Unpaid, untrained, and uncertified for their new role, parents and caregivers were the primary source of instruction for U.S. children this spring-and are likely to remain so for at least the fall semester. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, parents of the average school-age child spent 13 hours per week teaching their children this spring-helping with homework, getting them set up for lessons online, and much more. After multiplying by the 25 students typically in an elementary class, parents were providing 10 times the total amount of instructional hours that a teacher would have provided to the same class in a week! Whether they realize it or not, most school principals are now responsible for an instructional staff of thousands that includes parents as well as paid staff.
But not every child has a teacher at home. Their parents may be essential workers or unable to work from home. Most will lack the financial wherewithal to hire a tutor or pair up with other families in a pod. In the words of one parent we interviewed while researching the nation's shift to remote learning: "I don't have time to look up different resources for my kids to learn from. I've got to make sure we've got food, and a roof, and water, and soap."
School leaders, then, must solve the two very different problems faced by these two different groups of students: those whose parents can play the role of teachers-at-home and those whose parents cannot. When inequities are more visible than ever, we must not make the mistake of treating all families the same-giving all families the same attention from paid staff or the same amount of time in school buildings-when their resources at home differ so greatly. To do so would only widen the gap between the trajectories our children are traveling.
Our schools must, instead, allocate resources to ensure that each child has the supports they need. Yet, as they hurry to get ready for a fall reopening, whether in person, online, or hybrid, many administrators seem not to have calculated just how fundamentally the nature of school-and their own responsibilities-have changed. On the one hand, they must serve a group of students who will receive most of their instruction from a "faculty" that has never taught before-the massive pool of parents and caregivers who (like all novice educators) will desperately need support in order to help teach their children at home. On the other hand, school leaders must serve a different group of students, who likely received very little to no instruction this spring and fell through cracks that have never been wider.
If school leaders can give their new parent-faculty the support they'll need to be more confident and effective in their role as assistant teachers, then they can focus their paid staff-and, if it is safe, their school buildings-on serving those children whose parents or caregivers are unable to help with their learning at home.
To get parents on board, schools should spend the next weeks collecting up-to-date email addresses and cellphone numbers for every parent and caregiver. Believe it or not, many school districts are still missing digital contact information for 40 percent or more of their parents. Now that parents constitute a key part of the school's instructional staff (with responsibilities for IT access and related issues as well), teachers need to be able to reach parents as easily as they would a colleague down the hall.
Second, just as they have set aside budgets for professional development for teachers, schools should dedicate funds to training, supporting, and coordinating with parents. There is so much parents need to know: how to set up a work environment for students at home, how to respond when students are reluctant to study, how to make sense of the curriculum and the standards it targets. At the least, teachers will need to be in regular contact with parents and available for questions-during virtual office hours, perhaps, like those they offer students. Or schools could ask parent-volunteers to serve as liaisons, managing communications and sharing resources with other parents.
A deeper collaboration might include teachers creating a playlist of activities for parents that directly relates to the content their children will be learning that week: movies they could watch, projects they could do together in the kitchen or the car, or museum exhibits they might visit (in person or virtually). Or even something similar to the flexible learning plans that some schools created this spring to give parents tools to help their children learn and practice specific content.
Third, leaders need to reach out proactively to the subset of children for whom the new model of schooling never worked this spring. They must use the coming weeks to identify every household where students were not regularly participating in online instruction. One city school district with which we work recently discovered that 28 percent of students did not log in at all to online lessons in April and early May. And the daily absence rate for virtual lessons was 69 percent-five times the absence rate during the regular school year. Just as they would reach out to support a novice teacher before their students started struggling, schools must track down every student that did not regularly connect this spring and try to find a solution before the school year starts.
Even after the pandemic is over, schools will confront a new fiscal reality where budgets will still have to be trimmed and class sizes will need to be increased. We may never be able to fully restore the old model of school that unfolded within the walls of a single building and through a professional teaching staff. Teachers will continue to need help from outside the school to prevent our children from falling further behind. The resources that schools are creating now to support learning, wherever it may happen, will play a vital role long after the pandemic has quieted. Our concept of "school" should not be limited to what hap-pens between our children and their teachers. Learning never was.
Dan Coleman leads Big Sky Blue Design and is a former classroom teacher. Thomas J. Kane is the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.