Haley Campbell was eager for her two older children, ages 11 and 6, to start school in the fall.
She imagined how their first day would go: special outfits, an encouraging pep talk, and kisses goodbye before dropping them off for sixth grade and kindergarten, respectively.
But two weeks ago, after she received a letter from the school outlining its COVID-19 protocols which included isolated lunches, staggered schedules and the possibility that remote learning could return at any moment, Campbell felt it wasn’t worth sending her children back to school.
She decided, instead, to home-school her children this upcoming school year and resigned from her full-time job as an insulin pump technician to fully commit to it. She also pulled her 2-year-old son out of day care.
“Kids need a safe space to feel comfortable learning and what was being described to me by the school is not good enough for my kids,” Campbell, 29, who lives just outside Boise, Idaho, said. “They need to be able to focus on learning, and not worry about what they can and can’t touch, staying apart, and not being able to play with their best friend.”
After being in “survival mode” with remote learning, she no longer wants to be at the discretion of the school. “I know they are doing their best but I can’t rely on the school anymore, I need to be in control and have the ball in my court,” she said.
Over the last month, calls and emails from parents inquiring about home schooling have “exploded,” said J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association.
Public schools across the country have started to reveal what a return to classrooms may look like amid the pandemic, but many parents have preemptively opted not to return and are planning to home-school instead, a decision experts say is a huge undertaking that parents should be well prepared for.
“A lot of parents were disillusioned with what they saw over the last 120 days,” said Luis Huerta, a professor of education and public policy at Teachers College at Columbia University. “They felt the level of instruction was not up to par and that schools dropped the ball during the transition. That led many parents to reconsider, at least temporarily, that they need to take control of their children’s education.”
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Even though parents have every right to that decision, they have to consider the extent to which they are prepared and have the skills to carry it out, he said.
Some families may have the ability to do it well and even better than their local school, but others will struggle, he said.
“It will be a mixed bag based on the myriad of diverse experiences that parents experienced over these last few months.”
Huerta added that if parents are exploring the idea of shifting to home schooling, they will need to be very aware of the challenges and rigor of executing it well, and need to be able to quickly tap into the many resources that can support them in that transition.
Thinking outside the box
Jessica Bates, a Nashville-based mother of two, has already started preparations with curriculum research based on input from two of her sisters who are public school teachers. Her son will be starting kindergarten in the fall.
“I’m very pro-school and very pro-public school and I never thought I would be thinking about home schooling,” Bates, a freelance writer, said. “But with COVID-19 spreading and my state opening back up as cases are rising, we’re concerned with my son going to school.”
Bates said social interaction was the main reason for sending her son to school, but with the possibility of remote learning still high, she felt it was better to teach him herself.
“COVID-19 has helped people to see that there are other education options out there that they had never seriously considered before,” said Michael Hansen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. “It allowed people to see flexibility and think outside the box about what schooling means and how it works best for their children.”
Even though most students who are home-schooled during the pandemic will return to a traditional school setting once the public health crisis passes, 1 or 2 percent of them may end up sticking with it because it worked well, Hansen said.
Lara Miller, who lives with her immunocompromised mother, won’t be sending her third grader and fifth grader back to school in the fall and is also researching home schooling options.
Despite the school’s precautions, she said she is still not comfortable exposing her children to other kids.
“It was a tough decision, but as a family we decided it was best for me to keep them home and home-school,” she said. Miller, who is self-employed, said she will have to take a step back from working and rely solely on her husband’s income over the next year.
New demands, new perspectives
Parents are trying to decide what is right for them during an unprecedented time of crisis, which is not easy, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education.
But what is important to recognize is that what parents did with remote learning wasn’t home schooling but an “emergency response that involved trying the school in the home,” he said. “Home schooling is very different. It is very demanding and requires a lot of hard work, preparation and time.”
Parents not only need to have the subject area knowledge but also knowledge of how to teach, and since that often requires a large commitment by at least one parent in order to be successful, it doesn’t work with every situation, Welner added.
“It’s not for everyone and even those who think it might be for them at this point may find out it’s not,” he said.
But Haley Campbell is optimistic and wants to keep an open mind over the next year.
“No one has parented during this, so I just have to be flexible and adaptable,” she said. ” It’s hard because you are responsible for these little lives, but I feel like I’m doing the right things for my kids.”