KY students leave public schools to homeschool over COVID-19

Stephanie Johnson is among the Lexington parents who withdrew their children from Fayette County Public Schools to homeschool rather than participate in the district’s instruction during COVID-19.

“I cannot deal with the stress and anxiety my child feels,” Johnson said on social media when she decided to homeschool instead of using the district’s remote learning. “Plus, we still cannot access more than half of her work and videos. I will homeschool until we go back to in-person school.”

More parents like Johnson have turned into their children’s only teachers. There has been a “significant” increase in the number of Kentucky families who have joined the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association since the COVID outbreak, Senior Counsel Darren A. Jones told the Herald-Leader. The organization is resisting additional calls for more homeschooling restrictions.

Across the country, parents have pulled their children out of schools entirely, “opting to keep them at home or looking for options that offer more in-person instruction” as public schools shifted to remote or hybrid learning, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The Kentucky Department of Education doesn’t currently keep annual numbers of homeschool students.

But several school district pupil personnel directors said parents have recently notified them that they are withdrawing their children to homeschool because of COVID-19 concerns, according to Kyle Sexton, the president of the state organization for pupil personnel directors.

“Most of these children are primary age students. Parents needed to homeschool because they could not find a way to make our virtual plan work or they were afraid their child could not handle wearing a mask all day,” Ashland Independent Pupil Personnel Director Christine Scott said of her district.

In 2019-20, Scott ended the year with 162 homeschool children in grades K-12. As of Nov. 5, she had 194 homeschool children. Ten percent of the students on her homeschool list have withdrawn because of Covid-19 fears

Twenty students were removed from Anderson County Schools by families who wanted to homeschool them for coronavirus-related reasons, said Director of Student Services Travis Harley. In Franklin County, where Sexton is the director of Student Services, he said that number was six families.

M. Aaron Collier, the director of Pupil Personnel in Greenup County Schools, said 2O students had been removed to homeschool because of COVID-19 related concerns. That was also the case for five students in the Dayton Independent School district and nine in Lyon County Schools, officials there said.

Fayette County Public Schools was not among the school districts that provided current homeschool numbers to the Herald-Leader.

A 2018 Kentucky Office of Education Accountability report showed that homeschool enrollments were increasing in Kentucky before the pandemic, with 26,500 students homeschooled in 2017. Of those, 1,378 were in Fayette County, according to the report. There were an estimated 20,385 homeschool students in 2015-16; 1,253 were in Fayette County.

Troubles, ‘disaster’ drive KY parents to homeschool

Several Lexington parents have shared on social media or told the Herald-Leader that concern over the school district’s options during the pandemic led them to turn to homeschooling.

Johnson said Friday she decided to homeschool after her daughter, an elementary student, started falling behind and falling asleep during her Zoom classes.

“The biggest deciding factor was we were always having issues with something not working. Whether it was the zoom calls or not being able to access her work. “

Her daughter started to complain about headaches and her eyes hurting after being on the laptop all day. She ended up in tears from not wanting to do it, Johnson said.

“We now go on field trips, and she’s learning really fast. Now, she actually enjoys getting up for school. She wants to go back to in-person school, but we know that’s a long way away with how things are going,” she said.

Fayette County school officials decided weeks ago not to try full in-person learning until January because of a surge in coronavirus cases, and recently Gov. Andy Beshear issued a controversial executive order to that effect for all other schools in the state.

Shawna Hannan of Lexington said she withdrew her son from Fayette schools about a week after remote learning from home began in the fall. She called online school instruction “a disaster.”

She said the curriculum was not challenging enough, and as a homeschool student, her son has an advanced accredited program that she purchased. Hannan said she had homeschooled him in the past.

Home school mother Joy Shepard and her children Liam Shepard. 8, Keegan Shepard, 10, and Gavin Shepard, 4, worked on lessons at their Lexington home in 2020. Photo provided

Kera Burks said she quit her job, withdrew her second-grade son from Fayette schools in October and began homeschooling him. Remote learning wasn’t working, and Burks wasn’t happy with the proposed plans for in-person learning.

“I’m a public school advocate. It was really gut-wrenching to have to pull him out. It was just not going anywhere,” she said.

Melissa Jones said she withdrew her son from a Lexington kindergarten to homeschool him after about two weeks of remote learning. Through one-on-one education with her, he is learning more than with the district’s remote learning, Melissa Jones said.

“I know some kids do great with it,” she said of the district’s virtual learning. “He’s just not one of them.”

Melissa Jones and other parents thought teachers were doing their best. But Jones said she will re-enroll him in the district only if Fayette County returns to in-person learning.

