Last Sunday night I was feeling just like almost all UK parents are now. After an emergency 2pm meeting, the Dutch government had announced that all schools in the Netherlands, where I've lived for nearly two years, were closing because of coronavirus. With immediate effect.
Although my husband and I had been gently introducing the idea of what might be coming to our two children, Pearl, 9 and Honor, 6, who both attend a local Dutch school, it was a very abrupt end to all the angst and anticipation. As a self-employed writer and editor whose husband - for now - has to keep his studio running, what would I do?
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I needn't have worried. Soon my email, WhatsApp and Facebook account were pinging with incredible (read: intimidating, if like me you find the concept of homeschooling as appealing as herpes) blogs and listicles of how to keep the kids entertained and educated over the coming weeks. And that's before the brilliant teachers started Whatsapping worksheets and sending links for online lessons.
The kids will indeed be all right. But the parents not so much, without a little prep. Because, while I went into this week fully briefed on how to make an "edible solar system", I was sadly lacking in the practical measures that would have made the past few days just a little bit smoother.
So here's what I wish I'd known. Not that we had much time to implement it over here. You at least have the weekend. Use it wisely …
Watch your language
Stop talking about schools "being closed", or referring to the kids being "off school", with immediate effect. If you want a sliver of a chance of them doing any work over the coming weeks, make like Boris and co and adopt nudge theory, by explaining instead the government has decided children must "study from home".
On Monday, I was surprised my children were up even earlier than usual, until I realised they assumed "weekend rules" applied, and they could load up on Coco Pops in front of the TV until … well, I'll let you use your imagination.
While we all need a bit of downtime as we adapt to the new normal, kids - like adults - are creatures of comfort. So, after a few lazy mornings at the start of the week, we're now aiming to be dressed and at the dining room table for a 9am "team meeting". We check the messages from teachers, I make a loose plan for the day (we usually ditch it by lunchtime but it makes me feel calmer to start off with a structure), mirroring school snack and playtimes with fresh air on our roof terrace. And we also agree a chore for the day - social isolation takes the domestic load to a whole new dimension.
The sooner you can set expectations - whatever yours may be - the better. Easier to bend the rules later than try to bring them in belatedly.
Do your own homework on remote learning apps
If you're not already on familiar terms with Zoom, Google Hangouts, Jitsi et al, now is the time to get acquainted. They're not complicated, but they're going to be a big part of your life, and there's nothing more humiliating than trying to work out how to turn the microphone on with teacher and 20 expectant classmates all watching. Likewise, make sure you know your passwords to any school apps, and that you're happy with which parent is on the school mailing list for A LOT of communications.
Finally, rather than just saving dozens of those "what to do with kids in a lockdown" lists, pick one you like the sound of, divide it up with your partner and actually investigate the suggestions before you need to deploy them. Yesterday, amid a meltdown over a smashed Lego house, I finally negotiated a fragile peace with the promise of "an astronaut reading a story from space", only to realise too late that the link I'd saved was wrong and all hell broke loose again. (It's www.storytimefromspace.com by the way. You're welcome.)
Now is not the time to recycle. All those cereal boxes and finished loo rolls (wail) will be your best friend once you start perusing those "how to entertain kids" lists. A month ago I was cursing having so many family birthdays at the start of the year, now we're turning all the old cards into postcards to send to family and friends at home.
I'm also stupidly grateful for a pile of Lego in the lounge that no one had got round to tidying up, which has organically become a go-to place for the kids to amuse themselves independently.
Side note - my friend in Spain is hiding treats around the house to keep her two lively dogs entertained while they're not able to go out as much. Sorry Mrs Hinch, but leaving an old puzzle or book in an unexpected place isn't the worst idea to buy yourself 10 minutes' peace.
Agree some space
Working and studying from home assumes a lot of space that most of us don't have. Use the weekend to discuss who will be based where, and when. Yesterday, feeling overwhelmed by the avalanche of books and worksheets and drawings that "must be kept", I dug out two old box files and gave one to each kid, calling it their "mobile office" for when they "hot desk".
For now at least, using sophisticated sounding adult terms is generating unusual levels of compliance.
Do a tech audit
Do those light-up unicorn headphones actually work? Are all your entertainment passwords saved on one device? Now is the time to get fighting fit in the tech department.
For the past four days I've felt more like IT support staff than mum / home school teacher, never mind a writer as I try to resuscitate geriatric iPads and try to remember who sent the Zoom code, and on which app. If you have more than one child or need to WFH yourself, quickly beg, borrow or steal any extra tech. Frankly, any child-free people with their own laptop who are now WFH with a company one should be made to share with families of school age children, in the national interest.
And if your IT budget is up to it, what I wouldn't give for some noise cancelling ear defenders for when the online lesson ends and all the kids have a virtual playtime …
Accept it's all a work in progress
Just like the global situation itself, how our family is dealing with studying from home is changing every day. It's a bit like having a newborn baby, just as you think you've discovered what works, a new challenge crops up - especially if you're freelance.
Today, after a decent morning of online lessons and workbooks, the girls have been playing on our phones while I've been writing this article. Yesterday I took smug photos of them hoovering, today I've literally lobbed chocolate eggs at them from my desk. It's a marathon, not a sprint, guys.