Care and Feeding

Am I Legally Obligated to Send My Child to Online School?

A young boy writing in front of an open laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Image Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I have a 5-year-old daughter in kindergarten in New York public schools. Our district is requiring online learning via Zoom every day. My husband and I work full time, and like many parents, we’re juggling having our child home full time with our jobs. Am I legally obligated to make her do all of this online learning? Or can we just do as much as works for our family and our schedule and our child?

—Trying to Get By

Dear Trying to Get By,

Your question highlights a major inequity that I feel isn’t being considered as more and more districts face the pressure of providing some semblance of online or distance learning. Many families don’t have the luxury of teleworking (or of having a parent be available while they’re teleworking) during this pandemic.

While I can’t speak to the specific legal requirements of your district, I can speak to what I see happening in my district—in Seattle—and what I hear from my teaching colleagues more generally. We are approaching these learning opportunities as just that, opportunities. While we plan to engage with every student in an equitable way, we know that goal presents an incredible challenge for working families. We’ve spent the past few weeks working in grade-level teams to identify the essential standards we need to cover to prepare our kids for the next grade. We want to make this lift as easy as possible for our students and their parents.

I believe all school districts should approach these new educational models with tenacity but also a healthy dose of empathy. My recommendation is to do as much as you can and figure out the rest after we’ve returned to some sense of normalcy. You could ask your kiddo’s teacher what they’d recommend given your situation. Maybe they can supply you with lessons or activities you can do during a time that works best for your family. But your primary obligation is to keep your family healthy and safe. Everything else will fall into place as our country and world begins the healing process.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

With my preschooler home all day, every single day, I’m hoping to potty-train him. As an expert on kids this age, do you have any specific tips on how I might do this?

—Let’s Poop in the Potty

Dear Let’s Poop,

We deal with this a lot at school. The first thing to bear in mind when potty-training is that you being ready is not the same thing as your child being ready. The bodily control and autonomy required to be successful at potty-training is probably the hardest thing we ask toddlers to do—take a function you’ve never tried to control before, learn to control it, and then learn to stop yourself at the precipice of doing it in order to go to a specific room before you do. And the word successful really is the key there. When children are not successful at going to the bathroom, the experience becomes negative for them, and often negative for you. And if the experience is negative for them, they’re not going to want to try again.

Before you embark on this, think about whether your child is really ready for it, because trying before your child is ready is only going to backfire. So. Signs of readiness. Is your kid aware of when they go in their diaper/pull-up? That’s a big one. Do they tell you right before/right after they’ve gone? That’s another. Is your child interested in using the toilet, or are they just interested in picking out, trying on, or wearing underwear? If your child can stay dry in their diaper for a good chunk of time, or is showing one of these other signs of readiness, it might be a good time to start at least sitting them/standing them at the toilet when you go to change their diaper, at bath time, right before bed and right when they get up, just to see what happens.

Let’s say you’ve tried that. Your kid is showing some signs of readiness, and you put them at the toilet a few times a day. The next step would be to make it a bigger part of your schedule. The problem with bringing kids to the toilet when you change their diaper is that they’ve already voided. You need to catch them before they go. So start taking them once an hour or so and sit them on the toilet. Bring the iPad or an activity they can sit on their lap while they wait (they can watch the Elmo goes potty episode of Sesame Street or the Daniel Tiger “Stop and Go Potty song on YouTube). Give your child about two to five minutes, and if nothing happens, try again later.

Often, for children, it’s that first success that’s the hurdle. They don’t necessarily fully understand what you’re asking them to do. Once they have that first success, even if it’s a single drop, make a big deal about it. Get out some enforcers—an M&M or some tiny treat for every success they have! They’ll want to try again. Over time, they will learn the control to do it consistently.

My last tip is that diapers and pull-ups are not your friends. They are very useful tools because they wick away moisture, but that makes it hard for children to tell when they are wet. If you’re worried about having to wash every pair of kids’ pants you own, or about your upholstery, put your kid in underwear with the pull-up on top instead so that they can feel the “wet” if they have an accident. And if they do, stay calm and ask them to take off the wet clothes and put them in the hamper, so they understand their responsibility in the matter, but try to focus on the positive!