New KY laws wanted to block homeschool ‘bad actors’

Amid reports that COVID-19 concerns are prompting families to leave public schools to homeschool, superintendents are continuing a push they began before the pandemic. They want stronger laws against misusing homeschooling to avoid truancy and disciplinary actions or investigations of abuse and neglect.

Superintendents are asking lawmakers in the 2021 General Assembly to:

Ensure that a child being enrolled in a home school has not received a truancy summons.

Ensure that adults providing K-12 educational instruction in home schools meet some minimum educational and safety requirements.

We know that by and large homeschooling parents care deeply for their children and provide quality academic instruction,” said Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. “We are concerned with those who misuse the homeschooling statute to avoid accountability for truancy, disciplinary actions or even worse — abuse, neglect, or other illegal issues.”

“We call on homeschooling associations, child welfare advocates, and the legislature to ensure that Kentucky has the tools it needs to keep bad actors out of the homeschooling community and protect vulnerable children from exploitation,” he said.

State Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, said she would work on legislation. Currently, there are few Kentucky laws governing homeschool students.

Families need only notify superintendents in writing within ten days of the beginning of the school year of their intent to homeschool their children each year. The letter must include the name, age and residence of each child. Families must teach basic subjects, keep attendance records and maintain scholarship reports of each student’s progress in all subjects taught at the same intervals as the local public schools.

“I think we need to look at our homeschool statute and make some accountability changes while ensuring the constitutional rights of parents to educate are not infringed upon, “ said Huff, the co-chair of the Joint Interim Committee on Education.

Joy Shepard, who previously was both a teacher and a district gifted student coordinator in Ohio, has homeschooled her elementary-age children in Lexington for about five years. She said all parents are equipped to homeschool their children if they put in the time and the energy it takes, “which is extensive.”

“I love the freedoms that we have in Kentucky, … very few restrictions,” said Shepard. “Kentucky is a great place to homeschool. I hope that continues … but I understand (the superintendents’) concerns as well. I think it is imperative that every young person reach their full potential.”

Flynn said the fact that many public school students are currently learning from home through school districts’ nontraditional learning programs or Virtual Learning academies had highlighted the importance of well-trained professional educators delivering instruction to students.

He said the pandemic also has highlighted, to a wider audience, the challenges of trying to educate a child at home even when families have supports from the school.

Nevertheless, the 2018 OEA report said 82 percent of state pupil personnel directors — those responsible for enforcing attendance laws — told Kentucky researchers that they observed families using homeschooling to avoid legal consequences of truancy.

Flynn and Sexton said Kentucky law needs to address the loophole that allows students who are truant in public schools to withdraw to a homeschool to avoid court action.

In Greenup County, the percentage of students who have transferred to homeschools to avoid truancy is 25 percent, said Collier. Harley said it’s 10 percent in Anderson County. Ashland Independent had 8 percent of students leave the school district to avoid truancy.

Bob Wilson, the director of pupil personnel for Ballard County Schools, said that the district has about 35 percent of its students homeschooling due to truancy.

And Troy Brock, director of pupil personnel for Paducah Public Schools, said, “I can also speak from experience that I was in court about five (times) in the last year whereby a student’s parent requested to homeschool their child after the child was placed on court rules by the judge to attend school.”

Advocates oppose more KY homeschool restrictions

The Home School Legal Defense Association would oppose an effort to prevent families from homeschooling just because of a truancy summons.

“We have seen too many instances where even when a family complies with the law to begin homeschooling, the school district wrongfully files truancy charges — whether because the district misunderstood the law or because it objected to the child being withdrawn,” Jones said.

Huff said a 2018 bill to strengthen homeschooling laws failed to move forward because it was criticized as infringing upon parents’ constitutional rights.

Hannan said as a homeschooling parent, she disagrees with stronger homeschooling laws for Kentucky.

“I think it’s an infringement upon people’s rights,” she said.

Huff thinks the effort for the 2021 General Assembly is important because once students withdraw, they “are off the grid.”

Children who are in inadequate homeschools “will probably be enrolled in school again at some point, and most likely will be far behind same-age peers,” she said.

A bill in 2021 would face opposition from the Home School Legal Defense Association because that group believes parents should have the greatest amount of freedom to direct the education of their children.

“There is no reputable statistical evidence that the educational level of homeschooling parents directly affects their children’s educational outcomes,” said Darren Jones, the group’s attorney.

Instead, the important element, just like in public or private school, is the involvement of the parent in their children’s education — and that personal involvement is what homeschooling parents have chosen to do,” Jones said.

Staff writer Valarie Honeycutt Spears covers K-12 education, social issues and other topics. She is a Lexington native with southeastern Kentucky roots.

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