One of the Frequently Asked Questions I get from new homeschoolers is “What do you do about sick days?” I always answer with a smile: “It depends on how sick they are.” It can also depend on who is sick — teacher or student.
If a child is attending public school, there will be days when you just are not sure whether to send him or not: Johnny has a bad cold, but no fever; Mary ran just the tiniest temp for only a few hours last night and now seems bright and bouncy. They are not really well, but they are not really sick either. I preferred to keep my children home when their immune systems were already compromised, away from the germ factories known as classrooms. However, the school administration took a different view of things: they informed me that my child was “missing too much school” and must attend whether she had pink eye or not. No, I don’t think so. That only confirmed my suspicions that the building was full of sick people, sharing their viruses with one and all. My daughter stayed home until our doctor okayed her return. (The public school criteria for true “illness” was the presence of vomiting or a high fever; otherwise the child was deemed “healthy” and expected to be in class — no matter how contagious.)
Once we began homeschooling and my children felt a little bit ill, but still felt able to do some work, I gave them the option of doing only their favorite subjects. Reading was my daughter’s activity of choice, so it could usually continue unless she had a really painful headache. If the student was too sick for sitting up and doing a workbook, but were not totally incapacitated, they were allowed to watch videos. Anything remotely educational was preferred, allowing me to count the day as a school day for them, rather than getting completely behind in our schedule. Games could also be played by the not-so-sick child, again redeeming some educational value from the day. If the legal requirements of your state include keeping attendance charts and detailed classwork accounts, then a light schedule for a sick child might be counted as only half a day.
When Mom is the sick one, the schedule may go completely out the window — unless your students are responsible enough to follow an assignment chart without much assistance. In the case of extended morning sickness, I advise shifting your school time to the hours when Mom feels good enough to handle it. Everyone will survive a slight change in scheduling, and once that season has passed, you can all resume a more regular routine.
The day will come when a particularly ruthless germ invades your home and knocks everyone flat on his back. That is the time to cancel classes without adding guilt. You will all just need to lie down, be sick, and get it over with. Take as much time as is needed to recuperate — you will regain your strength faster if you allow your body to get the rest it so desperately needs. I remember one very nasty siege we went through where Mom, Dad, and daughter were all down with a virus, leaving our young son to care for us. That little trooper must have felt as if he was king of the hill! He made us simple meals (standing on a stepstool to reach the dishes in the upper cabinets) and brought us our medications and orange juice. He could not have been more than seven years old. We repeatedly called him Our Hero, as he proudly nursed us through several days until we had the strength to stand again. He did not succumb to that sickness, and we still praise his bedside manner (and immune system), years later.
Snow days — when the public schools are not in session due to inclement weather — present a different problem. If your home is not surrounded by dozens of neighborhood children building snowmen, sledding, and having snowball fights, then you may be able to carry on a normal day’s routine, without even noticing the change in others’ plans. If, however, your children can sense their neighborhood playmates suiting up in parkas, boots, and mittens, the decision is yours as to whether you want to let them play all day or battle for their attention. We had a favorite saying for just this occasion: “Homeschoolers don’t get snow days off — we get gorgeous days off.” We could usually ignore the rare public school snow day and stick to our own schedule, but we were the nasty family going for a walk in the middle of that first lovely warm day in March. My children were the ones riding their bicycles or roller-blading past the nearby middle school every nice day after lunch, much to the envy of the students watching out the institution’s windows.
When we took a “gorgeous” day off, it was usually because Dad could join us for a picnic, spontaneous field trip, or nature hike around our favorite lake, allowing us plenty of educational opportunities to document for the school day. These events do tend to ruin tightly scripted schedules, so I learned over the years to plan fewer lessons than the legally required number of schooldays. I did not always hold rigidly to the plans I made, realizing that “life happens,” and I needed to have flexibility built into my schedule.
Other interruptions will crop up when you are the least prepared for them — a broken bone, a job transfer to another state, the serious illness or death of a grandparent, or worse. During times of catastrophic interruptions, strip your class schedule down to the bare minimum requirements and reassure yourself that “this, too, shall pass.” You will all need extra time to deal with the emotions accompanying your present disaster, so make time for family activities and enjoy your moments together — taking two hours off to watch a video cuddled together on the sofa can be a very healing experience. Life will eventually get back to its more normal pace and you can catch up on the other subjects later. It is important to remind ourselves that life — real life — does not fit into a carefully planned schedule: we take it one day at a time, and we deal with each day as it comes.
Consider the real-life lessons your children will receive from seeing how to deal with a family crisis. It is very helpful to have the memory of seeing adults grieve, adapt, make plans, and move on with what needs to be done in life. When children are completely sheltered from the matters usually tended to by adults, they have no knowledge of how to deal with these things themselves when the time comes.
My brother-in-law died unexpectedly when I was in eighth grade, and I was rushed off on the school bus that morning and expected to carry on as if it was any other day — no explanations, no time to grieve, nothing. I was allowed to miss classes long enough to attend his funeral, but otherwise, I had no clue as to what went into those few days. During our homeschooling days, we spent extended periods of time doing math lessons in hospital waiting rooms while grandparents underwent surgeries or the final days of life. The math was a “normal” activity that helped my children cope, but they also would not have wanted to be kept at home, away from their loved ones. My children (ages 11 and 14 then) gained a true picture of life during that time: they were in the midst of it all, alternately receiving and offering comfort and encouragement, not isolated in an artificial environment called “the classroom.”
Adapt to life as it happens — your schedule should be your tool, not your master. Every deviation from your normal routine provides another opportunity for real-life lessons. Make the best of the bad situations, whether you are demonstrating on-the-spot first aid, sickroom care, or snow sculpture engineering, and never underestimate the education that will be gained from the interruptions to your schedule.