As the school year ended without picnics and parties, I thought “never again.” As in, “I never again want to experience online school.” I wasn’t alone. Through text messages, my girlfriends empathized with my exhaustion from trying to make online school happen. I couldn’t wait until fall.
However, as summer began to pass, rumblings began about whether students could or should return to school in person. My heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach. “Never again,” I thought.
Then, with the district’s plan released and a plan B option made available for online school, my “never again,” started to turn into “maybe.”
What was it about online school that was so hard? The isolation? The attempt to understand all the facets of the school curriculum? My failed attempt in trying to keep my child engaged and excited about learning?
Struggling with the positives of being in person for school, but recognizing the realities of a global health pandemic, I began to consider how all the negatives of online schooling could be turned into more positive outcomes.
Thinking about my family and those of my daughter’s friends, I began to realize that maybe there are options that would allow a positive experience using the online school choice this fall. With children in their middle school years, the interdependence developed among our families provides an opportunity for independence from the traditional school routine and the physical and emotional support our kids needed when they were younger.
What is a Co-op?
By definition, a cooperative (or co-op) is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned enterprise.” In other words, it’s joining forces to make things happen.
Forming our co-op began with an email sent to seven families of parents whose company I enjoy. We share common parenting strategies, and I have entrusted them with my child’s care over the years. My inquiry was simple, “If you are considering enrolling your child into an online school, is there interest in working together and forming a co-op?”
Days later, we circled up, without our kids and socially distanced, to discuss the possibility. We each took time to share our concerns and what we believed our kids would need most from school this year. This included talking about academic areas that they would need support with as well as areas of interest — like Spanish, finance or art — that we hoped they would experience.
At the conclusion of the meeting, we agreed to meet again to plan the details of forming a co-op. We had all found an energy, camaraderie and a possible support system, which relieved some fear about online school and also provided some excitement.
How to Create a Co-op
After identifying the families who wished to commit to a co-op, we then worked together to establish guidelines. Our goal is to bring the children together for some time to school together but also to play. How will we do this? Where will we do this? And what will we expect from one another? These were all topics to consider.
We started with the basics, including making decisions about our comfort levels with things like when and where our kids will need to wear masks to how we each felt about having the kids enter our own homes to get a drink of water or use the bathroom. Additionally, we discussed the very real possibilities like a family being exposed to someone with COVID-19 or exhibiting any COVID-19 related symptoms. Though not preferred, we recognize that at some point we all may face the isolation of schooling online.
Additionally, we discussed what we could each realistically give to support this collaborative endeavor. In the end, each family made a commitment to host kids a couple of times a month (outdoors or in an open, airy environment like a sunporch) for academic coaching and supervision and also share one opportunity a month for social connection and fun. We also agreed that there was no expectation for everyone to attend or do everything, but it would be valuable to have the opportunities available to our small group of kids.
Coordinating Communications & Resources
Each family was provided an opportunity to share resources they were willing to offer. Lucky for us, in our co-op group, we have parents who work in finance, as a naturalist, graphic design, writing, art and more. There was excitement in thinking and learning about what we may be able to share with this small group of kids.
Before getting too far into planning enrichment, we also began discussing what regular school days might look like. As of early August, there is little information about how online school may work. Will the kids need to be in front of their computers all day “in class?” Or, will online school provide more flexibility in the school day? Hopefully as answers to these questions come, we can plan for the enrichment we envision.
Finally, we all wanted the kids to return to some normal, fun activities, including going for a hike or carving pumpkins and enjoying social time together.
As an outcome of many ideas, our co-op decided to share a Google calendar and also a Google Hangout where we could regularly share opportunities to connect and chat about challenges and opportunities presented by this way of schooling.
And so with the school year upon us, it’s a new adventure again. It may not be the start to the school year we once had imagined, but it is the start of a journey that will certainly bring memories of how schooling was different this year.
Jeannie Fleming-Gifford is a mama, arts advocate, wanna-be adventurer, puppy raiser of service dogs and freelance writer.