Amid signs that the COVID-19 health crisis is easing, America’s educators are thinking about the fall term and trying to determine what school should look like in a post-pandemic setting.
For many public school officials, planning for the near future involves trying to locate and survey families who have opted out of their services. This includes millions of Americans believed to have switched to homeschooling since spring 2020.
As a result, from Virginia to Wyoming, homeschool families are reporting an increase in government contacts. These interactions are sometimes unsettling because officials not only ask for more information than homeschool parents are used to providing—they also fail to make it clear whether these requests are optional or carry the weight of law.
Need to know
In April, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools emailed homeschool families, asking them to fill out an online survey.
Scott Woodruff, Home School Legal Defense Association senior counsel, quickly responded to the officials who sent the email, asking that a follow-up message be sent clarifying that the survey was optional.
As Woodruff explained to HSLDA members, “When an official says ‘please’ but gives a person no option but to do what they are being asked, it feels just like a command.”
Some districts are doing much more than posting questionnaires in their efforts to track down students.
According to the New York Times, Indianapolis Public Schools “made 1,000 home visits over two days in April to check
on children who had been chronically absent during the pandemic, sometimes encouraging them to return to in-person learning.”
Taking a stand
In Wyoming, efforts by Sweetwater County School District No. 1 and No. 2 to extract information from homeschool families resulted in a coalition that took action and got results.
Miriam Brown, who homeschools her four children, said the incident stemmed from an ongoing problem that seems to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Officials in both public school districts in Sweetwater County have, for some time, sent annual packets to homeschool families seeking information about their education plans for the following year and asking if parents intend to participate in programs for students with special needs.
According to Miriam, “these forms ask for more information than is required by the law, with language that is rather heavy-handed and intimidating.”
And although there is no deadline for filing required information about homeschooling—HSLDA recommends sending it before school starts—the Sweetwater County packets implied the enclosed forms needed to be returned within a few weeks.
And the packets keep arriving earlier. At first, officials sent them in August, but in recent years, they began mailing them to homeschool families in July. This year, the packets arrived in March.
Miriam said that in District No. 2’s latest letter, “the superintendent went so far as to threaten truancy if the form wasn't filled out by their arbitrary deadline.”
This caused more than a little confusion and consternation, said HSLDA staff attorney Dan Beasley, who pointed out that “many parents were still focusing on the current homeschooling term. They hadn’t even started thinking about what curriculum to use in the fall.”
At Miriam’s request, Beasley sent letters to Sweetwater County officials, explaining what state homeschool laws actually require.
Strength in Numbers
Miriam also coordinated with area homeschooling parents to submit comments for the upcoming school board meeting. The remarks were read aloud during the virtual session, provoking both a response and an apology from school officials.
“I think the fact that we came across as coordinated and organized was very important toward having the board take us seriously,” Miriam noted. “I would also say that informing them that we had already made contact with an HSLDA attorney was important to that same end.”
She added that she feels more work needs to be done to establish honest and equitable communications between school officials and homeschool parents. Toward that goal, Miriam has suggested the school board appoint a liaison from the homeschool community.
Meanwhile, she is moving ahead with plans to launch a tutoring center this summer. With the recent growth in homeschooling, Miriam explained, she believes it’s important to provide families with additional resources for academics as well as advocacy.