Are you wondering what to do about back-to-school in the fall? If you are like most American parents, you found yourself suddenly homeschooling this spring as states issued stay-at-home orders for the coronavirus pandemic. Many of you also began working from home while others of you were essential workers who continued to leave the home for work. You may have never considered homeschooling before this, or you may have thought about it but immediately dismissed it because you “work full time” or “don’t feel qualified” or “couldn’t possibly spend that much time with your children” (but that’s another topic!). After your recent experience of temporary homeschooling during the COVID-19 school closures, you may still agree with those reasons, or you may have found other ways to think about them (except that last one!). Either way, what you think you experienced as homeschooling had little to do with what “real” traditional homeschooling is like.
What has been called “COVID homeschooling” should really be called “COVID school-at-home.” When new homeschoolers begin, they often follow a school-at-home model, trying to recreate traditional school at home. They follow similar hours as a typical traditional school day and arrange schedules of subjects and specials like those found in schools. Eventually, they recognize the flexibility that is part of real traditional homeschooling and take advantage of evenings, weekends, and even regular school breaks to better meet the needs of the family. During the COVID emergency homeschooling period, the short-term homeschooling you experienced is the most extreme version of a school-at-home model without the flexibility of traditional homeschooling and without the social opportunities of a non-COVID situation.
Similarities Between COVID School-at-Home and Traditional Homeschooling
Essentially there is only one major similarity between what happened in Spring 2020 and traditional homeschooling: Your children were not physically attending school. There were several consequences to that. While you were still maintaining school attendance and working toward state standards, you were not pushing your children out the door in the morning to walk, catch a bus, or ride with you to school. You were not packing lunches, ironing school outfits or uniforms, reminding your children to bring their instruments, or making arrangements for after-school clubs or sports. You were not dropping off forgotten items, attending school events or meetings, or fighting with your children to get their “homework” done (or maybe you thought that was ALL you were doing!). However, the most important consequence is that you were spending a lot more time with your children, and that is what happens when you are a traditional homeschooler!
Basically, though, this is the point where the similarities between what you did in the spring and traditional homeschooling ends.
Differences Between COVID School-at-Home and Traditional Homeschooling
The differences between the COVID school-at-home period you experienced this spring and traditional homeschooling far outnumber the similarities. Here are eight main differences:
- Choice of Teacher: The most obvious difference is that traditional homeschoolers have the choice of who is teaching their children. Often a parent is the lead teacher, but there are other models. In some states, parents have the flexibility to align with umbrella schools or organizations that have licensed teachers available to guide instruction. Through homeschool co-ops, parents have the option to share instruction, with individual parents teaching subjects for which they are most comfortable and have the most expertise. Co-op members can also pool resources to hire outside instructors and tutors. Just be sure to check your state’s homeschooling laws to ensure that instructional arrangements follow any regulations imposed by the state.
- Choice of Curriculum: What many homeschool parents don’t immediately realize is how much flexibility they have with the curriculum. Although some states require certain subject areas or standards, homeschool families still have the right to choose how to address those subject areas and how to meet those standards. There are many homeschool curriculums available, both secular (non-religious) and non-secular (based on the teachings of particular religions). The amount of time spent on individual subjects can vary (although some states provide guidelines), and homeschoolers can also choose to add subjects and electives based on areas of interest, career goals, etc.
- Choice of Instructional Format: During the COVID school-at-home period, the amount of time spent interacting with teachers and peers ranged from as little as a few remote meetings for the entire three-month period, to brief remote meetings per day, to full day schedules being followed remotely with extensive interaction with teachers and peers. Traditional homeschoolers have the option to choose how instruction is delivered—how much is directly taught by the parent, how much is online, how much is independent work, etc. Also, during the COVID school-at-home period, many parents received only large packets of worksheets and a due date. Others were given instruction and assignments digitally through online platforms. Traditional homeschoolers can choose how much instruction consists of discussion, videos, hands-on tasks, projects, online activities and/or worksheets, etc.
- Duration of the School Day: The COVID school-at-home period resulted in some parents receiving overwhelming amounts of materials from schools while others received only enough to keep kids “busy” for an hour or two per day. In New York, a state with one of the strictest regulations for homeschoolers, children being homeschooled are required to have instruction for five hours per day for 180 days. Some states waived the 180-day requirement for public school students because of the pandemic, but homeschool children continued on as usual with full-day instruction (and completion of any standardized testing!). In many cases, then, through no fault of your own, your children may have received less instruction than homeschooled children during this period.
- Choice of School Schedule: While stay-at-home orders were in place, school tasks, remote meetings, and due dates followed typical school schedules. Traditional homeschoolers have much more flexibility. Instruction can occur in the evenings, on weekends, during traditional school breaks, or even year-round. Parents can make schedule choices that best fit their children as well as their own needs for working and managing the household.
- Opportunity to Individualize: Not every child learns in the ways that were offered by schools during the school closure period. In a worst-case scenario, parents were given materials for completion that were based on whole-class abilities. In other words, some children had to deal with materials that were above or below their current performance and abilities. One of the reasons many parents decide to homeschool is the opportunity to individualize instruction. Traditional homeschool parents can choose instruction to best meet their children’s strengths, challenges, and interests and adapt methods as needed to maximize their children’s learning potential.
- Connection to the School: Your connection to the school through the COVID school-at-home period was very different than it would be in a traditional homeschooling scenario. It varied from initial letters to parents only, to email and remote meetings, to daily communication with teachers and periodic communication with administrators. In many states, as a traditional homeschooler, communication between you and the school is very limited (sometimes to a single document). In other states, homeschool parents and home district schools exchange documents and progress reports throughout each year, but contact is still limited. On the other hand, some districts have strong connections to their local homeschool groups.
- Opportunities for Socialization: If you ask people why they wouldn’t consider homeschooling, a very common response is that children need to socialize. Homeschooled children do socialize: with parents or homeschool guides in discussion and daily activities, with siblings who are also being homeschooled, and on evenings and weekends just like other kids. When children are homeschooled, they also have opportunities to socialize with peers through co-op and homeschool support groups, programs like homeschool gym and art classes, and homeschool events in the community (e.g., homeschool days at the museum). What you experienced during the COVID school closures is “homeschooling” without any of the socialization opportunities that are available. For children, this was a worst-case isolation and not a true indication of the socialization that is possible through homeschooling networks.
As we look toward all the unknowns of back-to-school in the fall, you have choices to make. You can choose to continue with whatever the school is doing; you can supplement what the school is doing with some homeschooling, or you can choose to homeschool your children during this period. If you choose “accidental homeschooling”—that’s what us homeschoolers call it when you plan to enroll your children in traditional schools but end up homeschooling (for any number of reasons)—you are going to need information. Luckily, there are a lot of new homeschooler resources—like those on this website—that can help you find out more about what homeschooling is really like. Start by researching your state laws and then talking with local homeschoolers. They are a remarkably generous group! Time4Learing.com also offers a free Welcome to Homeschooling eBook that offers insight and helpful tips for newbies. Download it today!
Keep the conversation going by adding comments about your experiences homeschooling during the pandemic and asking questions to find out more….