COVID-19 is in the news with new cases reported every day. The list of schools, colleges, and other institutions suspending their efforts is also adding up. But there's one education sector that may get away with minimal disruption: homeschoolers. Families that take responsibility for their kids' education have a distinct edge in terms of flexibility and adaptability when it comes to unexpected events like … well … a worldwide pandemic that has people on edge.
"Closing schools and using internet-based teleschooling to continue education" was the scenario envisioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Dr. Nancy Messonier in a February 25 press conference. "You should ask your children's school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask if there are plans for teleschool."
Teleschool? Homeschoolers are so on that. Or if they're not into teleschooling, they have a stack of books and papers, kitchen-counter science experiments, video lectures … The list goes on, and much of it adds up to the "social distancing measures" of which teleschooling is supposed to be part.
What's "social distancing"? As Messonnier noted, social distancing is "designed to keep people who are sick away from others." That means breaking up large gatherings where germs can be shared and spread.
Discouraging gatherings is an important move from a public health perspective, but it's enormously disruptive to businesses, government bodies, and organizations that are designed around assembling large numbers of people in one place. That means big challenges for, among other institutions, traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Homeschoolers, however, have an edge because their efforts are not inherently constructed around large gatherings.
That doesn't mean that homeschoolers never get together. Contrary to accusations from critics, family-based education is not an inherently solitary venture.
Homeschooling often involves group lessons that take advantage of specialized expertise, collaborative projects, field trips with homeschooling associations, sports teams, and more—which means that homeschoolers have changes to make in a time of pandemic, too, in terms of reducing or eliminating outings and activities. But that doesn't mean cutting down on education; these days, there are loads of relatively easy work-arounds for homeschooling families.
If you're new to family-based education, and especially if you're busy with your own remote work, you may find it best to go with a comprehensive online program, like a virtual publicly-funded charter school or tuition-charging private school.
Virtual private schools are available anywhere in the United States, while the availability of charters depends on your local laws. Arizona, where I live, maintains a list of virtual charter schools, but you'll need to do a bit of research for your own state.
Besides full schools, the Internet is a treasure-trove of learning materials that don't require you to trek to a bookstore, a lecture hall, or even to wait for package delivery. Classic literature is available for free in electronic format through Project Gutenberg, Khan Academy has long since expanded beyond its original mission of delivering math lessons, the American Chemical Society gives away a complete chemistry curriculum, and a variety of lesson plans are freely available from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Edsitement. If you're interested, I've prepared a downloadable list of resources.
I've never met a conference software that I've loved—video sometimes freezes, audio drops out, and connections fail. That said, my son has used both Blackboard and Zoom in the course of his lessons, and he and his peers as young as 10 or so took to it naturally, even troubleshooting glitches as needed. Conferencing software will accommodate presentations, feedback, shared screens, and other means of simulating a classroom across distances and without putting students in one place to share germs. Teachers and students can even transfer files back and forth.
Skype is an excellent stand-by for online meetings with teachers. Yes, your kids can be verbally quizzed in a foreign language across that platform while the teacher looks on to check for cheat sheets or other shortcuts. The kids might then receive messaged feedback through the same software.
For teamwork on projects, I think working online may be more effective than getting a bunch of kids together in one room. Recently, I got to listen to a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds collaborate on a script for a skit that they edited in Google Docs. For presentations, they've worked the same way in Google Slides. One nice feature is that the technological solutions really cut down on the "I left my work at my friend's house" factor. No, you didn't, kid; it's sitting in the cloud.
(Incidentally, collaborative software doesn't make teenagers act any less like teenagers. If forced to listen in, you will still want to bang your head on a table.)
When it comes to sharing short pieces of work, art, and the like, my son and his friends sometimes take photos of their efforts and text them to each other or to an instructor. That's a quick and easy solution in many cases when uploading and downloading documents is more effort than necessary.
The hard part isn't finding work for your home students to do; it's keeping them focused. Every child is different, and some are more self-directed than others.
Yes, you will have to check on them even if you're not directly administering their lessons. That can be a challenge for new homeschoolers, but my experience is that most kids respond better to mom and dad than they do to teachers they barely know and won't see after the year's end.
Socializing is where the "social distancing" recommended for our virus-ridden times bites deep. But I have to imagine that cell phones, social media, and video chat make easier work of dealing with the requirements of the pandemic than what our ancestors suffered when they dodged polio or the Spanish flu. The kids can all complain to each other over their favorite apps about the privations they're suffering in these hard times.
Fast delivery, downloadable books, and streaming video do away with a bit of the sting, too. The kids can still consume current media and discuss their favorite shows and novels—just not face-to-face for a while.
And here's the thing. If you try homeschooling, you may discover that it's not just a good way to keep COVID-19 at bay, but an effective approach to education more generally and a good fit for your family. If so, well, welcome to a happy, healthy, and growing club.