in our homes, as well as what we need out of those spaces. While you might not have envisioned moving this time last year or having a full house during the day, our circumstances and priorities have shifted drastically.

The school year might look different than before, but it doesn’t have to be a disruption in your child’s education. Whether you’re juggling a move, converting your spare room into a classroom, or podding up with neighborhood families, school is still in session.

Header Image Source: (Gustavo Fring / Pexels)

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