As the novel coronavirus began to spread, school districts quickly shut down, closing facilities and shifting classes online. As a result, many parents suddenly found themselves thrust into a new role: teacher.
With more than 50,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., state governments have issued social distancing measures and orders to stay at home. Some government officials have proclaimed that schools won't reopen this spring while some colleges have already moved summer classes online and are looking ahead to the possibility of remote instruction for the fall.
Despite the pandemic, the need for an education at all levels continues.
"Most families right now are supporting their children's learning at home," GG Weisenfeld, assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University--New Brunswick in New Jersey, wrote in an email. "In this instance, connecting with your student's current school is key."
She adds, though, that not all school districts are equally able to provide virtual learning, which may create additional challenges for parents of K-12 students. Likewise, some students lack internet access at home or access to electronic devices for schoolwork.
Considering the challenging situation parents now find themselves in, U.S. News reached out to education experts to understand approaches to homeschooling over the short term and long term. Here are their tips for teaching at home.
Homeschooling During the Coronavirus: The Short-Term Approach
What students are experiencing now isn't traditional homeschooling, experts are quick to point out. They prefer to call it "schooling at home." Rather than following plans developed by parents, students are adhering to guidance from their local schools through virtual learning and lesson plans sent home.
But even with that guidance, navigating the K-12 world can be frustrating for parents.
"The most important thing is patience," says T. Jameson Brewer, an education professor at the University of North Georgia and co-author of a journal article titled, "Homeschooling in the United States: Examining the Rationales for Individualizing Education."
Patience should extend not only to students but to parents as well because they have essentially become substitute teachers.
Weisenfeld encourages families to find online resources to help supplement learning materials sent home. She also urges parents to seek out lesson plans to aid instructions and to look to online platforms like Khan Academy.
Virtual museum tours and other online resources can also help round out assigned schoolwork.
She also encourages parents to visit the State Educational Technology Directors Association to see how school districts are going virtual. "There is a parent resources page that lists many resources, including state education agency links."
Families without internet access should contact their local school to ask about accommodations.
Vanessa Newman, a junior at the University of California--Los Angeles, was homeschooled most of her life before finishing up at a private high school. She encourages families to start every day with breakfast, follow an organized schedule and have a dedicated study space. That's what worked for her as a homeschool student.
"One thing that's tricky with homeschooling, it can be confusing to have boundaries between school and home , and it might feel like you never leave school, or home isn't as comfortable since you associate it with school," she says.
That makes a dedicated study space important, whether it's a room or one chosen area, she adds.
Newman notes that another big adjustment for students now is not being around classmates.
"It's not like when you're done with school, you can just go over to your friend's house anymore to play or to spend time with them," she says, adding that kids should try to connect virtually to avoid feeling isolated.
Homeschooling After COVID-19: The Long-Term Approach
Families considering homeschooling after the coronavirus pandemic has passed should understand the significant commitment required.
"Really what it factors down to is the willingness of the parent to invest the time, because that's what you're asking of a public school or private school teacher -- to invest the time," says Carol Becker, a high school consultant with the Home School Legal Defense Association who also taught her children at home.
Staying organized is key.
Newman's school schedule started at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. After breakfast she typically began with math, and her mother focused on teaching the same subjects to her and her younger brother. Her lessons often would be wrapped up by lunchtime, she says.
Newman's family supplemented her educational experience with activities such as dance classes and a homeschool co-op, where she learned alongside other students. "We had an agreement between ourselves that as long as I finished my lessons for the day, I could have the rest of the day pretty much to myself. I was pretty motivated to get all my lessons done, so I could do arts and crafts or go to a class."
Parents should also think long term.
Becker says families need to understand educational requirements and plan across multiple years. Families also need to think about the end result and where they want their child to be when high school graduation day arrives.
That comes down to vision.
"The idea of vision is understanding and becoming good at recognizing your teen's strengths," Becker says. At the same time, parents should recognize their students' weaknesses and push them to improve in those areas.
Homeschool curricula, across all grade levels, can be found in abundance online and can be tailored to family preferences. The options range from educational titans such as Pearson to lesser-known organizations that emphasize religious education.
For subjects parents may not feel they can adequately teach, Becker encourages them to turn to a homeschool co-op, real-time or self-paced online classes or a paid tutor who can help their student with a subject.
Understanding the Homeschool Environment and Outcomes
Whether prompted by the coronavirus or not, growth rates indicates that some families will likely turn to homeschooling over the long term.
The actual number of homeschooled students can be difficult to pin down, but a report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 1.7 million children were taught at home in 2016. Even the Department of Education can't be sure, however, and other estimates put the homeschool population well above 2 million.
"The reason that we don't have a lot of data is that homeschool families don't tend to respond to surveys as much as other families do, particularly those (families) who attend public school," Brewer says.
That lack of data extends to student outcomes, meaning educational quality can be hard to measure. Homeschool advocates tend to heap praise on the educational outcomes while critics claim the validity of their research is suspect because of an agenda to spread homeschooling.
Some critics worry about both the safety and efficacy of homeschooling.
"Kids are falling through the cracks," says Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor and faculty director and founder of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard University in Massachusetts.
Bartholet is concerned about homeschool children being abused and neglected. Her concern is prompted by the regulatory patchwork that governs homeschooling in the U.S. Even among states with more stringent rules on homeschooling, she says, there is potential for harm to children because state laws often lack oversight of home environments.
"Many jurisdictions don't even require homeschoolers to register. And if they do require them to register, they don't enforce the requirements," Bartholet says. "It's really hard to study the overall population."
But Becker argues that regulation isn't necessarily the answer. "It doesn't tend to be regulation that protects kids, because the public schools are highly regulated, and yet incidences of bullying, as well as inappropriate relationships with teachers still happen. Child abuse at home still happens" to public school students.
Bartholet also worries that children may experience a restricted worldview and limited autonomy at home. She's concerned that parents will force their beliefs on children rather than exposing them to diverse viewpoints.
Parents choose to homeschool for many reasons. A Department of Education study published in April 2017 found that in 2012, 91% of surveyed parents who homeschooled were concerned about school environments with regard to "safety, drugs or negative peer pressure." Another 77% cited "a desire to provide moral instruction" and 64% said the same thing about religious instruction.
Some of the other reasons cited were having children with special needs or mental or physical health issues.
Though limited data means educational outcomes for homeschool students are unclear, it's possible that the points of both advocates and detractors ring true. Some students do fall through the cracks when homeschooled.
Others, like Newman, excel. She earned an associate degree before attending UCLA, a highly selective school, on a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation undergraduate transfer scholarship. A lack of data, however, makes it impossible to determine what outcomes are most frequent for homeschool students.
"We don't have a good snapshot of the entire universe of homeschooling," Brewer says.
Ultimately, the onus for providing a student with a good and safe homeschool experience falls on parents.
"Homeschooling is a job," Weisenfeld says. "If parents are planning to be the instructor then they need to make time to educate."
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