When remote learning goes wrong: Zoom classes for preschoolers can be extra burdens on parents who just want refunds

Key Points
  • Some day care centers and preschools are offering remote learning options instead of refunding parents on tuition.
  • Day cares are 'in crisis' as they've been forced to close down across the country.
  • Some parents sympathize with needing to pay teachers but are finding remote learning to be counter productive when they have to keep working. 
2010-11 (Combined average): 6.19%Best year: 2007 (9.23%)Worst year: 2009 (3.15%)When the recession was at its worst, the newly laid-off could console themselves with one small ray of sunshine — they now had more time to spend with their children. However, those who managed to remain employed had to keep sending their little ones to day care, and the industry stayed afloat as a result. “For parents who held onto jobs during 2008 and 2009, child care services were a necessity,” Bierman said.
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Bonnie Holliday, 39, and her husband, Leamon, both work full-time jobs in Atlanta. They send their two daughters, ages four and two, to an expensive Montessori school that they love. 

Like many other parents in their situation, they both continue to work full time at home under coronavirus quarantine. And also like many other parents, they've had it with remote learning.

"We're about to call the game early and head on into summer," Bonnie Holliday said. "I've stopped visiting the emails. We're still paying tuition. We just can't do any of it."

Remote learning has been a necessary replacement for schools around the U.S. as coronavirus quarantines have ravaged the country. For older children, a combination of live Zoom classes, digital videos and virtual homework has been a reasonable replacement product for school.

In certain cases, remote learning might be able to enhance the educational experience by bringing parents and educators closer together to form a home life-school nexus that's previously been impossible.

But remote learning can also be a major burden on parents who are simultaneously conducting their own conference calls and trying to maximize their professional production. This is especially true for parents of small children who are too young to operate technology or even sit still for more than a few minutes at a time.

While educators may be wracking their brains over helpful remote learning tools, parents like the Hollidays can't help but wonder if remote learning is a loophole to avoid refunding money to parents — often thousands of dollars each month. 

"I looked at one activity that asked for my daughter to send a picture of something made with pipe cleaners," Holliday said. "Where am I going to get pipe cleaners now? I would be less frustrated if they'd call it what it is. Just say, 'we have great teachers, we have to pay them, we hope to see you in July or August.' What I don't love is paying thousands of dollars for a virtual curriculum when my husband and I are just trying to survive on a wing and a prayer every day."

Anecdotally, I have a four-year old myself. I've witnessed Zoom calls degrade quickly as preschoolers waive at friends, ignore teacher instruction and inevitably get bored within a couple of minutes while parents try to corral them from running off screen and cajole them to participate. 

Remote learning for toddlers and preschoolers call into the question the purpose of day cares and preschools. While parents are paying for learning materials and activities, they're also paying for professionals to safely watch their kids while they work. Quarantines have made this outside child care impossible, but many day cares and preschools have continued to charge parents tuition.

Holliday said she often can't even attempt work that requires sustained concentration until her children go to sleep because she's so busy attending to their assignments, frequently keeping her up until 1 a.m. or later. 


Susanna Sabahi, 47, has been arguing with her 5-year-old daughter's preschool in Redwood City, California for weeks to get her a refund after the school shut down for everyone except children of essential workers. So far, the preschool hasn't budged. Sabahi says she's spoken with other parents of the school who say they've paid in full, adding to the societal discomfort of asking for money back.

"Ethically and financially, I'd love to support the school," Sabahi said. "But not everyone is in that position. The moral obligation pressure is just ridiculous."

Day Cares 'in crisis'

Susan Friedman, senior director of publishing and professional learning for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), acknowledges that the situation isn't ideal for parents. But she emphasized the dire situation child care centers find themselves in across the country.

"Child care is in crisis right now," Friedman said. "It's not a well funded organization without a national centralized system in place. There's incredible financial hardship when programs close for months at a time. Unlike public school teachers who are still being paid while schools are closed, that's not the situation for a lot of childcare programs. I understand that it's also expensive for parents, but it's something you have to think about."

There are more than 1 million child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Child care workers make just $23,240 a year on average, or $11.17 per hour, according to 2018 statistics. There are also about 67,000 preschool and child care center directors in the U.S., making an average of about $48,000 per year

While parents like Holliday and Sabahi are sympathetic to the financial realities of preschools, placing the burden of keeping early childcare education establishments open ignores the role of government, such as the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which provides $3.5 billion in grant funding to ensure continued payment to child care providers. Individual day care centers may also be eligible for small business loans as part of the federal government's $350 billion package.

Still, not every day care is refusing to refund parents. Bright Horizons, one of the largest nationwide childcare providers, has decided structured remote learning doesn't make sense for kids in their programs. Leaders within the organization felt there would be too much variance in how young children may react to online tools, such as a Zoom conference call, to be comfortable with it as an acceptable replacement to immersion learning, according to a spokesperson.

Bright Horizons refunded tuition and closed centers rather than offering remote learning as a substitution, though it offered complimentary, on-demand videos and resources, the spokesperson said. The organization has closed about 500 facilities across the country and has furloughed employees or reassigned them to work at centers that are still open (for health care workers who need child care) or as in-home backup care sitters. 

Remote learning needs improvement

Across the country, teachers are experimenting with assignments that allow parents to work with young kids at their own pace. And not all parents are the same — many crave the personal connection of live Zoom classes and are desperate for even more at-home activities to fill the days of their children. Teachers also want to maintain a connection with students, and live interactions are important to avoid being too distanced, said Friedman. 

The NAEYC is talking with preschool teachers to gauge what techniques seem to resonate with parents and students. The organization published a letter on its website from Amy Silverman, a preschool teacher at an American international school in Guangzhou, China, who has several months of remote learning under her belt. Silverman attempted to tailor a curriculum specifically keeping overworked parents in mind.

"For preschool teachers who may be just starting to create these types of learning activities for the children in their classes, my advice is to think of the families," Silverman writes. "We do not want to add too much stress to their lives. Some family members may be required to continue working from home as their jobs permit and will not be able to complete numerous or complicated activities. Activities that allow children and families to have fun while they learn have the most success."

Most early education teachers are not equipped to teach online classes and struggle with classroom management skills, said Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of Reach Capital, which invests in more than 100 education technology companies. One of her portfolio companies, Outschool, has specialized in remote learning for years. The company's teachers are now training about 500 teachers each day, who are coming to the platform to learn online teaching skills. 

Carolan admits there has never been a lot of sharing of resources or ideas between day care organizations and the education technology community. That's prevented preschools from using some of the best online tools available, such as Outschool or Beanstalk, a company she doesn't invest in, that specialize in live and on-demand classes for toddler-aged children.

"To date, I have not seen a lot of collaboration between the worlds of preschool and tech companies that operate in the space," Carolan said. "I think this will accelerate that."

For now, education technology tools can help parents come up with interesting and effective ways of avoiding hours of TV time, but they can't lessen the time suck that's already overloading people like Holliday. The problem isn't that schools aren't assigning good ideas — it's that the good ideas are simply too much. 

"It's frustrating because I love working remotely and I love my kids," Holliday said. "I just don't love working remotely while watching my kids at the same time."

NYC ed dept. tells principals to stop using Zoom, citing privacy concerns
NYC ed dept. tells principals to stop using Zoom, citing privacy concerns