Last March, during one of my first ever virtual happy hours, I was chatting with a friend and I mentioned that, in the spirit of low expectations, I was mentally preparing for my kids to not be back in school until September. I thought I was being prudent. My friend looked at me and said, with a skeptical eye and a tone of authority, “your kids won’t be back in school in September”. I disregarded her comment.

This was when we thought we’d be inside for just a few weeks, maybe a couple months. Tops. I was so naive.

Now it’s late August, and let’s just say, I’ve been to many, many virtual happy hours at this point. (In fact, that’s my main social outlet!) My kids are starting school next week. And, just like my friend (who I now refer to as a “the COVID soothsayer”), said and like the vast majority of kids in the US, it will be virtual.

Low expectations? I’ve stopped having ANY expectations about when they’ll be able to return in person.

But, I’m a firm believer in understanding what we can control and what we can’t. Prepare for the former, and don’t fret the latter. I can’t control when my kids will be back in school, but I can make sure we’re set up for virtual school success this time around.

Here’s what’s on my flight check for the upcoming school year, so that my kids are as independent as possible, and that I can get as much work done as possible…during the workday.:

Arm them for independence

  • Put snacks at their height and make sure they know they can grab them. (You don’t want to be hearing “I’m hungry” in the middle of your own Zoom call.)
  • Do a computer walk-through.
    • Do they know how to get on Zoom by themselves?
    • Do they know how to print?
    • Do they know how to contact their teacher for help?

Make schedules visible

In my experience, the visual schedule (or lack thereof) with make or break this experience. The schedule should be everywhere, both printed and digital.

School schedule:

  • Make sure each of your kids has a printed version of their own schedule, so they can see what they should be doing when. Put a clock nearby (or show them the clock on their device).
  • If the school isn’t providing a digital schedule, make a Google calendar that your kid can access. Put their classes (along with the Zoom links) in the schedule. Show them how to access it.

Your schedule:

  • Make a simple, weekly schedule for yourself, and any other adults in the house that shows when you’ll be in meetings (and are not to be interrupted…unless the house is on fire or someone is bleeding). I opt for a simple spreadsheet with times on the left and days on the top. I highlight in red the cells for the times where I’m in meetings.
  • Post this schedule outside your own workspace (on your home office door, or the back of your laptop) where they will see it before they see you.

Ensure supplies are accessible

  • Make sure each kids has a box or basket of the school supplies they’ll need during the day. Better yet if each kid has their own.
  • Make sure the printer is in an accessible location for all. (I learned this the hard way last school year when notes from my children were constantly slipped under my office door asking me if they could print something.)

Give everyone a space

  • Everyone in your house should have their own workspace. This doesn’t need to be separate rooms – you might not have that option – but as far from each other as possible is best.
  • Each space should have a comfortable chair, a work surface, and a nearby place to store work or school things at the end of the day. A cardboard box that slides under the couch after the school day is over is a perfectly reasonable option here. This doesn’t have to be fancy.

Use headsets

Pre-COVID, I’d never used a headset. I found them a bit annoying, to be honest. But now I find them essential.

We ended up getting these ridiculously large noise-cancelling gamer headsets for everyone in our family. They are big, they are comfortable, they fit on both kids and adults and they don’t pick up background noise.

You don’t want to hear your kids’ teachers all day long. And they don’t want to hear you.

Make a plan for after-school

Your kids used to be in activities, or after school care. We don’t have any of that anymore. But when the school day ends, you’ve still got a few hours of work left.

What will your kids be allowed to do after school?:

  • Do you want them to go play in the backyard (if you’ve got one)?
  • Should they be finishing their homework?
  • Cleaning the kitchen? (I’m serious; our kids now have to clean the kitchen after school because SO. MANY. DISHES.)
  • Free play time?
  • And if you’ve decided that you’re just gonna let them play video games so you can get your work done without whining or complaining, you’ll hear absolutely no judgement from me!

Whatever you decide, make sure there’s a plan that everyone agrees (or acquiesces) to. (And don’t forget to put it on the schedule.)

Communicate, experiment, iterate, repeat

This is my COVID mantra. Communicate, experiment, iterate, repeat.

Every day – dinner is a great time to do this – have a conversation with everyone in your house and ask these 3 questions:

  • What went well today? (So we can double down on it tomorrow.)
  • What didn’t go so well today?
  • What will we try to tomorrow to make things better?

If you’ve got littles:

If you’ve got littles (babies, toddlers, kids who can’t read or navigate a computer solo yet), well, then much of I’ve said above is moot for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for success. There are 2 primary strategies that seem to be working best for folks in your situation:

Taking shifts

If you’ve got a co-parent or another adult in the house, the best way for you both to get work done is going to be to take shifts for being the “on call parent”.

You don’t need to take the same shifts daily, but essentially, you’ll split the day so that one person gets to pretend like they are not home and gets a few hours of undivided attention towards their work while the other parents is on duty with the kids. And then you switch.

When you’re the on-call parent, it’s not that you can’t get any work done, but it will be interrupted, so you’ll do email, and expenses, and digital filing and whatever kind of work you have that doesn’t suffer greatly from being interrupted.

During your heads-down-I’m-not-here shift, you’ll take your important meetings and do the work that really can’t be interrupted.

The 5 minute set up

If you’re an single parent, or when you’re the on-call parent, you’ll want to employ the strategy of getting your kids set up with an activity (or a nap) for 5 to 10 minutes, and then (hopefully) allowing them to do that activity relatively independently for as long as they’ll let you. Likely somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes. Then repeat.

For more tips, resources and templates, download my Working Parents Survival Guide here, if you haven’t already!