A parent's survival guide for virtual back-to-school

August 10, 2020

For lots of parents out there, the sudden move to online schooling in the spring was nothing short of torture. Suddenly, many found themselves working from home and facing triple duty: working, parenting, and teaching. 

Triple that again for working single parents, who have shouldered all of the above without a break since schools closed. Leaning on day care, babysitters, and even family members to help out is now a fraught decision, as many consider the potential health risk/exposure—in addition to financial considerations. We offer child care support and alternatives below.

If you know any single parents in this situation, send them some love. And/or groceries. Seriously.

With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in many states, it looks likely that many schools will not return to the classroom in the fall. Others are considering hybrid solutions that mix in-person with online learning.

Whichever you’ll be dealing with, it’s looking like a tough back-to-school season ahead.

Ordering school supplies and workbooks online is easy, as long as you’ve got the cash and time. 

So instead, let’s talk about ways to help your kids focus and remain engaged AND protect their and your sanity.


The simpler and more streamlined your home environment and daily routines are, the more time and energy you free up toward the added responsibilities your child’s virtual schooling brings.

So where can you simplify your routines and create a less chaotic environment at home?

Get a blank sheet of paper and set a timer for 15 minutes and start writing.

Look at these to start with:

1) Getting yourself ready in the morning.

2) Getting your kid(s) ready in the morning.

3) Preparing meals–look at each meal separately.

4) Home maintenance chores, from laundry to dealing with the trash and recycling, to yardwork, etc.

5) Getting your kid(s) online and/or in school-mode ready for some learning.

Without becoming a robot, where can you institute a system that takes decision making IN THE MOMENT out of the equation and gets you into fast action tasking as quickly as possible.

Nothing is too small, either. If your kids are having trouble just getting dressed in the morning—or aren’t getting dressed at all—can you put out clothes the night before?

And in all of this, don’t neglect yourself. 

Remember that classic airline instruction to “put your own mask on before helping others.” You can’t serve your kids if you’re grinding yourself up and depleting your energy.

As with everything I teach, the goal in this exercise is to eliminate any- and every thing that creates drag and friction.

Pay attention to your story and your 200 Lies.

What are you telling yourself that is non-negotiable that really isn’t?

You can’t make more time and you should not become more efficient just to shove more onto your plate. That hasn’t solved the underlying problem.

So after you find anything that can be trimmed back, systematized or eliminated, where can you find “break” times during the day for YOU to recharge? 

Even 5-10 minutes here and there are valuable. 

Instead of wasting those breathing spaces on surfing social media, be intentional about how you spend that time. 

Could you meditate? Listen to music? Maybe even wake up 30 minutes to an hour before your kids do, to enjoy the stillness before everyone wakes up.

If your child needs help from you during the school day, when and how should they ask? How will you signal that you’re on an important conference call and can’t be interrupted? 

And how do you do that in a way that teaches healthy boundaries instead of signaling that you are tense and unavailable and should just be avoided—no one wants that to be the message sent or received.

I wrote an article a few weeks back on readjusting to the office after COVID. Many of the same principles hold true at home—namely, establishing clear boundaries. 


It may not feel like it, but we’re actually coming into fall with an advantage. We know what worked—and what didn’t—the last time around.

So, channel the movie Groundhog Day and think, “If I could do it all over again, what would I change?”

Here’s an exercise to help. Take a piece of paper and turn it sideways (landscape orientation). Divide it into 4 columns, with the following headings from left to right:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • What would I do differently next time?
  • Non-negotiable new rules/procedures that emerge from the exercise.

So, for example, you might put the following into each category:

  • What worked? Kids completed their homework better when I worked quietly, too.
  • What didn’t work? Both kids ran around and made noise during an important conference call.
  • What would I do differently next time? Give the kids a chance to run around regularly, especially before any important calls. Even during, if appropriate. 
  • Non-negotiable new rules: Clear times when it’s ok to be noisy, and when quiet time is needed. A sign on the office door means quiet time. 

You can use this worksheet to improve how your household operates on all levels, which is a huge help when work, school and family life suddenly collide.

Remember that you’re not alone. Collaborate with your spouse or with other parents in the same boat to fill out this worksheet. The idea exchange will help everyone, and it’s always good to have support.


It’s no secret that online schooling is tough. Thousands of kids are falling behind due to online learning, without teachers there to offer individual support or to keep them accountable and doing homework.

If your school district does end up returning online-only, create an environment in your home that encourages your child to focus and learn while reducing the burden on you. 

And here’s a secret that homeschool parents have known all along: the school day can be a lot shorter when your child is getting 1 on 1 attention. 

So if you can set aside an hour or two to help them with their schoolwork, you may find that you actually need to watch them LESS to make sure they learn MORE.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Stay open, and keep trying different approaches until you find what works for you.

A few suggestions:

  • Break up your day into blocks of time, or focused sprints. Try a schedule where you and the kids both focus on work for 1 hour at a time, or whatever age-appropriate length of time makes sense. Make it a game! Set a timer, and take short breaks in between. (This author swears it is possible!)
  • Minimize distractions in rooms where work will be done. This means—ideally—a space with no toys, video games, TV, or anything else that might distract from schoolwork when it’s study time. If that isn’t possible, set up rules around when screens can be used for activities other than studying. And don’t be afraid to install nannyware or other apps that throttle unauthorized online access.
  • Maintain a routine. Kids thrive on structure, and everyday rituals can help them focus. Try to keep breakfast, lunch, after-school snacks, and other typical schooltime rituals as best you can—including recess!  


Can you reintegrate full-time or part-time daycare for your child? If it’s an option in your area that feels safe, child care centers near you are worth investigating.

Some child care centers are offering day-long supervision specifically for kids learning remotely. They’ve put structures in place to facilitate learning and social time, too. 

In other cases, nontraditional spaces like libraries, churches, and museums are opening their doors for child care.

You might also look at outside organizations like the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club.

If none of this feels remotely safe to you, that’s completely understandable. And don’t worry, you still have options.

How about going virtual? A virtual nanny, babysitter or tutor may be a more affordable option than in-person child care, and it still retains some benefits. These providers can engage with your child directly, one on one, in a way that a teacher of a large virtual classroom simply can’t. 


Things might very well get worse before they get better as we face back-to-school in the continuing reality of COVID-19.

Find ways to simplify your home, declutter your routine and still replenish your energy, so you bring your best self to the challenge.

You and your kids will both need to pay attention to routine, boundaries, and your emotional and mental health.

Have a family conversation about what each of your boundaries are (around work and school time, in particular). With the Groundhog Day exercise, together you can decide on new rules and policies that support everyone’s focus… and sanity.

Where appropriate, and where it feels comfortable, look at where you can bring in additional support, whether virtual or in-person.  

In many ways, online school is “the devil you know.” It may still be daunting the second time around, but this time you can enter the school year informed and prepared.

Your mindset about this situation is as important if not more so than navigating the actual circumstances. If you think this is going to be a nightmare, you’re likely to create one just so you feel justified in your viewpoint. Monitor your 200 Lies.

Truly, the more streamlined and functional things are at home, the easier you can face whatever the new school year brings. The Unstuff Your Life SystemⓇ can help you simplify in a way that will benefit you AND your kids. Pre-register for the next round today!

Click Here To Learn More!
Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!