Homeschooling has been thrust into the spotlight in 2020. Those of us who recognize and appreciate how homeschooling can nurture children and strengthen families should embrace this unprecedented moment, when record-breaking numbers of parents are contemplating or committing to homeschooling their children this fall, due to COVID-19.

Although these parents may only choose this educational option for a few months, and some may not truly get a sense of the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling if they remain tied to their school district’s directives, more parents are taking back control of their children’s education in profound and creative ways. By welcoming these families into the homeschooling movement and understanding their modern twists on time-honored homeschooling practices, we may encourage many newcomers to opt out of conventional schooling now and in the future.

We all know that what families experienced last spring with shuttered schools and forced, at-home learning was nothing like authentic homeschooling. In fact, living and learning over the past few months has been challenging for both veteran homeschooling families and those pushed into school-at-home. We have all been separated from our communities, severed from support networks, and disconnected from normal, in-person contact as a result of the pandemic. But, in the midst of this adversity and inauthenticity, many school-at-home parents have unexpectedly begun to discover the benefits of homeschooling.

Only one month into US school closures last spring, a survey conducted by EdChoice found that more than half of parents had a more favorable view of homeschooling in light of the pandemic than they did before (you can take a look at the full survey here). That trend continued over the following weeks, with subsequent surveys pointing to mounting interest in homeschooling throughout the pandemic.

From ideas to reality

Survey data gave way to real-life behaviors this summer as parents began officially pulling their children from school to homeschool them for the fall. In North Carolina, so many parents submitted their online intent-to-homeschool forms during the first week of July that the state’s nonpublic education website crashed. And in Nebraska, NPR reported that homeschool registrations were up 21 percent in July.

Many homeschooling organizations—including HSLDA, informal Facebook groups, and local homeschooling networks—have been inundated with inquiries from parents new to the idea of homeschooling.

Some of these parents considered pulling their children from school in the past but lacked the inertia to do so until now.

Others were surprised to discover just how much stress their children were under at school and how much happier their kids were at home. This was the experience of one mother profiled in a recent New York Times article, who is now planning to homeschool her children this fall. “One child was experiencing headaches every day, and ever since being home, those tension headaches are nonexistent,” she explained. (You can read the full story here.)

Still other parents are choosing homeschooling more reluctantly—disillusioned by strict social distancing requirements in schools and inadequate remote learning plans or concerned about ongoing COVID-19 transmission. Whether or not these parents remain homeschooling will greatly depend on how they are treated by the larger homeschooling community.

A new homeschooling solution: pandemic pods

Some parents who are choosing to pull their children from school for homeschooling this fall are connecting with other parents in their area to form pandemic pods, or small, home-based learning communities. These parents may take turns teaching the children, rotating homes throughout the week, or they may pool their resources to hire a teacher or a college student to come to their homes and help facilitate a curriculum with a small group of children.

In many ways, pandemic pod is a new term for an old and familiar practice. Homeschooling families have long created parent-driven cooperatives (or co-ops) where parents take turns teaching children various subjects, sometimes hiring outside educators for certain content. In recent years, hybrid homeschooling programs where homeschooled children attend an on-site learning program a couple of days a week to supplement in-home learning have surged across the country (learn more about these sorts of programs here).

The pandemic pods, home-based microschools, and similar hybrid options that are gaining popularity during the pandemic are practical, collaborative solutions that enable more parents to choose homeschooling. Desperate for community and connection, families use these pods and practices to come together in ways that are otherwise difficult with ongoing social distancing. They also enable dual-working and single parents to opt out of conventional schooling with greater ease, predictability, and affordability.

While some longtime homeschoolers are energized by the excitement and possibility of more families choosing at-home learning, others are less enthusiastic: this isn’t real homeschooling, they say. Hostile to pandemic pods, microschools, and hybrid homeschooling approaches, these homeschool purists risk alienating a new, dynamic, and diverse crop of homeschooling families—many of whom will likely remain homeschooling if they feel supported. Parents considering “podding” are already under attack by government officials and others who wish to retain the mass schooling bureaucracy. The last thing they need is to face similar opposition from the homeschooling community.

But what about regulation?

This is a common refrain from experienced homeschoolers wary of these pandemic-spurred newcomers and their proclivity toward podding. These critics worry that parents choosing pods, microschools, and other homeschool hybrids could threaten independent homeschooling. Or they worry that so many parents choosing to homeschool through podding could catch the eye of government regulators, who could then initiate additional regulations on all homeschoolers.

These are legitimate concerns that require constant vigilance and advocacy, such as that from organizations like HSLDA.

But to oppose creative homeschooling practices out of fear of possible regulation is misguided. It’s also strikingly similar to the mainstream media’s opposition to these pandemic pods, arguing that podding could lead to educational inequities. Again, vigilance and advocacy are required to make sure this doesn’t happen, including pushing for policy changes that make podding more accessible to more families through education-choice mechanisms.

Opposing educational innovations out of fear of what could happen will halt progress and maintain the status quo. Homeschoolers, who have long pushed back against the education status quo, should be among the staunchest proponents for new models of learning that allow more families to opt out of conventional schooling.

The pandemic has disrupted education in previously unimaginable ways. For the first time, many parents have experienced what it’s like to separate education from schooling and take back control of their children’s learning. Some of them want to continue to do this, at least in the short term, and are finding creative, cooperative ways to make pandemic homeschooling work for their families during this challenging time.

The more that these new homeschoolers can be welcomed into the homeschooling community, supported by the families who have chosen this educational path long before COVID-19, the more likely it will be that these temporary travelers will become permanent, passionate homeschooling parents.