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Learning in a pandemic: An online education executive shares tips

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – In the darkest moments of the past year, Stephanie Dua, co-founder and president of HOMER, a New York City-based online learning program, turned to early lessons on hard work and optimism she learned on her father’s almond and walnut farm.

From about age 4, Dua worked as a “nutter” on the farm in Waterford, California, collecting nuts after a machine had shaken them from the trees.

“You always knew nutters because your fingers would turn black from all the nuts’ skins that you were picking,” said Dua, 50, who got paid 5 cents a bucket.

“I learned so much about hard work, problem-solving and how you have to keep doing it until it gets done,” said Dua, who now lives in the Coconut Grove, Florida, with her husband and three daughters, ages 11 to 16. “Even if things are unsettled or unstructured, there’s always a path forward.”

To assist educators and families affected by school shutdowns, HOMER gave educators free access to its programs and pivoted to offer forums and suggestions for parents suddenly needing advice on home-schooling their children.

Dua talked to Reuters about learning through a pandemic. Edited excerpts below.

Q. How has your business changed in the past year?

A. When COVID-19 and home-schooling started, we realized we’ve been working on this for 10 to 15 years. It’s my life’s work to help give a quality education to everyone, regardless of ZIP code.

In the first few weeks of March, we launched an “Ask the Expert” series that our vice president of child and family development ran. We created an activity center to offer high-quality activities parents could do with children that were easy, like using items or ingredients in the kitchen to reinforce simple math concepts like counting.

Q. What strategies for educating and engaging your daughters have worked well?

A. We really focused on some back-to-basics, like baking and gardening.

Pinterest is an amazing source of activities. For example, with gardening, my Pinterest showed us how to make an earth bed. And my kids did the research to figure out what the best one is for this climate. They developed a flower and herb bed that we tended to all through spring and summer.

Q. What’s an important lesson you try to teach your children?

A. A sense of agency – they belong to and are part of a community, making sure that they have values that go beyond skills and knowledge.

My 16-year-old daughter, Anya, is now a thought leader in her own right – she founded Gen Z Identity Lab, a space for the Gen Z generation to discuss identity in a non-divisive way. And during COVID, my youngest daughter, Isla, co-founded a movement, Miami Strong. She was making masks and delivering them to those in need.

Q. What advice do you have for parents trying to teach their kids at home right now?

A. Do double duty. If you’re cooking, think about how you can make a math lesson out of it. If you’re taking a walk, think about how you can take the opportunity to listen and hear what’s going on with your child.

We’re all so busy. We’re time-starved. Take what you’re doing anyway and make that a great experience for your family.

Q. What is your biggest work-life challenge?

A. Not letting my own fears and anxieties affect my family. During the early days of COVID, we didn’t know what to expect. My husband and I had a conversation where we said, even if we are feeling anxious about health issues, the family, the economy – we can’t bring that into our children’s lives.

Q. What has been the silver lining to the past year?

A. My husband and daughter got COVID four days before Christmas. We decided nobody was allowed to come out of their rooms.

I was the nurse, so I had to bring a tray from room to room and drop off drinks and food and Tylenol. Fortunately, everyone was OK but it was very scary.

I really found an outpouring of love and support around us – people would drop off meals at the door, games that the kids could play.

We’re new to Miami. We’ve been here just two years. This was a moment of really getting to know our neighbors better. It’s brought friends and family closer to us, too.

(Reporting by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan; Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)

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