A Parent’s Back-to-School Checklist

August 16, 2019 Updated: October 18, 2019


It’s finally time to put the beach towels away, say goodbye to summer, and send the kids back to school.

I homeschooled for the first seven years of my eldest child’s life—he’s now 12—and only after I sent my kids to school last year did I begin to pay close attention to what was going on in their public school.

Here are a few things I try to keep an eye on or that I know other parents watch for as the year progresses.

Is Your Child Using Smartphones, iPads, or Google?

Studies show half of U.S. kids aged 10 to 12 have a cellphone with a service plan. My 12-year-old doesn’t have a phone, but I was surprised to see that his middle school teachers not only allowed devices but encouraged them—even expecting kids to have their own iPads—with specific guidelines. If a school is already encouraging or expecting device use, there’s little a parent can do to change this, but it’s worth asking teachers what those guidelines are, and why they’re encouraging device use.

As for devices at home, that’s obviously a parent’s call, but I won’t be surprised if my children experience more peer pressure to have them, now that they’re in a larger school setting. My younger children are in a local elementary school, and even in fourth grade, many of my daughter’s friends had cellphones. As a parent and former educator (of my children), I’m somewhat anti-device. (Remember the Atlantic article that claimed smartphones had ruined a generation? I cheered.) Not just because I think it can inhibit social skills and rot a child’s brain (mostly kidding!), but also because it’s become a crutch for learning.

In 2018, my sixth grader came home with an assignment that required him to explain the basic facts of a particular biome. With no time to go to the library and stacks of school books I’d yet to unpack, the last and only resort was the use of the internet. He insisted this was normal and that all the kids had been researching their biomes via Google in class. I told him in the future, I’d prefer that we prepare ahead of time by borrowing books from the library, to get a fuller, more accurate view of the topic, rather than simply Googling everything.

What Is Your Child Reading?

When a parent homeschools, curriculum is at her disposal. This is one of the many perks of homeschooling, and it can be frustrating for parents who send their children to school. Not only is much of the information about what children are learning passed to parents from their 7-year-old, but the rest of the information is passed through hand-outs and even apps. A lot of people like me just want to get their hands on a textbook to see what they’re learning.

For instance, I was somewhat dismayed to learn that for half of the year, my then-11-year-old’s math teacher didn’t use a math curriculum at all. My son had enjoyed math through Singapore Math and Teaching Textbooks, which are very specific methods, and yet she told me at a meeting there was no method, just “however the child solves it.” (Perhaps noticing my bulging eyeballs and heart palpitations, my son patted my arm. “It’s OK, Mom,” he sighed.) Several other parents and I complained, and later I was relieved to discover that the teacher had been let go and the new teacher did use a math curriculum. My son’s understanding immediately improved. It’s worth it to find out what schools are using and why.

There are many instances in schools nationwide, particularly with the institution of Common Core curriculum, when the use of specific books is worse than none. Many suggested literature or history books have a political bias or angle—some curriculum provides too much or too little information—or it’s simply too provocative for the child’s age.

In 2018 in Wisconsin, a teacher assigned a book called “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” to ninth graders. Many parents opposed the book because “the message of this hope [of overcoming adversity] is literally drowned out by the shocking words of profanity, sexual innuendo and violence,” said one district resident, Lisa Enerson. Though the district reviewed the book, the initial committee recommended it be kept in the school’s curriculum.

In Nebraska in 2017, the State Board of Education approved science standards that for the first time included climate change. In California, about 150 parents complained that a new sex education curriculum in their district seemed “too graphic” and “extremely provocative” for their seventh-grade children. The curriculum was part of a 2015 law mandating updated sex education for students.

Parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask their children and teachers what they’re reading, why it’s being taught, whether it seems biased, informational, provocative, or necessary. While curriculum changes are hard to make, it’s not impossible. A chorus of concerned parents can make waves.

Keep an Eye Out for Indoctrination Through Certain Subjects and Peers

If your children are still in elementary or middle school, chances are the likelihood of progressive indoctrination is smaller—though not nonexistent. Last year, in fourth grade, my daughter said she overheard a friend at the lunch table talking about wanting to be a boy. So we had the beginnings of a discussion about what it means to be “transgender.”

However, I noticed that both of my older kids, including the one in middle school, received a slight whiff of the progressive agenda in both science and history. Even in sixth grade, last year, my son often came home asking slightly askew questions about President Donald Trump and his “agenda.” These questions or issues were usually posed by his social science teacher, possibly in good faith—it was hard to tell. However, I always tried to ask my son what he thought, and to work through any questions this triggered, or even to research the topic together to ensure he received the accurate version of the story.

Although I haven’t experienced this personally, I’ve heard countless stories of parents reporting that their child’s history curriculum left out important historical figures or facts, particularly if the topic wove history and religion together, like our nation’s origins. Now that my son is headed into seventh grade, I’ll likely ask him daily what he learned in science and history, to ensure he’s developing critical thinking skills and we’re addressing any gaps.

Is School Safety a Priority?

When I first started considering public school, this was a huge issue of concern for me. While I’ve watched as there have been attacks in schools with guns, I knew this topic didn’t affect my children firsthand until I put them in public school. Every school district handles safety differently and this varies widely by region.

I was relieved to see my son’s middle school has taken extra precautions this year. There will reportedly be only one entrance and exit to the school during school hours, which will remain locked, and kids aren’t allowed to carry backpacks to class. Most importantly, there’s an armed police officer at the school at all times. In fact, one study found more and more schools are doing this. While this doesn’t guarantee a child’s safety, knowing an armed officer was physically inside the building helped provide peace of mind.

Last year, after reviewing the president’s Federal Commission on School Safety report, I spoke to the police officer at the middle school and offered the feedback I had learned from the report. He was open-minded and grateful and assured me they were doing all they could to protect students.

I’m sad schools have to do this at all, but I’ll always be an advocate of trained personnel with firearms at or near schools in session and for preparedness. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The best-case scenario would be if a private corporation set its mind to meeting this need and schools facilitated this relationship. Just as FedEx mails packages better than the U.S. Postal Service, why not hire a company that specializes in readiness, firearm safety, tactics, and more to help protect schools? This could be done at the state or local level with more effectiveness and less cost than if the government took on the task of training teachers or hiring police officers, to the tune of more than $700 million. 

That said, the Department of Education operates a range of aid programs for schools and will spend $108 billion in 2019, or $850 for every U.S. household. Surely a shift in priorities is necessary? If your school hasn’t talked with your child about safety, talk to the school and figure out why. School security is absolutely essential, and parents shouldn’t back down on this. If taxpayer dollars can cover iPads in school, they can cover armed security personnel by trimming other unnecessary costs.

Who Are Your Children’s Friends?

One of the reasons parents homeschool or send their children to private school is to enjoy some measure of guidance over their child’s social circles. While some people might heap prejudice upon parents for this, every parent—agnostic or Catholic, homeschooler or public school advocate—does this to some extent. Every parent influences a child’s social circles, for better or worse, just as every parent indoctrinates their children in some way, to some degree.

I worked hard to meet the parents of my kids’ friends, get their numbers, and set up times for them to get together. It helps kids feel more connected, and parents, too. I’ll keep checking up on my kids’ friends and getting to know their parents, just as I did when I homeschooled them. I hope they get to know us as well.

Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.