Parents are choosing home school over school at home during pandemic

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 she dropped them off for sixth grade and kindergarten, respectively.

But two weeks ago, after she received a letter outlining the school's 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 coming 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," said Campbell, 29, who lives just outside Boise, Idaho. "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."

IMAGE: Haley Campbell (Haley Campbell)
IMAGE: Haley Campbell (Haley Campbell)

After having been 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.

While there's no comprehensive data on how many parents plan on home-schooling come fall, several states, including Texas, Utah and Washington, have reported sharp upticks in interest.

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 have started to reveal what a return to classrooms may look like amid the pandemic, but many parents have pre-emptively 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."

Even though parents have every right to make 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 be able to do it well and even better than their local schools, 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," he said.

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 and will need to be able to quickly tap into the many resources that can support them.

Thinking outside the box

Jessica Bates, a mother of two in Nashville, Tennessee, has already started preparations with curriculum research based on input from two of her sisters who are public schoolteachers. 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," said Bates, a freelance writer. "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 to send her son to school, but with the possibility of remote learning still high, she felt it was better to teach him herself.

Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is director of the organization's Brown Center on Education Policy, said: "COVID-19 has helped people to see that there are other education options out there that they had never seriously considered before. 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 traditional school settings once the public health crisis passes, 1 percent 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 her fifth grader back to school in the fall, and she 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 a time of crisis, which isn't 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 need to have not only the subject area knowledge, but also knowledge of how to teach, and because that often requires a big commitment by at least one parent to succeed, 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 she 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."