Does Homework Really Make Sense For Kids During A Pandemic?

Kids are returning to in-person class, but families are still dealing with the stressors of COVID.
Sally Anscombe via Getty Images

As a mom herself, Lisa Maira, a kindergarten and first grade teacher in Massachusetts, is not a big fan of homework.

When she does assign it, it’s almost always a less rigid form of homework, usually an assignment that gives kids an opportunity to practice something they enjoyed learning at school that day.

Ideally, the assignment gives students the opportunity to play “teacher” in front of their family, to give them a sense of ownership and command of the subject ― something that emphasizes family communication and bonding, rather than instruction.

The minimal homework she assigns is meant to make kids become independent learners.

“It’s also important that parents are informed that these activities are designed to build executive function skills and not to be a source of stress or busy work,” she said.

As the pandemic rolls on, Maira’s distaste for traditional homework has become even stronger.

“Parents have had so much to deal with during COVID and homework often feels like an additional burden, on them and on their kids,” Maira told HuffPost. “Kids will need time to decompress after school, now more than ever, and they need their parents to be there to support their emotional needs.”

Though the stress of the pandemic has brought this conversation to the forefront, rethinking homework isn’t a novel idea.

The case against homework has been growing in recent years.

In recent years, some schools have experimented with a no-homework policy, citing studies that show assigning homework in elementary and middle school does not translate into higher scores on standardized tests.

Alfie Kohn, a lecturer and the author of “The Homework Myth,” has been leading the “who needs homework?” charge.

“The sad irony is that there is absolutely no evidence that homework is useful at this age,” Kohn told HuffPost. “In fact, no study has found any academic benefit to giving students homework before they’re in high school ― and even at that point the evidence is dubious that it’s necessary to make kids work what amounts to a second shift after having spent six or seven hours in school.”

Homework, Kohn wages, “may be the greatest single extinguisher of natural curiosity ever created. ”

“We already know that homework can lead to frustration and exhaustion, family conflict, less time for children to pursue activities they care about, and, most disturbing, a loss of interest in learning,” he said.

It’s worth noting here: Studies have shown that assigning free reading for homework ― allowing students to read whatever books they want ― does improve their academic performance. But a little free reading is a world away from bulging backpacks full of coursework ― or additional online assignments after hours of Zoom schoolwork.

Because of COVID, even longtime proponents of homework are advocating for a more sensible, pandemic-considerate workload for kids.

“I think it would be common sense that teachers start out slow with homework to ease kids’ readjustment to school and fewer hours of life at home,” said Harris M. Cooper, a Duke University professor who’s researched and wrote on the topic for over 25 years and generally thinks the case against homework is overstated.

Cooper’s advice to teachers when it comes to homework? “Start slow, not too slow, and take advantages of any positive home developments or learning habits you think your students might have acquired during the pandemic,” he said.

For instance, maybe it’s assigning projects where students get to “teach” their families part of the lesson of the day, not necessarily more traditional paper-and-pencil exercises.

Homework, one expert said, "may be the greatest single extinguisher of natural curiosity ever created."
Maskot via Getty Images
Homework, one expert said, "may be the greatest single extinguisher of natural curiosity ever created."

At this point of the pandemic, educators are well-versed in what works. When all schoolwork pivoted to homework as a result of remote learning, teachers and schools got experimental and a little more empathetic with their approach to homework.

Some opted not to assign homework at all, to give overwhelmed parents a much-needed break. Some treated homework as the equity issue it is; while one student might have a stay-at-home parent, a tutor or a pandemic learning pod to help them with tricky at-home assignments, another may have a parent that’s not present because they’re busy working two jobs.

For some students, unreliable internet service made remote learning a challenge.

Elisabeth Sturman, a teacher at Wy’east Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, hasn’t assigned homework in 15 years and she definitely didn’t see the need for it at the height of the pandemic.

“Research does not support its effectiveness at my students’ level, it can highlight resource equity issues, and I am not present to support students when they are working at home,” she told HuffPost. “Also, kids work so hard during the school day ― they need a break!”

Sturman tries to optimize the 80-minute blocks she has with groups of students, so that homework isn’t necessary at the end of the day.

“I present info or model for no more than 20 minutes of my time with them,” she explained. “The remainder of time is for students to work together or independently with the new material or skill and then we have a quick debrief back together at the end of class. It’s been pretty effective.”

This year, teachers and schools got experimental and a little more considerate with their approach to homework.
miodrag ignjatovic via Getty Images
This year, teachers and schools got experimental and a little more considerate with their approach to homework.

Will a return to in-person school signal a return to traditional homework?

It remains to be seen what will happen now that school districts are returning to in-person learning across the country. Will teachers reemphasize homework, in an attempt to make up for pandemic learning loss?

A recent New York Times report suggests that most children in this country are behind in reading and math — by about four to five months, on average — and within that, there are significant racial and economic disparities.

When we asked teachers on HuffPost Parents’ Facebook page how they’ll handle homework in the coming months, most said they’ll continue to go easy on students.

Heather Vernon, a science teacher at La Serna High School in Whittier, California, said she thinks the focus on lost learning puts too much additional stress on both schools and students.

“Does it really matter that certain skills are taught in certain grades?” she said. “What we must decide is what’s more important: the academics or supporting the whole student.”

Bridget Bosch, a former education coordinator in Homewood, Illinois, agreed, and questioned what might happen if parents and teachers focused on the nonacademic skills and strengths kids developed during the pandemic instead of what’s lacking.

“Kids grew in many ways, from seeking mental health help to acquiring new life or self-help skills in their homes,” she said. “Maybe they deepened relationships with family members or learned to reach out to friends in a new way. Maybe the academics were on hold while other things grew exponentially.”

“Giving homework to ‘catch up’ or [encourage] new learning isn’t productive, especially if there is no one at home who can help ensure it’s being done right. Practice makes permanent.”

- Ruth Glazer Cohen, an elementary school teaching assistant in Holmdel, New Jersey

As the pandemic has continued, the need for social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care has gotten heightened attention in teacher training programs and in education papers like EdWeek. The stress of the pandemic and going back to class can negatively impact student’s GPA and their attention span, and to address that, teachers need to take into account the student’s mental and emotional health.

“Plowing ahead on core academics with a singular focus on making up for lost learning without addressing what students — and staff — are bringing with them to school ignores a basic reality: Children can’t process and retain new information if their brains are overwhelmed with anxiety,” wrote Arianna Prothero, a Texas-based reporter for Education Week covering students and their well-being.

Where does homework fit into that equation? On the same Facebook thread quoted above, Sandi Parkers, a former teacher in Mississippi, said that homework still has value, even in these stressful times.

“I know I will get a lot of flak on this, but as a parent and former teacher of many years, I think homework is a must,” she said. “You can watch teachers all day long, listen even and really pay attention. However, learning is like riding a bike ― you can’t do it without getting on yourself and riding.”

Ruth Glazer Cohen, an elementary school teaching assistant in Holmdel, New Jersey, stressed that a happy medium exists between the anti-homework and pro-homework camps.

Cohen leads pullout one-on-one and small group instruction for students who are having documented difficulty in literacy, math or both. Instead of traditional homework, she makes “practice pages” available to students who want to do more practice and learning.

“Giving homework to ‘catch up’ or [encourage] new learning isn’t productive, especially if there is no one at home who can help ensure it’s being done right,” she said. “Practice makes permanent. if they are doing it wrong, they are reinforcing an error ― and that’s not helpful.”

As more and more districts begin returning to the classroom, we’ll see just how much the pandemic and our year-plus of remote learning has swung the pendulum on homework.