Homeschooling on the rise in the North Country and the US

Every family with kids has had to deal with the education question this fall – would they send their kid back to school? Keep them remote learning? And a third option: would they do it themselves?

Fueled by COVID-19, homeschooling is on the rise in the North Country and across the nation.

Amy FeiereiselHomeschooling on the rise in the North Country and the US

Homeschooling for the first time in Plattsburgh

 

Every Thursday, Sara Schaff and her daughter Iris study math in the morning, then turn to physical education in the afternoon, often by taking a hike in the Adirondacks. Lately, the main topic of conversation has been dinosaurs.

“She was on our hike yesterday educating me about, and with great weariness because I still haven’t gotten it yet, about one of the period that dinosaurs existed in.”

Sara and her husband Ben Landry, both professors in Plattsburgh teaching remote classes to college students, are also homeschooling their eight year old daughter this fall.

They didn’t feel comfortable sending her to school in-person. They also couldn’t imagine continuing remote learning, which Iris had a lot of trouble with in the spring.

“That screen time was really stressful for her and for us too, and there were so many tears.”   

They researched available K-12 curriculum options, and are using a mix of online platforms and textbooks. They take turns being the ‘teacher’ for the day. For subjects like history and science, they take a lot of cues from Iris.

“She was really obsessed with ancient Egypt, so we did a lot of stuff with that. She loves learning about women scientists, and we’ve found lots of books at the Plattsburgh Library.”

Homeschooling: a real curveball

Iris's study shelf. Photo courtesy of Sara Schaff.

Iris’s study shelf. Photo courtesy of Sara Schaff.

 

Schaff says they are absolutely homeschooling because of COVID-19, and wouldn’t have considered it otherwise. She says while homeschooling Iris has been a rewarding experience, it’s also been exhausting, and only started working for her when she “absolutely just let go of trying to do my own work on the days that I’m with her.”

While Iris is often self-motivated, Schaff says there’s no way to plan for when Iris will want attention or help, “and she mostly prefers to have us sitting right next to her while she’s working.” That’s hard to balance with full-time teaching jobs, and she says they’re doing a lot of catch-up on the weekends and the evenings.

“It is not possible to do everything well, and parents are always going to want to put their well-being first.”

Homeschooling on the rise nationwide

In the past, the decision to homeschool has been a deliberate one, whether for religious or secular reasons. But in 2020, a lot of families that never dreamed they’d homeschool their kids, have found themselves doing just that.

The National Home School Association says they’ve seen membership explode, from 20,000 to 200,000 members. Director Allen Weston says they’ve been flooded with calls and emails from parents. He says the gist of those conversations is parents asking how to get started, “what do we need to know, and what do we need to do?”

Weston says lots of parents are looking for homeschool curricula, which is why they recently launched a ‘curriculum match service.’

“I call it a dating site to bring the parents together with the vendors. They each fill out their own questionnaires, the parents say what they are looking for.”

Outschool teacher Tammy Wenhame at work. Photo courtesy of Outschool.

Outschool teacher Tammy Wenhame at work. Photo courtesy of Outschool.

 

Online learning resources take off

The whole world of online learning resources has seen a big bump in business in 2020, says Jennifer Gu, “I think it definitely propelled a lot of customers. Everyone is looking for online resources.”

Gu is the COO of IXL Learning and education.com, used by over 11 million students. Both are popular K-12 curriculum platforms for core subjects, like math and social studies. She says they’ve seen a 25-30{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} increase in interest and membership.

Smaller companies have also been riding the surge. Amir Nathoo is the co-founder CEO of Outschool, a venture-backed start-up in San Francisco. They’ve offered small (three to eight students) live, video-chat classes for kids since 2017.

Kids can take a class on the “Five Paragraph Essay,” but they can also sign up for “Learn Critical Thinking through Dungeons and Dragons.” Outschool has experienced huge growth since March, says Nathoo.

“When the pandemic hit, we had more experience offering this kind of learning than any other organization in the US. We’re approaching a 100 million in sales,  the teacher base has grown from 1000 to 10,000 teachers and we had to scramble to get so many more teachers on the platform because of the jump in demand.”

Outschool has conducted several member surveys to try and understand how their classes are being used. Nathoo says they found that 60{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of parent members would not send their kids back to school until there was a vaccine, and 40{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} said they would seriously consider homeschooling past the pandemic.

“So clearly there has been a big shift in parents’ perception about education and a lot more interest in alternative and supplemental services.”

Nathoo and Jennifer Gu of IXL Learning both say they imagine a hybrid future for school– not all online, but not entirely dependent on in-person learning either. They acknowledge that they’ll probably lose a lot of their new customers post COVID-19, but say that it has already disrupted conventional education practices, exposing everyone to alternatives.

An Outschool student. Photo taken by photographer Kathleen Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Outschool.

An Outschool student. Photo taken by photographer Kathleen Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Outschool.

 

Continued interest for the spring semester

With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing nationwide, and wide distribution of a vaccine still months away, the interest in homeschooling is not abating.

National Home School Association Director Allen Weston says they’ve been particularly busy in November and early December.

“In the last thirty days, we’ve had the most interest we’ve had all year. We have a lot of parents saying: after Christmas break, we’re not sending them back.”  

Here In the North Country, most students are still enrolled in their local school districts, but there are certainly families trying homeschooling who might not have otherwise – like Sarah, Ben, and their daughter Iris.

Andrea Hill with her husband and two children. She is homeschooling her kids within a 'pod' in Saranac Lake.

Andrea Hill with her husband and two children. She is homeschooling her kids within a ‘pod’ in Saranac Lake.

 

It also includes a little homeschooling ‘pod’ in Saranac Lake. Andrea Hill’s two children, aged six and nine, are in the pod, which is made up of several families. Hill says they do core academic subjects separately, and get the kids together for extracurriculars like gym and art. 

Like the family in Plattsburgh, Hill never expected to homeschool her kids, “I suddenly find myself teaching first and fourth grade!” The families chose to homeschool preemptively, 

“In anticipation that the schools would eventually go remote again, and we all found remote schooling to not be a viable option for our kids.”

But Hill says it would be impossible if she didn’t have a flexible schedule; she works as a potter from a home studio. It’s meant she’s throwing bowls late into the night and on the weekends, but Hill says she’s grateful to have had the choice to homeschool at all, knowing that many families couldn’t even if they wanted to. 

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