In response to the pandemic and by no choice of their own, many families across the U.S. are experimenting with alternative forms of education. It's fair to say that not all of them find homeschooling or online learning to be to their taste. Having the kids go through their lessons at the kitchen table doesn't suit everybody's schedules or personal needs. But for others, the forced experiment with different approaches to teaching their kids leaves a desire for more. That has some government-school defenders sufficiently worried that they're trying to sabotage the competition.
That an unplanned venture into learning at home isn't for everybody is apparent from reports of families giving up. "Some frustrated and exhausted parents are choosing to disconnect entirely for the rest of the academic year," Time magazine reports. "Others are cramming all their children's school work into the weekend or taking days off work to help their kids with a week's worth of assignments in one day."
The problem is that being thrown into a situation that's not of your choice is a lot different than entering it willingly and after research and preparation. A few schools came out of the gate ready to hold classes through Zoom, to share documents electronically, and to hold quizzes online. All too many, though, belatedly copied off thick packets, dropped them in the mail, and wished students "good luck."
With nothing else to go by, a lot of parents tried to replicate the schoolroom experience at home. That's an exhausting approach that's unnecessary when you realize how little time is used for actual learning in a typical classroom.
To put it into context, the Remote Learning Recommendations guide from the Illinois State Board of Education suggests a maximum of an hour per day of remote learning for pre-K students, two hours per day for those in grades 3-5, and 270 minutes per day for high schoolers. Those time recommendations are supposed to include "digital interaction and assigned work."
That's not just an emergency accommodation, either. While definitions of "wasted time" vary, TNTP, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of teaching, found in a recent survey of high schools that "an average student spent almost three-quarters of their time on assignments that were not grade-appropriate." Learning at home can eliminate a lot of the slack in the schedule.
That reflects my son's experience with his private high school. Already technically savvy, the school made a nearly seamless transition to online learning that has almost eliminated homework. Remote learning has proven to be more efficient, by and large, than the brick-and-mortar version. When asked, a significant number of my son's classmates say they prefer learning this way—though many miss the in-person social interaction.
We were lucky that our son's school moved to remote learning so easily, but we would have been fine anyway. We homeschooled for five years and could have gone back to that approach without a problem. (If you're looking for homeschooling resources you can use on your own, I've prepared a list here.) But even many families who had homeschooling and remote learning thrust on them are gaining a taste for the approach.
"The coronavirus pandemic is giving every family with kids a look into the world of homeschooling and some parents are even beginning to enjoy it," WIFR in Illinois noted after speaking with local families.
"While many parents are enjoying their kids being home during this time, some parents have found that they actually enjoy homeschooling their kids more," agrees a piece in Missouri State University's The Standard after a similar review of family experiences.
"Homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic could change education forever," the World Economic Forum bluntly says, drawing on data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that take into account both people's current experiences around the world in coping with the pandemic as well as the recent evolution of technical tools that ease learning.
And that's exactly what some defenders of the status quo fear.
"Experts warn that any growing popularity of homeschooling as a result of the pandemic will likely worsen education for students and pose serious problems to the economy and the nation's social well-being," hisses Jeff Bryant of Our Schools, a project that opposes alternatives to government schools. He warns that some homeschoolers don't share his progressive politics, homeschooling may not work for all families, and parents could choose to educate their children rather than earn a second income.
Elizabeth Bartholet, of Harvard Law School, also senses danger in parents who may not share her political and religious views overseeing the education of their own children. She "sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice," notes an article in Harvard Magazine.
But attempts to outlaw home-based education and to vilify its practitioners can be dealt with later. Of more immediate concern is that, even as schools closed as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, some of the same officials sending kids home also did their best to limit access to education options.
Oregon not only closed brick-and-mortar schools to head off the pandemic—it limited online public schools to existing students.
"Virtual public charter schools as well as other online schools were also impacted by the Governor's order stating schools may not enroll new students or withdraw existing students during the period of the school closures," reported the Coos Bay World.
The ban on new enrollments was imposed to avoid "creating further school funding disruptions that would be created by the transfer of students from one school to another," an Oregon Department of Education spokesman told The 74, which covers education news.
Pennsylvania didn't technically stop virtual charters from enrolling new students, but legislators passed a bill that "forbids all public charter schools that are closed from counting new students on their official enrollment numbers starting on March 13, the day of the governor's announcement to close all schools." That means cyber charters won't be compensated for new students.
"Brick-and-mortar school advocates say students jumping ship for cyber charters could further financially destabilize traditional school districts at an already vulnerable time," PennLive noted.
In both Oregon and Pennsylvania, educating kids was a purely secondary concern for officials who thought it more important to maintain funding for institutions that were closed and risked losing students to competitors that were prepared to continue operating. They didn't even try to hide their priorities.
At the end of the day, parents see how their children rate in terms of importance in the eyes of education officials. And now they have a taste of something else. They know that there are different—and, perhaps, better—ways to educate their children. Not all families will opt out of traditional education approaches; some can't wait to get back to life as they remember it.
But just as education officials fear, many more families than in the past now know that kids can be taught in more than one way. More than a few will refuse to go back to business as usual.