In a sign of these strange times, my kindergartner had his first math class via Zoom recently. This was the first formal lesson since schools closed and families were eager to make the most of it. Parents hovered behind their children across our screen, talking over one another (and ultimately the teacher) as they implored their children to focus. Despite our good intentions, parental anxiety got the best of us. My son came away with little more than a headache.

For many families during COVID-19, having children out of school and needing to catch up on education is a new, stressful feeling. For millions around the world, being out of school or denied an education is a tragic, multi-generation reality.

I’m the mother of two young children and leader of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit that has educated more than 130,000 children who had been kept out of school by conflict and poverty.

To paraphrase Michele Caracappa of New Leaders: everything has changed due to COVID-19, except children’s capacity to learn.

Here are lessons from my work that I hope will give some peace of mind to fellow parents during these challenging, unprecedented times.

1. When this is over, kids can catch up. Children have a remarkable capacity to absorb new information from the world around them, and to progress quickly through curricula when the learning conditions are right. In Liberia, many Luminos students have no prior schooling and come from illiterate families. It’s estimated that one third of all Liberian children are stunted. Yet, despite these heartbreaking challenges, these girls and boys cover three years of school in just ten months — successfully. It’s alright if you haven’t transformed into a homeschooling pro. It will be challenging, but your children can catch up later.

2. Becoming a self-directed learner is a precious life skill. It’s also accompanied by growing pains. For children and adults alike, learning something new or achieving a goal on one’s own (and not because a teacher or coach is making you), is hard and takes initiative. Remind your kids of the long-term reward that comes from pushing through. It may be messy, but some degree of struggle and frustration for both parents and kids is part of the process. At Luminos, we call this “learning how to learn,” and consider it essential to boost a child’s future ability to thrive. Graduates of our program go on to complete primary school at nearly twice the rate of their peers.

3. Creative arts are important, especially in times of crisis. The weeks ahead will bring a great deal of anxiety for parents and children, and mourning in some families. Creative expression is a valuable, accessible way to help children process grief. Indeed, psycho-social support, like art and music therapy, is a central element of our program for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, helping them to process the trauma they have experienced. I’m repeatedly amazed by the creativity — sometimes simple and sometimes heart-rending — that children pour onto paper. Create space for creativity.

4. It’s OK to revisit concepts that children have learned already. Reinforcing learning is as essential as covering new materials. At least for children in early grades, it’s not necessary to introduce new concepts while children are at home. At Luminos, we present each concept in multiple ways to help it take root firmly in children’s minds: linking what they learn in class to what they know of life beyond the classroom.

Our work teaches me that children have a remarkable capacity to catch up when given a second chance. It also teaches me that children outside of a privileged bubble don’t bounce back without support.

The reality is, the lives of my kids, and kids who are similarly privileged to my own, will ultimately return to normal. And they will be surrounded by the love and resources to bounce back from this disruption in their learning. My work with children halfway around the world with a fraction of the material support around them proves to me that this is so.

The long term challenge of this crisis then, is not for my family, but for families in parts of Africa and the Middle East whom Luminos is privileged to serve.

There’s an opportunity, and indeed an imperative, for parents living in a similar state of privilege to my own, to use the anxiety, frustration and uncertainty of this moment not just to build a protective wall for our own families, but to cherish the firsthand insight and empathy we now share with parents in the poor majority.

We never thought we’d find ourselves in a situation where these ideas are needed so much closer to home, in this time of solemn uncertainty and pandemic. But I find solace in knowing we’ll try to make the best of it for our children, families, and communities – just like millions of people in other parts of the world have done, and continue to do, every day. 

Luminos students in class, prior to COVID-19
Luminos students in class, prior to COVID-19

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).