At age 12, Zoey Nieves is battling to remain healthy after an 18-month struggle with a rare form of cancer.
She endured surgery and chemotherapy, but now, after two years of being free of alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, her low white blood cell count puts her at risk of contracting other illnesses—such as COVID-19.
That’s why—as summer was waning and New York City schools were planning to reinstate in-person classes—Zoey’s mom, Maria Villalobos, was thinking hard about switching to homeschooling . . . and not just for Zoey, her youngest daughter.
“I will do everything I need to do to keep my children safe,” Maria told Chalkbeat.org.
Decisions in Education
Maria’s dilemma epitomizes the challenge faced by millions of American families this autumn as public schools around the country reopen their classrooms.
An unprecedented number of parents switched to homeschooling during the pandemic, apparently dissatisfied with the closures, disruptions, and improvised learning measures imposed by schools in response to the health crisis.
Based on data gathered by the United States Census Bureau, HSLDA Research Director Steven Duvall estimates that the number of homeschoolers during the pandemic peaked at about 19 percent of households with school-age children—up from about 5 percent in spring of 2020. That means as many as 9 million students were being homeschooled at some point in the past school year.
Whether or not this trend toward home education continues into the current school year remains an open question. What does seem clear from the copious news coverage of homeschooling is that a chief reason parents choose the educational option is to keep their children safe.
Safety Begins at Home
Maria Villalobos, for example, said she was seriously considering homeschooling because she did not care for the school system’s idea for accommodating her immunocompromised daughter. Officials said Zoey might qualify for a teacher coming to her home for in-person instruction. But Maria considered this too risky.
“I still don’t feel a hundred percent about having someone come into our home,” she told Chalkbeat.org. “I don’t know where they are going, how they are traveling, or if the other families they are visiting have been vaccinated.”
Maria added she even disliked the thought of her other two children attending school because they could bring home an illness that Zoey’s immune system couldn’t handle.
Parents cited in other news reports echoed these concerns.
Georgia mother of two, Lorena Treyo, told Atlanta’s CBS46-TV that an outbreak of COVID-19 in her daughter’s public school classes prompted her to start homeschooling.
Nine-year-old Sophia struggles with arthritis, and the medication she takes for it also impairs her immune system.
“The first day of classes, there was already a positive case in her class,” Lorena said. “We didn’t know anything until Wednesday, when half of her class wasn’t there. I figured it would be better to keep her home.”
A Special Place
In other cases, parents have said they switched to homeschooling not because of concerns over a specific medical issue, but for the general well-being of children who struggle in special ways.
As reporter Kate Van Dyke of the GazetteXtra put it: “In addition to the flexibility that comes with homeschooling, many parents of children with disabilities who require individualized accommodations find that taking matters into their own hands is often the best option for their student.”
Van Dyke interviewed Peg Linge of the Western Wisconsin Homeschooling Support Group, who explained she withdrew her son from the local public school because it lacked the resources to address his auditory processing disorder and dyslexia. As a result, he fell behind and was bullied.
“I decided to take on my son’s education to free him from the confines of public school,’’ Linge said. She added that homeschooling has helped him heal and discover areas in which he can excel. “He may not have been able to recite multiplication facts, but he can cook a stunning roast.”
And then there are parents who homeschool in order to focus on their families in the face of life’s uncertainties.
Jody Sitton of North Carolina is one. She is being treated for stage four metastatic breast cancer, a fact which weighed heavily in her decision to home-educate her children.
“We have more time at home, and we can go different places all together,” Jody told Spectrum News 1. “And it’s nice cause it’s not like a bunch of people you don’t know, it’s like with our family and everything.”
She added: “I don’t know have much time I have. I don’t know when my next recurrence might be. I do plan on fighting it, and I do plan on winning. But I do want to spend as much time with my children as possible.”