How grandparents are stepping in to help with remote learning

Christine Radogno would indulge her grandkids and her inner child in arts and crafts, playing cards, watching movies and not a whole lot of house rules.

But while their schools are closed, a visit with Grandma and Grandpa isn't all fun and games anymore.

“Now you've got to sit down and do four workbook pages,” the former state lawmaker said.

Harried working families are becoming increasingly reliant on grandparents to help with virtual learning in the age of COVID-19. As virus cases rise in Illinois, more than 2,200 schools have moved to remote instruction for the fall, or nearly 31% of the 848 school districts surveyed by the state board of education.

The shift has forced grandparents to supervise full-on digital learning while their adult children manage professional obligations.

For a generation taught with blackboards and chalk, retirees and empty nesters find themselves troubleshooting technical glitches, navigating a head-spinning array of learning platforms and trying to recreate a structured learning environment from their kitchen table.

It's been a big adjustment for Radogno, a former state Senate Republican leader who stepped down in 2017 and splits her time between Lemont and Arizona.

“That change in the relationship, I find, is the most challenging thing,” she said.

With her interest in education policy and the chance to spend more time with her three grandkids in Arizona, Radogno, 67, gladly volunteered to ease the burden on her daughter, Becky, a nurse, and her son-in-law, who works at a car dealership.

But about a month into the school year, learning through a screen remains a challenge, particularly for Radogno's twin 6-year-old granddaughters, who are still developing computer skills.

“Just watching them try to do a drag-and-drop movement or create a text box, it's painful,” she said. “They just don't have the physical skill to do that on a laptop.”

Radogno oversees virtual learning with the twins, Sloane and Reese. Her husband, Nunzio, 68, a retired attorney, hovers over the computer with their grandson, Knox, a third-grader.

“My understanding is there's a lot of resources out there, wonderful resources, but getting to them is not seamless,” Radogno said. “It takes a lot of clicking and new passwords. It is cumbersome to say the very least.”

But “the inequity of the situation” is what worries her the most. She's keenly aware of families who can't afford day care or struggle to provide the individual attention to keep students engaged in online materials.

“I am looking at the difficulty of pulling this off, both in terms of time and technology,” Radogno said. “Anybody that doesn't have tremendous supports is going to be in a very difficult situation, and we talk about equity in education, if we don't get these kids back, that is going to become an insurmountable gulf, in my opinion.”

Connie Landwehr, a retired teacher from Arlington Heights, knows the new dynamic well. Two to three days a week, she sits side-by-side with her grandson — an outgoing, talkative and strong-willed child — while he does virtual classroom work at her kitchen table.

“I don't go far away because if I do, he's off in another planet,” Landwehr said. “He's a typical kindergartner.”

He's in a dual language kindergarten class in Palatine Township Elementary School District 15. The 5-year-old has virtual face-to-face time with his teacher from 7:50 until 11:30 a.m., and then after lunch, he has assignments on the Seesaw learning app.

Since school started on Aug. 19, sometimes they can't access links or run into other technical hiccups. He's also supposed to have two hours worth of activities in the afternoon, but it doesn't usually last that long, Landwehr said.

As backups, Landwehr has ordered flash cards, and her daughter-in-law, a human resources professional, purchased workbooks.

“You just have to be flexible and you have to be willing to figure out what to do,” she said.

Their mantra? “We do what we can.”

“Hopefully, he and I will develop even a better relationship, and we'll get through it together,” Landwehr said.

Suzanne Hlotke and her family in Carol Stream made the “hard decision” to send her granddaughter, 5, to a day care center supervising her remote learning while Hlotke awaits hip surgery and her daughter goes to work.

“Those people are saints,” she said.

But Hlotke still has to know how to connect to the Seesaw platform, a digital library and a parent portal on top of keeping track of all the school emails.

Radogno reassures her grandkids their new routine is temporary. The twins are with their teacher virtually less than two hours a day, but the rest of the time is spent with Radogno on math, reading and phonics.

“At least we know the material,” she said. “Thank goodness I'm not doing high school algebra.”

  Connie Landwehr, a retired teacher from Arlington Heights, supports her grandson's virtual learning. Some playtime factors into the daily equation. Mark Welsh/
Former state Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont supervises remote learning for her twin granddaughters while her daughter and son-in-law work. "I would say they are extremely grateful." Courtesy of Christine Radogno
Her grandson, Knox, has more screen time during the school day than his younger siblings, Christine Radogno says. Her husband, Nunzio, oversees his virtual learning. Courtesy of Christine Radogno
"It's almost too much to ask a third-grader to sit all day at a computer," former state Sen. Christine Radogno says of her grandson, Knox, who is learning remotely in Arizona. Courtesy of Christine Radogno
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