Not Everyone Hates School at Home

In the turmoil of this spring’s quarantine learning, one thing Pamela Ononiwu, of Fairfax County, Virginia, did not expect was that her three elementary school-age children might actually be happier learning at home.

Yet outside the academic pressures and social agonies of the daily school grind, they thrived — so much so that she’s planning to home-school them full time this fall. “One child was experiencing headaches every day, and ever since being home, those tension headaches are nonexistent,” she said. “That child is very happy.”

While some parents are counting down the days until they can get their kids back into the classroom, a growing number of families are thinking about home schooling this fall. For some, it seems like the most reasonable option during a pandemic. For others, it’s because they’ve seen the advantages firsthand.

About 1.69 million school-age students are already home-schooled in the United States, according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the last year available.

Recently, however, home school organizations are seeing a surge of interest from parents. At the Denver-based National Home School Association, inquiries during the first month after schools closed were primarily from parents who “were just lost and confused and wanted any sort of guidance they could get,” said J. Allen Weston, the association’s executive director. Now, Weston said he can’t keep up with an onslaught of email and phone messages. “Interest has exploded,” he said.

Parents need to be aware that there is a difference between online learning at home, led by a teacher from the child’s school, and home schooling, when the parent becomes the educator.

And parents must comply with the rules of the school district where they live.

In New York City, for instance, parents must send a letter of intent, a home instruction plan and quarterly reports to the school district. But other states have fewer rules for home schooling. In Texas, only five subjects are required: math, reading, spelling, grammar and good citizenship. Science and history are not mandatory but are recommended for college-bound students.

To start, parents may need to officially withdraw a child from school to avoid truancy charges.

In addition to following state education rules, parents need to choose a curriculum to be taught at home. Home schooling doesn’t have to mean the parent becomes an expert in every subject; if you dreaded chemistry, you can lean on online resources to teach it to your child. Many home school organizations are faith-based or critical of the public school system in general, so parents need to vet the curriculum to make sure it’s consistent with their educational goals and values. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit group that is pushing for more accountability in home schooling, is a useful resource for parents.

Advocates of full-time home schooling say it bears little resemblance to the online schooling that many students and families experienced as states locked down this spring as a result of the coronavirus crisis. With home schooling, students aren’t tied to classroom deadlines to complete a math worksheet or history essay, and parents don’t have to scramble to find art supplies to complete an assignment. Children can sleep as late as they need, and parents can assist with schoolwork on their own terms and schedules.

Home schooling doesn’t even require all-hands-on-deck supervision, the way crisis schooling sometimes did. “That’s a common misperception, that when we’re home-schooling we’re sitting all day at the table with our kids,” said Zara Fagen, the Chicago-based author of “Minimalist Homeschooling.”

A typical day for Fagen’s family starts at the kitchen table around 10 a.m., where she might help the 4-year-old with handwriting and ABCs, the 7-year-old with phonics, and the 10- and 12-year-olds with Japanese and math. Over lunch she reads a history book aloud, then segues into a group science experiment after lunch. (She has a doctorate in neurobiology, so that’s a favorite.)

By 2 p.m., the kids are all playing or working independently, and Fagen is focused on managing the wholesale flooring business she owns with her husband. (She also squeezes in work early in the morning or late at night.) Even in regular school, students “don’t get 100% of the teacher’s attention 100% of the time,” Fagen pointed out. In home school, she might help her 10-year-old son find instructional YouTube videos about baseball catching techniques — a subject he’s passionate about — then leave him to do the research.

Maintaining time for her writing was one of the reasons Cindy Baldwin of Portland, Oregon, a children’s book author, initially balked at pulling her 7-year-old daughter out of school for COVID-19, even though Baldwin has cystic fibrosis, which would make her particularly vulnerable.

But for Baldwin, who was home-schooled herself as a child, once schools shut down, it turned out that there were moments of delight in devising home school activities to augment virtual second grade, like hands-on art projects and trips to a local nature park to learn about birds and their habitats. They have made the idea of home schooling full time this fall a bit more palatable.

For parents like Baldwin, the interest in home schooling is mostly driven by fear of sending their kids to schools that tend to be germ factories under the best of circumstances. “Is there really any way for schools to mitigate risk enough for a child of an extremely high-risk person?” she asked. Complex guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending, for instance, that schoolchildren wear masks and avoid sharing supplies have provided little comfort.

“You’re not going to tell me that kids are going to follow those rules,” said Crystal Beesley, of Taylor, Michigan, who’s planning to home-school her two younger sons this fall. “The fact that they even want to suggest putting our kids back into schools with masks tells me it’s not safe.” But some parents say “they will not send their kids back if they are made to wear masks,” Weston, the National Home School Association director, said.

Whatever the motive for considering home schooling, here’s how to make the decision.

Ask yourself if you’re ready

How do your children learn best? What setting will give them the best possible education? Those questions are key, but so are slightly more practical considerations like: How will home schooling affect your family dynamic? How will it fit around your work? Can your family embrace a philosophy of all-day education?

Find a mentor

As Amy Zimmel, of Simsbury, Connecticut, pondered keeping her 7-year-old twins out of public school this fall, she messaged a home schooling acquaintance for help. “She’s been super open with, ‘Ask me any questions you have, this is what we tried, this is what worked, this is what didn’t work.’” Zimmel has also tracked down online home schooling groups for her geographic area and for educational styles she’s curious about.

Decide on an approach

You can go religious or secular, buy scripted plug-and-play lesson plans, cobble together hands-on projects, or join a home school co-op to share teaching duties. Some school districts offer hybrid options that bring students into regular classrooms for part of the day. Virtual learning options have surged as well, with choices as varied as Stanford’s selective online high school or one-off lessons from Khan Academy or Outschool. “Each scenario has pros and cons,” Fagen said. “The question is, which pros and which cons are most valuable to us as a family?”

Think about college

When friends ask Rick Clark, the undergraduate admissions director at Georgia Tech and co-author of “The Truth About College Admission,” whether home-schooled kids can get into good colleges, he says yes; in fact, he and his wife are considering home-schooling their 12- and 9-year-olds this fall. But he said that for home-schooled teenagers to have the best shot at selective universities, they should either enroll in an accredited online high school, like the Keystone School or the University of Texas at Austin High School, or plan to take AP tests or SAT subject tests that demonstrate their competency.

Know what success looks like

In some states, home-schooled children take regular standardized tests to make sure they’re on track. But home schooling metrics can be a lot more personalized, like watching a first grader solo-read a “Magic Tree House book, or being trounced by your teenager in a debate about election-year politics.

As tricky and momentous as the decision to home-school feels right now, “you’re not joining the Army,” said Brett Kennedy, an independent college counselor in Atlanta whose two children are home-schooled. “You can home-school for a little while and try it, and if it doesn’t work, put them back in the public schools when this is over.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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