KIDS: Pandemic may drive some parents to opt for home-schooling this fall—if they can afford it

All four of Uzma Jafri’s children will stay home this fall, even if the public schools they attend in Phoenix open their physical doors. Jafri, a doctor, and her husband, a pediatric dentist, do not think schools will be a safe environment during the pandemic, even if guidelines proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are in place.

“In August, for schools, it’s a petri dish when it’s not a pandemic,” Jafri said. “We both know how viruses work, and we cannot understand how schools can open and be safe.”

School districts nationwide are strategizing on what a fall reopening could look like. Possible scenarios include staggered schedules where students alternate between attending in-person and online. Desks would be spaced out, masks could be required, and lunch may be eaten in classrooms. If there is a sudden surge, schools may shut down and reopen, perhaps multiple times.

The thought of all this gives Jafri anxiety. She would like to minimize disruption to her children’s schedule, and keep them safe. Her oldest child, who is 12 and in sixth grade, was already being home-schooled for the year. In late March, with the virus rapidly spreading, