Homeschooling On Purpose: Navigating Choices During a Pandemic
This article was written by Heather Boyd, Occupational therapist, gentle sleep coach, and homeschool mom of three
As we manage a heat wave and speed through summer, most of us with school-age children are adjusting to the idea that school in September is going to be very different than we are used to: the predictable and expected rite of passage of back-to-school preparations — buying back-to-school clothes, pencils, binders, and backpacks, sending our kiddos off to kindergarten for the first time, and preparing our older children for their return to school –all these normal rituals of September are impacted by the uncertainty of what school will look like, what protocols will be in place, and even what the in-school attendance and learning environment will be. What a wild roller coaster ride 2020 has been.
Many families who have been adapting to (thrown into) “schooling from home during the pandemic” may now be considering deliberately choosing homeschooling in the fall.
There are more reasons families choose to homeschool than there are classrooms in Niagara. And the reasons are as unique and varied as children themselves are. Among many possible reasons, you may be considering homeschooling because: (1) You are concerned about the risks of COVID-19 for your child or for immune-compromised members of your family or close network; (2) you are concerned about your child’s ability to thrive under the anticipated restrictions to physical contact, recess, bathroom breaks, or disinfectant protocols; and (3) you have tested the waters this spring and think this is actually a decision that works for your child and your family right now.
And if any of those reasons resonate with you (even with trepidation) here are some things worth knowing:
Things to know:
- Homeschooling is not a permanent decision. Many families take the decision to homeschool year by year. Others choose public schooling at particular times in their family’s journey. The decision is not an all or nothing. Our family chose to enroll two of our three children this year (a decision, of course, that reverted back into homeschooling because of COVID-19 closures);
- There is no financial support for homeschooled families in Ontario. Provinces that do have financial support often base it on how closely families adhere to the official provincial curriculum (Alberta, for example, currently has different levels of funding as parents move along a continuum towards more school-board-based testing and oversight);
- There are also no grading requirements or reporting requirements in Ontario. This may come as a surprise to many non-homeschooling families –it was for me as well when we first explored homeschooling 6 years ago. It initially made me uncomfortable to think of “other families” providing inadequate education. However, homeschooling may just be one of the last bastions of family decisions: families can decide what, how, where, and when their children learn. It is truly a tailored and individual experience.
- Withdrawing your child formally from the school system requires a simple letter to the superintendent of schools declaring your intention to provide an adequate education to your child (cc’d to your child’s school out of respect). Whether providing an adequate education involves one curriculum over another, unschooling, accessing private online learning platforms, or enrollment in private school such as Forest School (if available), is up to you as a family. For examples of such letters, see https://ontariohomeschool.org/legal/letter-of-intent/ You will get a letter back from the board: this letter varies widely from board to board: some are supportive responses with an indication of what resources are available to your child as a school-aged resident; others may bely the belief that homeschooling is secondary in quality to institutional learning.
- Homeschooling is not a political decision. It is a personal one. Choosing to homeschool does not suggest anything about the empathy you have for teachers, or your views on the school system as a whole. Your views are as individual as you are, and your choices for how to educate your child are too.
- Things will be atypical in September, even for homeschool families. The usual “extracurriculars” like art classes at Niagara Falls Children’s Museum, or kids’ gym groups at the YMCA, are not likely to be run in a way any of us are used to. Have patience in filling your days, choose the activities that are most worthwhile at this point in time, and be sure to consider adding trail hikes and outdoor adventures to your priority list for mental and physical health as well as breaking up the day.
- There are particular challenges for many of us (even as veteran homeschool parents) in navigating work, parenting and facilitating learning during a global pandemic. This article doesn’t even touch on the particular challenges faced by families with children who have disabilities or special needs. Be open to the solutions available, and be prepared to advocate for your child: every system that has been in place up until now requires a review and rejig to deal with current and uncertain times. Keep lines of communication open with those who have provided support, and advocate for access to services when those services are instrumental to your child’s ability to thrive.
- Have patience and compassion (for your child, yourself, and the system): we are, each and every one of us –in and outside the school environment– having to adjust to a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability. There is an opportunity here to create something new moving forward and beyond this pandemic, if we can keep our eyes on the most important thing: the well-being of our children.
What about curriculum?
There are more curriculum options available than there are classrooms in all of the schools in the District School Board of Niagara. New-to-homeschool parents tend to worry quite a bit about what curriculum to buy. The number of choices, and the weight of the decision, can involve a lot of overwhelm. Start slowly. Start with paying attention to your child’s learning style, learning needs, and interests. Let cheap and easily available options be your initial guide. There is always time to buy materials later. I say this having generally avoided unnecessary curriculum expenses, but I do have four different math curriculums up in a cupboard in our house!
If your short term plan is to re-enroll in school again, more attention to the Ontario Curriculum may be your preference (the entire curriculum is available online). If you have the desire to consider this a long term decision, curriculum may be less critical. Regardless, many parents and students across Niagara and indeed across the world, are reflecting on how best to learn the skills and knowledge that is of value (to your child, to you, and to society). Ultimately, this may or may not involve the Ontario Curriculum for your family.
Some options to get you started:
- Join a homeschool group on Facebook. Niagara and Area Homeschool Group is one option locally. Many other groups exist that focus on particular approaches including TJEd, Torchlight, and Build-Your-Library.
- Online, explore Outschool (paid classes), Freeschool (a Youtube channel of free learning videos), Prodigy, Khan, and Teach Your Monster to Read. Highschool-aged kiddos may want to explore courses at Niagara College or open universities focused on their particular areas of interest. Self-driven learning that matches their learning needs and styles will be worthwhile considering.
- Read books about homeschooling rather than about particular curricula. David Albert’s books are absolutely beautiful, Quinn Cummings’ book “The Year of Learning Dangerously” is realistic and humorous, Calgary-based author and parenting coach Judy Arnall’s book, “Unschooling to University” gives a helpful perspective on free learning from home, and Julie Bogart, author of “Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life” provides a lovely description of an approach somewhere between curriculum-based and non-curriculum-based (or unschooling) approaches.
- Pam Laricchia of Erin, Ontario has a fantastic unschooling podcast (LivingJoyfully.ca) that will boost your confidence and relax your homeschool environment to inspire curiosity and calm, two things that can be in pretty short supply this year.
Whether you choose to homeschool or not, and whether you proceed with formalized home-based education or a more fluid unschool approach, know that your environment will not look like anyone else’s, just as your kids are like no one else. Know that every homeschool parent I know has moments of frustration, pride, excitement, worry, and overwhelm. It’s a big job, parenting. And parenting our children during the school day has added responsibilities (and joys). Add a pandemic, and it means doubling down on appreciating our priorities: mental well-being, a loving and supportive environment, and an eye on the long-term outcomes for our kids. Whatever learning looks like for your family this fall, I send you my hopes for finding a path that works for you.
Occupational therapist, gentle sleep coach, and homeschool mom of three