Finally, a little PSA: Whatever you teach them starting at home will be what they execute out in the world. The temptation to let them pee in their portable potty chair or, worse, on a tree outside might be high right now, but consider whether or not you want them doing that for the months it takes to unlearn that habit. It may be a bit more challenging, but taking the time to run to the actual bathroom is much better (and more appropriate) in the long term.

As long as you embark on potty-training when your child is exhibiting signs of readiness, they should be successful and it won’t be that bad. It’s a matter of giving your child time to figure out what to do, while providing ample opportunities to try.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

My son started kindergarten this year, and he absolutely loves it. Every day he comes home bursting with excitement over what he learned and what he did in school today. He has friends, his teacher really likes him, and he works hard. But academically he is struggling and his report cards reflect that. His teacher has been very clear that his problems are despite his hard work and enthusiasm—he really is trying hard! Learning disabilities run on both sides of the family, and I have one myself, so this is something I was prepared for. We are in the process of getting him tested and his teacher has been a huge ally every step of the way. We have talked to him about learning disabilities and he knows he is going to be tested.

But he has no idea he is not doing well in school. He understands the material—his reading and math skills are grade-level or slightly above. But he can’t complete assignments and has problems conveying what he has learned. Nobody is blaming him for his problems and part of me wants to pat him on the head and tell him he is doing great. It’s a kindergarten report card! Who cares!? But I don’t want to lie to him, and I also think if he knew the extent of his problems, he would be motivated to help us to help him. He has some motor-skill delays that he has been in OT for since preschool, and at this point we are not sure if his not doing his work is mostly a physical problem (he struggles with writing) or if there is something else going on. But I don’t want to crush his enthusiasm for school. What should I do?

—Is Attitude Everything?

Dear IAE,

Your son is in kindergarten, so I agree with your first instinct: Continue to encourage him and praise his efforts. Continue to stress that hard work is important, learning can sometimes be difficult, but struggle is normal. I do not think there’s any need to be explicit with him about how behind he is, or how poorly he’s doing academically.

He’s definitely not old enough to process any information related to possible learning disabilities, nor should he be required to at such a young age. That information also won’t make a difference in terms of his progress. He’s a little boy, not yet ready to contend with the challenges that potentially lie ahead.

To me, it frankly sounds as if he’s in a perfect place already: He loves school, works hard, and enjoys the care and attention of an outstanding educator and loving parents. Disability or not, he’s a lucky boy.

If he starts to notice that learning is more challenging for him than his peers, I think a simple conversation about how every human being learns differently would be appropriate. Explain to him that we all have our struggles—he might not see the challenges that his classmates face, but they have them, too.

But I wouldn’t harp on the prospect of learning disabilities at this point or at any point in the near future. It will be a while before that information will be of any practical use to him, and until you know the nature of his learning disability (or if he even has one), there’s not much you can do, either.

Good luck!

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m a college administrator who works in financial aid, and I am greatly troubled by the prevalence of younger students who claim not to know cursive and thus “sign” documents in print. I have researched it, and there is no law stating that a signature must be written in cursive to be legally binding, but I worry that it may lead to future policies requiring signatures by way of a bloody thumb print à la The Hunger Games, or students who will be academically disadvantaged by being unable to read older documents. Am I worrying for the sake of worrying?

—Long Live Cursive

Dear LLC,

Yep, I think you are—or, at least, you’re worrying about a train that has already left the station. Cursive instruction isn’t entirely obsolete—while national Common Core standards do not mandate that students learn it, many individual states still encourage or require it. But it’s certainly not what any teacher or administrator I know would call a high educational priority—I don’t think you’ll find many teachers or administrators prepared to rally for the cause of revitalizing penmanship lessons in the face of more pressing curriculum demands.

And speaking of cultural shifts, I have to wonder if that’s what’s really bothering you. (After all, how many people’s signatures are composed in tidy, legible script, anyway, even among those of us who practiced on pages of dotted lines in third grade?) This feels a little more like nostalgia for a past tradition than a well-placed concern for student outcomes. You’re not alone—these two articles describe how debates over the decline in cursive skills have long been a stand-in for anxiety about American culture and values.

As a financial aid administrator, you work on the front lines of the student loan debt crisis, a problem with dramatic, immediate, and far-reaching consequences for young people. I encourage you to direct your advocacy energy there—you have firsthand professional knowledge of the issue, and effecting reform in that area would have a greater impact on students’ lives than cursive handwriting ever could.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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