Fitting in some work when the kids are home on a sick day (or a snow day) is a skill most working parents have down pat. But with the coronavirus pandemic changing the meaning of a regular school day while keeping many working parents at home, sneaking in meetings during nap time and emails after bedtime isn't going to cut it. No one can fit in 40 hours of work before wake-ups or after bedtime. We need a new plan.

It's totally understandable if you're feeling a little panicked right now, but take a deep breath and get out a notebook. Coming up with a plan—a simple, flexible daily schedule—will help alleviate some of the fear of the unknown.

Here's how to build a daily schedule that actually works with kids home from school.

1. Estimate your work hours.

Work with your team to figure out your top priorities by week, bearing in mind that millions of people are facing this same situation, and it simply may not be possible to get in a full work week every week during school closures. Prioritization is key.

Look at your workload at the beginning of each week and estimate how many hours you'll need to complete everything that has to be done. Use that number to figure out how many hours you'll need each day.

2. Schedule "shifts" if you can.

If you have a partner, talk to each other and figure out what "shifts" you can each take—and schedule in advance who's on parenting duty and who's on work duty.

For example, one parent might work from 6 am to 1 pm and the other 1 pm to 8 pm. Is this a normal schedule? No, but it gives you each seven hours of work time each day.

Just taking the time to communicate with each other and come up with a plan that prioritizes time for both of you will go a long way toward making remote-school-plus-working-from-home go smoothly.

3. Build in independent play.

While it might seem better to try to sneak in work while you play with your kids, in reality this can be challenging. Kids get frustrated when they sense we're not really paying attention—and we naturally get frustrated when we're interrupted 15 times while trying to send a single email.

Instead, schedule time each day when you expect your child to learn and play independently. This may be tough at first, but they will adapt if you're consistent. It really helps if independent activity is scheduled at the same time every day. Think about what time your child can be most successful with learning independently. Hint: It's likely not in the late afternoon!

4. Plan on working alongside your child part-time

It's smart to build time into your daily schedule where you plan on working alongside each other, while your kids are still expected to be semi-independent.

Come up with a list of projects such as simple book reports or research projects they can do while you sit together. Even a younger child can have some drawing or coloring time while you work at the same table.

5. Stay adaptable and realistic

We've all seen (and chuckled at) the optimistic "daily schedule" spreadsheets parents shared when schools began to close. If you started out with a schedule that included an hour of yoga and arts and crafts followed by a few hours of independent reading perfectly timed to your afternoon meetings, you're not alone—but by now, reality has well and truly set in.

Instead of building a schedule based on activities that you have to plan every day (and rejigger if your child loses interest or a meeting pops up on your calendar), try creating a schedule based on kinds of family time that incorporates these basic building blocks:

  • Family connection time
  • Independent learning time
  • Semi-independent learning time
  • Meal and snack time
  • Outdoor time
  • Quiet time
  • Independent play time
  • Screen time or technology time
  • Helping time

Here is a sample schedule based on these building blocks. You can of course make it your own, but the important thing is that both you and your child know what kind of family time to expect each day. It's especially helpful if these happen on a consistent schedule, which will give a vital sense of normalcy to these very strange times.

7 am: Wake up + connect
Even if you're super stressed about your to-do list, it will help if you build in a little one-on-one time with your children each morning. This will help fill their tank and set them up for success to be more independent the rest of the day.

You can also use this time to work together on learning: Read together after breakfast, practice the math skills they've been learning or work on an activity or lesson sent home from school by your child's teacher.

9 am: Get out the learning materials
Spend a few minutes helping your child get started on a project, and then work alongside them. This could just as easily be a Lego project, puzzles, art or whatever your child loves enough to play with independently.

10:30 am: Go for a walk or play outside
Make sure to get outside for a walk or some outdoor play every day, for your sake and your child's! Even if the weather is cold or rainy, getting outside for a little bit can really boost morale.

12 pm: Lunch
Try to put the phones away and connect at meal times if at all possible.

1 pm: Quiet time for younger kids, independent play for older kids
If your child no longer naps, establish a regular "quiet time" or independent play time in their room after lunch. It's important that this happens at about the same time every day (or at least at the same point in your daily rhythm).

3 pm: Optional screen time
Spend a few minutes reconnecting with your child after independent playtime is over, and then you may want to allow some screen time if you have more work you have to get done, especially if you don't have a partner you can trade off with. If you do not use screen time, try putting on a kids audiobook.

For an older child, you could also use this time to give them academic assignments to complete. Ask them to read a couple of chapters from a book or give them a prompt to write a creative story.

4 pm: Do some chores together
If you need to work after bedtime (and most of us will), and everyone's at home all day making more than the usual amount of mess, one thing is clear: Keeping the house clean is the whole family's job now. You are simply not going to have the time or energy to do it yourself. So enlist your child to help with household tasks. Young children often enjoy folding laundry or helping with dishes and cooking if we keep it lighthearted. Whatever age your child is, there's an age-appropriate chore they can do to help around the house.

If your kids are used to having your full attention whenever they're home, they will likely fight you on this schedule. Don't worry though—kids are adaptable and really are capable of playing and learning independently. After all, they work and play without us at school all the time!

Create a simple schedule and assess after a week or so. Make any changes you need to, whether it's more outside time, moving quiet time earlier in the day, or waking up a little earlier to clear your inbox and your mind before the chaos begins.

Remember mama, we're all in this together...and we will get through this.