Some parents are considering home-schooling with education uncertain amid pandemic

From left, Tabitha Noble, first-grade, and her sister Katrina Noble, third-grade, both of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, show off art projects. (Photo courtesy of Gina Noble)

When 5-year-old Emily Ellis’s preschool closed in March, her parents, Jennifer and Mike Ellis, tried to do the school’s virtual learning program with her.

“We tried for one day to do the Zoom classroom, and it was a disaster,” Jennifer said in a recent interview. “It was a bunch of 4-year-olds all talking at the same time.”

Jennifer and Mike live in Flourtown, Pa., just north of Philadelphia, with Emily and their 2-year-old, Abigail. They both have demanding full-time jobs. She’s a vice president of investor relations for an asset management company, and he’s a software developer.

This coming school year, they plan to home-school Emily through kindergarten, since there’s a chance in-person school might not happen.

“Even if they went back to a couple days in school, as soon as somebody gets sick, everyone’s going back home,” Jennifer said. “I just feel like you have to plan. As all this evolves, every day, things are changing.”

They chose home-schooling over cyber school so they could set their own schedule with Emily, and so they could monitor how much time she’d spend on a computer.

“We cannot do the virtual thing anymore,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s not fair to ask a 5-year-old to sit in front of a computer for five hours.”

They decided to go with a more relaxed curriculum called Blossom & Root, which is a nature and play-based curriculum. They won’t have to register with the state, as Emily won’t turn six until the end of September, and in Pennsylvania, children who turn six by Sept. 1, must be registered in some sort of education program.

Jennifer said they plan to put Emily in public school for the following school year, and that they want to make sure she doesn’t fall behind her peers this year while learning at home.

“We have an open mind about this,” she said.

Since they made their decision, Jennifer said a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

“We feel so lucky and blessed to even be able to have a choice,” she said. “Some parents don’t have that choice, and they have to send their kid. If every parent that had the option could keep their kid home, then the kids who don’t have the option are in a safer environment because there are fewer kids in classrooms and there’s a better chance of social distancing.”

Their decision is one that thousands of families are grappling with as state governments, public officials and school districts try to formulate plans for how to open schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

Dan DiFrancesco, of Western New York, has been fielding questions from parents and families for weeks now. He’s been a home-schooling parent for two decades and now serves as state secretary for Loving Education At Home (LEAH), a faith-based statewide network of home-schoolers across New York.

“We get numerous calls,” DiFrancesco said in a recent interview. “Calls from grandparents, asking if they can home-school their grandchild and from people who are looking to start co-ops. People are trying to find ways to come to grips with all this.”

DiFrancesco said that last year, LEAH had a surge of new home-schooling families after New York passed a law requiring public school students be vaccinated. At the time, he was fielding questions from families involved in the anti-vaccine movement. This year, the increase in home-schoolers is due to a global pandemic.

“Now the situation is even broader where a lot of parents have to consider home-schooling because their schools aren’t opening up, or they realize that some of their students just wouldn’t be able to wear a mask all day,” DiFrancesco said.

The LEAH organization has about 10,000 students across the state, he said. They’ve been hosting Facebook Live events to offer information about state regulations, procedures, registration and the documentation required for home-schooling in the state.

“Some of these people have never had to consider another option, and they’re wondering what is best,” DiFrancesco said. “A lot of people are thinking that they have no idea how to do this.”

Because of the amount of interest, the state pushed back the July deadline for parents to submit a “letter of intent” to home-school, DiFrancesco said.

“A significant number of folks want to pursue this,” he said. “One of the key questions we’re getting is, ‘How can I get help teaching my children?’ Parents are concerned that they don’t have the ability to teach their kids.”

As a home-schooling support organization, that’s where LEAH comes in — to help connect families to resources, curriculums, tutoring programs, co-ops and field trip opportunities.

“Our objective is to try to be as helpful as we can and to point people in the right direction,” he said. “We’re happy to help.”

Milana Nick runs a faith-based home-schooling co-op in Washington County, Pennsylvania, called Classical Christian home-schoolers of Washington. She started it last year, but this year will mark her third year of home-schooling her two children, Robby, 11, and Delanie, 9.

“About a week ago, we had another family join that’s going to be home-schooling,” Nick said. “I’ve been getting all kinds of questions from friends and people I know who are trying to figure out what’s best for their families.”

The co-op has 26 students enrolled, but due to the pandemic, they have had difficulty finding a place to meet one day a week, Nick said. The families typically meet up for morning classes with elective studies in the afternoon. Those classes include music, art, history, science and presentations, Nick said.

“Home-schooling gives you a lot of freedom,” Nick said. “You can choose your own schedule and curriculum.”

Gina Noble, who has been home-schooling her two daughters for years, said she’s a member of multiple home-schooling co-ops in the greater Pittsburgh region which are fielding similar questions from parents considering home-schooling.

“There are so many people in all these Facebook groups that have a million questions because it’s the unknown,” Noble said. “Every year I do it, it gets easier.”

Her daughter, Katrina, is in third grade, and her daughter, Tabitha, is in first. She is a stay-at-home mom and their family lives in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

“My husband and I had children as older adults, and we talked about what is the best school to send the kids to,” Noble said. “I always wanted to home-school.”

Since seeing more parents take an interest in home-schooling, Noble said that she’s mostly excited for the students. She encouraged families who are new to home-schooling to “have fun” with it.

“I just hope people do it responsibly and make sure their kids are learning, happy and healthy,” Noble said. “Not everyone’s an expert. It takes a long time to get the rhythm. It really just comes down to the individual child.”


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