Undoubtedly, the 2020-21 school year will be a challenging one, as families brace for changes between in-person, hybrid, and online formats and parents prepare themselves for a return to the tribulations of distance learning--many of them, themselves still adapting to working from home.


Fortunately, there were many lessons learned during the turbulent and, yes, largely ineffective COVID Spring semester. In a three-part series including Overcoming the COVID Slide and How to Help Students Who Are Just Struggling, the educators at Varsity Tutors will share some of those lessons and provide strategies to ensure that you and your family are ready to thrive in this new school year. In this installment, let’s tackle a looming concern: keeping students engaged when their favorite parts of school aren’t happening as often as they used to.


Some aspects of school—quizzes, lectures, and assignments, for example—have been relatively easy to move online. But others—field trips, sports teams, theatre, and band chief among them—haven’t yet made the move, and might not for a while. And this creates two acute needs:


  1. For parents, the lack of extracurricular activities leaves a big gap in the day between 2:30pm when school lets out and 5 or 6pm when work-from-home is over.
  2. For students, we’ve taken away nearly all of the things they look forward to—not just extracurriculars and electives but also recess and lunchtime socialization with friends—while keeping the things they tend not to love. They’ve lost all the spoonfuls of sugar, but the medicine still needs to go down.


So, for the entire family’s sanity, as well as each student’s development, it’s important to fill the day with things for students to look forward to and with after-school activities that capture their imaginations. And there are some easy options to do that:


  • Replace the daily things that kids look forward to. This can be as simple as setting up Zoom or a speakerphone call for kids to eat lunch with friends, filling in that much-needed time to just goof around. Coordinating outdoor breaks with neighborhood kids (note: kicking a soccer ball is socially distanced and guidelines actually prohibit kids from touching anything with their hands) can give the feeling of recess. And having a tangible routine that creates and end-of-day barrier between “you’re at school” and “you’re at home” (for example, changing out of school clothes or ringing a bell) can help students see finish lines worth looking forward to.
  • Seek out extracurricular activities—or create your own. While the cancellation of many school-sponsored activities is disappointing, it’s also accompanied by opportunity. Schools can only offer so many clubs, activities, and elective classes, as they are bounded by a limited population of students. But once we break beyond the neighborhood school to the scale that online learning provides, there’s no limit to the number of activities available. For example, a middle school that has 30 kids interested in computer science can really only put together one general survey class or club. But a company like Varsity Tutors can attract a few students per state interested in really specific types of computer science, and therefore offer a variety of classes: graphic design for some, app development for others, videogame programming, and the list goes on. With hundreds of offerings spanning all kinds of interests, students can join small groups of kids with the exact same hobbies and interests, making new friends across the country and participating in sessions that fully satisfy their passions.
  • Replicate the field trip. The day to day routine gets boring for anyone, which is why schools strategically litter the year with field trips, assemblies, and guest speakers to break up the monotony and ensure that kids have big events to look forward to and learn from. Again here, the internet can be your best friend: Varsity Tutors has a series of free, celebrity-taught StarCourses designed to replicate the excitement and experiential learning of field trips; field trip destinations like the Smithsonian and many National Parks similarly offer virtual tours. And there’s also the allure of exploring nearby parks or landmarks with a challenge in mind; with some creativity, there are field trips all around you and opportunities to give kids a much-needed, inspirational break from the routine.