Hillary Clinton was right about one thing. It really does take a village to raise a child. I learned this lesson last spring, as I dove headfirst into serious homeschooling when the world shut down and the schools closed.
Others may have flirted with homeschooling—I asked it to the prom. Not only did my kids’ grades improve, so did my knowledge (and appreciation for our educators). But trust me. It wasn’t easy. At times, I felt like the resident idiot in our home-school village.
The good news for many of us is that the American Academy of Pediatrics wants kids back in school this fall. So does President Donald Trump, who has already threatened to cut off federal aid to non-compliant schools. “Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning,” Trump tweeted on Friday.
But what happens if kids go back to school, only to be forced back home by a second wave of COVID-19?
In some parts of the country, this seems like a likely scenario. Parents need to prepare for the possibility that they will be responsible for homeschooling this year. It won’t be an easy row to hoe. I learned that lesson the hard way.
I’ve done lots of coaching, and once upon a time I even considered becoming a teacher. It was a more natural fit for me to assume that role with my kids, so I did. My efforts wouldn’t have mattered, though, if my kids’ teachers hadn’t worked to provide the curriculum, and if my wife hadn’t been able to navigate the unwieldy patchwork of Google Classroom, Zoom meetings, YouTube videos, physical books, workbooks, and websites they provided.
A PowerPoint emailed to us weekly served as a hub and sent us careening from one destination (XtraMath) to another (SpellingCity)—all with different logins and passwords (that, of course, wouldn’t save) and different methods to turn in completed work online. (And God help you if you had to print it so it could be scanned or hand-delivered.)
My kids go to a private religious school, so this isn’t an indictment on the public school system. But time and again, I found confusing prompts that, frankly, were hard for me (a college-educated, professional writer) to answer. One such prompt went like this: “The happy children smiled with ____.” The four potential answers included: “lemonade,” “enjoyment,” “grandparents,” and “pleasure.” Couldn’t all of them be right? I’m still not sure. Trust me when I say this was not the only such dumbfounding question my 7-year-old was asked.
Interestingly, aside from the logistics and ambiguous prompts, most of my difficulties were the result of homeschooling being foisted on us by surprise (as opposed to choosing to be a homeschool family). That’s why it’s smart to start planning on the possibility of homeschooling now.
"Serious homeschoolers are pretty knowledgeable about curriculum, scope and sequence of lectures, how you plan lectures, and how to link them together,” says Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education Partners (a nonprofit where I have previously done some writing coaching). “It's the work of teaching,” he says. “It's not for amateurs, but a lot of us suddenly became amateur homeschoolers."
In my case, it was amateur hour. Case in point: My 7- and 9-year-old sons were learning completely different topics at their physical school. Functionally, what this meant was that I had to either teach them separately or Frankenstein a method to teach them together. I chose the former, which took me twice as long as it should.
Real homeschooling parents, I later discovered, don’t have this problem. I talked with Jayme Metzgar, a homeschool mom of four kids who attends the same evangelical church as my family. She’s a second-generation homeschooler (her dad, Mike Farris, founded the Home School Legal Defense Association). Rather than teaching four separate classes for her girls (whose ages span five years), she—like most real homeschoolers (at least, the ones I’ve asked in our evangelical community)—“taught them all four together."
This doesn’t work for topics like math, she says, but it’s great for science experiments, history, or reading assignments (where a parent is reading to their children). And the great thing is that this method fosters synergy. Let’s say the topic is the Civil War. Everyone (regardless of their age) is focused on that topic for a couple of hours each day.
The kids can all watch videos or movies about the topic, listen to mom or dad read about the topic, take a field trip to a topic-appropriate location, and have discussions about the topic. They comprehend, read, write, and test at different levels, but they are all involved in the same conversation. This method feels more organic and healthier for all involved.
It’s also a huge time-saver. But even without implementing this trick, homeschooling can be pretty efficient—at least, from the child’s perspective. Most kids get on a school bus, go to school for six hours, and then do a couple additional hours of homework. “A lot of people who are accustomed to institutional school are surprised to learn that it doesn't take nearly as many hours out of the day to homeschool, especially in the earlier grades,” Metzgar tells me. “Don't feel like you have to fill a whole day of academics.”
Ultimately, my children and I bonded over shared learning, stories we read together, and a healthy mockery of a curriculum that asks enigmatic questions of little children. It took a few hellish weeks for us to get the hang of it, but overall it was a positive experience.
Of course, mine is the story of how difficult it was for a fairly happy two-parent family with flexible(ish) jobs, juiced-up Wi-Fi, and plentiful computer devices to survive and even learn to enjoy homeschooling.
But what about kids whose parents don’t have these luxuries? What about kids who don’t get a good lunch at home, have access to the internet, or feel safe? What if they are even more likely to be abused by the bullies at home than they are by the bullies at school?
These are all serious questions that policymakers will be wrestling with.
What I can tell you is that, even in the best of situations, homeschooling is a serious lifestyle change. It’s not for the fainthearted. That’s probably why Donald Trump wants to be on the side of reopening. He’s trying to exploit the parental desire to get back to normal, but there’s a huge political (and public health) risk associated with this. We will find out before November 3 whether his bet pays off, but the question of whether we should reopen schools is ultimately contingent on whether we are actually containing the virus. And sadly, I think we know the answer to that one.
Instead of pressuring politicians to reopen schools ahead of the science, my advice for parents is to start preparing to make the best of a bad situation. And yes, that means getting ready to homeschool. My guess is that we might even see a homeschooling boom after this is all over. There's a negative stereotype that it's all Randy Weaver types. But “the demographics are broadening,” Rotherham confirms to me, and I suspect that, in the wake of COVID-19, this trend may accelerate.
Your kids need school this year. The only questions are where that will happen—and will you be ready?
See you in September? Maybe. Maybe not.