Vermont has had remarkable success when it comes to containing the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the Green Mountain State has been completely immune to its effects. As in many states, the number of families who have chosen to homeschool is on the rise, and the state's Agency of Education is struggling to keep up.

For some families, this delay in processing homeschool documentation is causing headaches.

It shouldn’t be this way. Vermont’s homeschool statute creates a simple, streamlined process for families who decide to learn at home.

Parents file a notice that they are enrolling their child in a home study program, along with some supporting documents (such as an end-of-year progress report). Families who are just starting out also have to provide a screening form for potential learning disabilities (along with adaptations for their learning plan, if needed), as well as a minimum course of study (MCOS) laying out the subjects they plan to teach and the concepts or materials they plan to use.

Once a family successfully completes two years of home study, however, the statute exempts them from having to file the MCOS in most subsequent years.

Following a Timeline

All of this documentation goes to the Agency of Education, which reviews the materials to determine if the parents submitted all the information required by the statute.

If they have, the agency issues a “complete” letter to the parents, confirming that they’ve satisfied the requirements; if something is missing, the agency has 14 days to send an “incomplete” letter to the parents, advising them of what is missing.

If this information isn’t provided—or if the parents and the agency disagree on what is provided—the Agency has 45 days to call a “pre-enrollment hearing” so officials can determine if the homeschool will provide the required minimum course of study.

If it fails to call that hearing within 45 days, however, the Supreme Court of Vermont has said that the children become “automatically enrolled” in home study, whether or not the agency sends a “complete” letter to the parents.

Complications

As you might expect, COVID-19 has inundated the agency with more enrollment notices than usual. As one also might expect, the agency has struggled to meet the 14-day deadline to send “complete” or “incomplete” letters to families.

The agency's website currently advises families that it may take up to six weeks for the agency to issue letters, and some families have still not received updates on notices that they filed in August or early September.

For some families—perhaps most—this isn’t a problem. If the agency ultimately determines that the enrollment notice is complete, and takes no further action, all is well (apart from the lack of certainty and security that a timely “complete” letter provides to the family).

But for a growing number of families who are being told their notices aren’t complete, things are far more worrisome.

It is simply unfair to report families to social services when the families filed a timely notice as required by the statute (and while the agency failed to follow its own statutory deadlines).

For starters, these incomplete letters are being issued well after the 14-day deadline—usually 50 or more days after the enrollment notice was filed (and in some cases, closer to 70 days have passed).

As your children learn from you early in their school years, 50 is more than 45. In other words, the agency is telling families that their children’s home study enrollment is “incomplete,” even though more than enough time has elapsed for the state law—and the state’s Supreme Court ruling—to come into effect, saying that the children are now “automatically enrolled” in a home study program.

Even more concerning, the agency also mentioned the Department of Children’s Services to families, in the same communications where it was requesting additional information. More than a few families contacted us, concerned that they would be reported for educational neglect if they didn’t comply with the agency's demands, even though their children are enrolled in lawful home study programs.

Seeking Clarification

We shared that concern, and asked our local counsel in Vermont to send a letter to the agency, asking them to clarify whether officials were planning to report families for educational neglect if they failed to comply with these late demands for paperwork.

Accusing families of neglect because of a mistake by officials would be troubling on multiple levels. It’s hard to see how children who are “enrolled” in a full-time home study program are somehow being “neglected,” and in any event, a failure to file administrative paperwork has little to do with the quality of education being provided.

Then there’s the justice issue. It is simply unfair to report families to social services when the families filed a timely notice as required by the statute (and while the agency failed to follow its own statutory deadlines).

Government officials can’t just re-interpret the law for their own convenience.

The Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this year considered—and rejected—such arguments in the Sosebee case, and New York City eventually settled a civil rights lawsuit that we brought on behalf of Tonya Acevedo, when her school reported her to children's services because the city’s home study office failed to process her homeschool paperwork in a timely fashion.

Favorable Response

Fortunately, Vermont’s agency clarified that it does not plan to report families to children's services for educational neglect over paperwork disputes. The home study statute has a clear procedure for resolving those disputes, none of which involve CPS. So far, the agency has held true to its word. In the meantime, we've been assisting many families in Vermont with late requests for paperwork, while reminding the agency that these children are already enrolled in a lawful home study program.

COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on us all, and some administrative delays are understandable. But it’s also important to note that the legislature in Vermont has not suspended the agency’s 14-day deadline, nor has it stripped homeschooling families of the automatic enrollment they receive if the agency fails to call a hearing within 45 days.

On the contrary, when the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the 45-day automatic enrollment, it pointed out that the whole point of that requirement was to prevent parents’ notices from being stuck in limbo. If a parent’s notice is missing something, the agency has a reasonable amount of time to tell them. But if the agency doesn’t act within that reasonable amount of time, parents have a right to proceed with their home study program.