Thinking About Pandemic Homeschooling? Three homeschoolers on accessibility, standards, and rethinking education

Whether school districts are ready or not, students across New Hampshire will going back to school in about a month. Since Governor Chris Sununu’s official guidelines for school reopening place much decision-making responsibility onto local school districts, with no additional funding dedicated to helping schools update the air systems Sununu says “should be evaluated,” for example— each school district must now decide whether to fully return to the classroom, continue with remote instruction or combine those two options. 

Local school districts are scrambling to give parents enough information about what these plans entail, but many parents are still feeling like they lack enough information to make an informed decision about whether to send their kids back to their school, try an alternative remote learning option, or homeschool.

A recent survey by supplemental online education program OutSchool, nearly 40% of parents say the pandemic has made them consider homeschooling. For parents who can manage enough job flexibility to homeschool, it may be more compelling than ever. 

I spoke with a homeschool parent and two people who were homeschooled as children to share their experiences, knowledge, and outlook on education in general. 

Amarie B, who lives in southern New Hampshire, always knew she would homeschool her children, ages 4 and 6. A Black mom who worked as a social worker in schools up and down the east coast, she saw a lot of racism in public schools. Before the pandemic hit, she always saw homeschooling as the best way to create a safe environment for her kids. 

Is Homeschooling Accessible to All?

Amarie introduced me to a Facebook group, BIPOC-led pandemic pods and microschools, where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are sharing recommendations and searching for other families to create “pods,” where parents can share responsibilities of homeschooling a small group of children. 

“I want it to be accessible for everyone,” said Amarie. “For me and my children’s father, we made a commitment to working opposite shifts, so one of us can always be available. I don’t want [homeschooling] to be a matter of privilege. I hope that some of these pod situations take that into account, so that it’s not dependent on your socio-economic level. I want people to realize it doesn’t need to look one way or another. There have to be creative ways to work it out.” 

These pods are structured in a lot of different ways – check out a breakdown of different types of schooling arrangements here. For some wealthy parents, pods come with a heavy pricetag. The New York Times reports that the Hudson Lab School will cost $13,750 per student in a 5-student pod, per semester. With more children, the price will drop some. But some parents who are priced out of hiring private tutors are making intentional plans to homeschool together. 

Julian Sutcliffe, who was given the choice to be homeschooled from 4th to 8th grades and is planning on becoming a parent in the next 2-3 years, is also interested in homeschooling their future children, and acknowledges that being able to do so is a privilege.

“I want to make sure whatever education they receive is consensual, whether that’s giving them options for homeschooling or alternative education,” they said. “I don’t want to see them being forced to be locked up 8 hours a day, and I know that sounds like a radical concept. I recognize that there is a lot of privilege in that statement, because of my relationship dynamic and options for healthcare, I have a choice to have a child and the economic means to homeschool a child or find a better school for them, and I don’t want to pass judgement on someone who can’t consider that option.

“I think that [pods] radically reexamine the nuclear family. If you were to teach children [in a pod] there would have to be some acceptance and openness of a bond, because it’s also guiding, mentorship, and being encouraging or open in a way that teachers aren’t expected to do.”

What About Standards?

For Justina Kenyon, who was homeschooled K-12 with no breaks in a Vermont family of 10 children, the system was pretty straightforward.

“We have a three-pronged system in VT. The Department of Education’s rules have changed a little bit. When I was growing up, parents had to send in a parent report and like a sort of general curriculum every year. Now, it’s every 2 or 3 years, first year you have to do all of it, and if it’s all good, you can take another couple years before you have to do as much in-depth telling. The standard is: are students advancing as they should be for their age range. You can have a licensed teacher come in and report that kids are ‘developing correctly.’ We were also able to have access to testing in public schools and can put together a written portfolio at the end of the year, which the Department of Education keeps. They were a lot more strict on that when I was a kid, less now. We were all fine for college. We got high school diplomas, as Vermont’s not a state where we have to get a GED.”

Julian reported similar portfolio requirements in New Hampshire. Justina’s mom also had a teaching license. Amarie has experience with tutoring, teaching at summer programs, and developing lesson plans. 

Still, Justina admits some areas were lacking. 

“It really struck me over the last few years as an adult how little earth science I got,” she said. “Although my family’s decision to homeschool was really separate from the church, the church really influenced our learning. Would use space in our church for homeschooling activities, and it was pretty taboo to want to explore those things in a way that was not pure creationism. When we learned about the human body, people who had babies as teenagers talked to us about the evils of sex, and just science in general was a lot more lacking.”

Amarie, Julian, and Justina all subscribe to some elements of “unschooling.” The homeschool mom defines unschooling as “an approach to home education based on learning through living rather than through the conventions of school. Parents partnering with their children rather than re-creating “school at home” children following their interests and curiosity, with help and resources from supportive parents.”

“For us, it’s more like they decide what they’re interested in,” says Amarie, “One of my kids is very interested in weather. So we focus a lot of our learning around weather, doing math projects around weather, reading things about weather, whatever is age-appropriate. Based on their interests, we don’t push things they’re not interested in. My 4 year old isn’t super into reading. I hope that I can make reading interesting enough that he’ll want to. My other child is already reading at a 3rd grade level, and we’ve already started an algebra series with her. She just picked it up and ran with it. To me, it’s about honoring them as individuals.”

Julian’s experience is similar. “In kindergarten they tried to teach me how to read, and I hated it because it was in a way that my brain did not compute. I learned how to read on my own the summer between kindergarten and 1st grade, and I immediately jumped to the young adult section.” 

“We didn’t fall completely on the unschooling side of things, but we were much closer to that,” said Justina. “We had textbooks only for math and literature. Overall, it was a lot more freeform. At the beginning of the year, each kid would get to pick a topic for the year that they’re interested in– for example, Egypt– and then we would often take that topic into other subjects.”

Beyond flexibility and the opportunity to individualize education based on learning and interests, homeschoolers are reimagining schooling apart from systems. As Julian put it, “I want to make it really clear that I do not blame anyone for sending their children to public schools, and I also do not blame public school teachers. But I know the way that ADHD and similar attention or auditory processing issues are punished in schools. And I want to see more ways for people to learn their own learning styles outside of the punitive way it’s done in public school.” 

“I also hear the argument a lot that high school prepares you for college,” Julian continued. “I think people need to consider alternatives. Not everyone needs to go to college. I did not complete college due to cost and some health issues, but I got involved in campaigns instead, and that’s been immensely more helpful.” 

Amarie agreed. “I hope [the current moment] leads to rethinking schooling in general. Whether, as humans, we’ll see this as an opportunity to change, or force our way back to what we had before. But I hope we’ll take the opportunity to do things that are less industrialized and more human, and I hope school is one.” 

So You’re Thinking About Homeschooling, and Looking For Advice

Growing up in the “middle of the woods without internet, and with very limited screentime,” Julian was at first “like I hate this, I’m bored.” Now, Julian says, “Let [your kids] be bored for a little while! They will start finding things they’re interested in, but they’re so used to having a structure that it could take a week or two to get them going.” 

Justina’s advice is similar. “Don’t try to be a school teacher, if that’s not your thing, don’t try to just sit down and do 6 hours a day of textbooks with kids, that’s gonna burn you and your kids out. Don’t try to do it totally alone, find other resources, other parents who are homeschooling, find groups. The best resources might be across the country from you, from someone who’s having a similar experience.”

Homeschooling groups are popping up all over- consider searching for [Your Town] + “virtual learning co-op” or similar to connect with others or to offer support as an educator!

Are you considering homeschooling? Still have questions? Tell us in the comments!