The Unexpected Costs of Remote Learning for Families

English class with student tutor online.
Maria Symchych-Navrotska / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Schooling a child while working at home might seem like an ideal situation — you always know where your kids are and can easily meet their needs. But for working parents, the reality is much more complex. Parents are among some of the hardest hit by COVID-19’s transformation of our lives.

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When the coronavirus first began to spread in the U.S. I, like many people, kept a close eye on what I hoped would be no more severe than a bad flu year. Yet I was nervous the whole time my husband, son and I made a trip to Legoland less than a month before my son’s school and our entire California county would go into what we thought would be just a one-month shelter in place. Neither my husband nor I had any idea that our son would still be learning 100% remotely nearly a year later with only whispers of the possibility of returning to on-campus learning, depending upon vaccine availability and ICU capacity.

Though some schools have returned to in-person learning, many kids need help that borders on hand-holding, stealing parents’ ability to focus on work. In some cases, parents have had to give up their jobs to support their children’s learning. I frequently think about how different our family’s experience would be if my son were not 12, independent and able to do most of his work without support. As parents continue to struggle and balance everything, take a closer look at some of the unexpected costs of remote learning to parents.

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Lost Wages Due to Job Changes

Some parents have had to make the hard choice to quit their jobs or scale back their hours to have more time to help their children with remote learning. Though not exclusively, this role often falls to mothers, who tend to do more labor around child care and related issues. Unemployment benefits and funds provided by the CARES Act help make a dent, but for some families, it is barely enough to get by.

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Costs of Adapting a Home Learning Environment

While school supplies pre-COVID-19 could be pretty pricey — an average of about $529 per student, per year — the reduced need for these supplies doesn’t mean parents are catching a financial break. Many parents have had to outfit their kids’ rooms with appropriate desks, computers or related technology such as headphones, microphones or speakers which can quickly mount.

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Increased Costs of Food

Food insecurity is a huge problem for American children. Many children receive one-two of their meals per day at school through meal programs, which greatly benefit low-income families. According to the Center for Global Development, nearly half of low-income households in the United States have trouble stretching their finances to cover food during the summer holidays, when children aren’t receiving meals in school. The average cost of groceries for a family of three per month is around $550 — and that may be low in some regions. While many schools have continued to try to arrange for meal program pickups, some families may also lack transportation to get it. The USDA offers a resource on its website for families seeking to find food support.

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Learning Assistance Costs

For many families where the parents have not been able to take time off work to help their children learn remotely, tutoring may be necessary to fill in the gaps that remote learning leaves. Tutors can run from about $40 to $100 per hour. Additionally, since remote learning can’t replace all classes, such as art or band, some parents are supplementing their children’s classes with outside instructors, often in “covid pods” and online sources such as Outschool.

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Costs of Hybrid Learning

For students who are attending hybrid learning programs, partially in person and partially at home, parents may be spending more money on sanitation supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer and lotion. And since many hybrid programs only have children in school for a couple of hours each day, it doesn’t solve child care issues for parents who work outside of the home, and thus parents still have to spend money on additional child care services. Moreover, children attending in-person school and their families may experience increased anxiety about catching COVID-19.

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Costs for Families With College Students

For families with a student who was about to go off to college, the costs may remain the same, but without benefit to both student and family of the on-campus experience. Most college programs that have had to go remote have also not lowered the cost of the college experience, which can feel like a loss. While families might save on the cost of dorms, there may be emotional or psychological costs to having a young adult at home who is itching and ready to be independent or frustrated about the uncertainty of their college future. And parents who were ready to save on some expenses like meals or transportation may find their budget tighter than ever.

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Last updated: Feb. 10, 2021

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About the Author

Jordan Rosenfeld is a freelance writer and author of nine books. She holds a B.A. from Sonoma State University and an MFA from Bennington College. Her articles and essays about finances and other topics has appeared in a wide range of publications and clients, including The Atlantic, The Billfold, Good Magazine, GoBanking Rates, Daily Worth, Quartz, Medical Economics, The New York Times, Ozy, Paypal, The Washington Post and for numerous business clients. As someone who had to learn many of her lessons about money the hard way, she enjoys writing about personal finance to empower and educate people on how to make the most of what they have and live a better quality of life.

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