So just what is the current state of education in America? Of all the journalists covering and commenting on the issue, National Public Radio’s Anya Kamenetz summed it up especially well.
She wrote: “Until a few weeks ago, about 3 percent of the nation’s children were homeschooled. Now with schools closed in almost every state—probably for months—to fight the spread of the coronavirus, the vast majority of the nation’s children are doing their learning, and nearly everything else, at home.”
It’s an unanticipated—and unprecedented—change. So naturally, the media has been busy covering and trying to make sense of it all.
Leading newspapers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times have put their top education reporters on the issue. Even supermarket glossies such as Good Housekeeping and Vanity Fair have capitalized on the trend.
Tapping into Expertise
Much of the coverage has focused on offering helpful advice, particularly from veteran homeschooling families.
One of the most repeated suggestions is for parents to resist the urge to emulate the classroom experience.
“It doesn’t have to look like school and (the kids) will still be OK,” Susan Russell, a 22-year homeschool veteran, told the Chicago Tribune.
Julie Bogart, homeschool mom and curriculum author, put it this way in an interview with the New York Times: “School is designed as an institution with desks, classrooms, blackboards and teachers in the front of the room to create an environment that helps children cooperate with the agenda. Home is not like that. Home is where we come to get relief from that.”
Focus on Flexibility
Other experienced homeschoolers encouraged families to take advantage of the flexibility home education provides. As homeschool mom and advocate Phoenix Smith told the Seattle Times: “The beauty of homeschooling is you get to custom tune it. The idea is that your love of learning is your most important curriculum. And if you have that, that can take you anywhere, in any subject or curriculum.”
The requirements being placed on traditional students to learn from home vary. Some public school districts have set up online instruction. For families with limited internet access, some public school officials have also been printing take-home instruction packets. And some districts have even suspended learning for a time.
Restrictions put in place to deal with the current health crisis have also affected families who have been homeschooling all along.
The Oswego County News in New York noted how homeschool families have had to adjust to canceled co-op classes, sports, and field trips.
“Thank God, technology has kept our kids tied together, so they’re still able to communicate, whether its Skyping or Zoom,” homeschool mom and co-op coordinator Susan Humphrey told the paper. “They’ve been trying some new sites online to stay connected with their friends. Technology has been really helpful in that regard.”
Reporter Ashley Saari of New Hampshire’s Monadnock Ledger-Transcript also described how a local family has had to make changes to provide for their teen’s special needs.
Beth Theisen of Wilton decided to homeschool her daughter, Grace, who is now 17, because she is autistic and Theisen wasn’t satisfied with how the school was following her individualized education plan. Now, she teaches Grace at home, and attends weekly sessions to get Grace the occupational, speech and behavioral therapy.
At least that was the routine before the coronavirus struck.
Theisen said Grace’s homeschooling is uninterrupted for the most part, but her other therapy sessions, usually done in person, had to be adjusted. Her speech therapy moved to video chat calls with her therapists, and Theisen continues her occupational and physical therapy at home, after creating a plan with Grace’s therapists through email.
Making a Difference
Still other homeschool families have been using current events as the basis for learning—and helping.
“We do a lot of things that are referred to in the homeschooling community as ‘unschooling,’ where it’s not necessarily all out of a textbook,” homeschool mom Mary Simmons told the Oswego County News. “The other day we were sewing masks for nursing workers, so we were giving a sewing lesson and it wasn’t curriculum-oriented.”
Not all coverage of the shift to homeschooling has been completely positive.
In her own piece on the topic, NPR’s Kamenetz discussed various “myths” such as whether “teaching by video is the best option,” or if it’s really true that homeschool students outperform their peers academically.
Had Kamenetz put the questions to homeschool mom and online instructor Courtney Ostaff, the answer would have been unequivocal.
“I would stack my (homeschooled) 12-year-old’s education up there with anybody else’s,” Ostaff told the New York Post. “I’ve had friends here in Morgantown, West Virginia, who’ve had students going on to Princeton. The last time I checked into it, a couple of years ago, homeschoolers were admitted into Stanford and the Ivys at preferential rates because they are known to be able to do independent, solid work.”
It’s certainly a bold claim for an education method that was, until this year, only employed by a small minority. But now, just about every family has the opportunity to sample some of the merits of homeschooling for themselves.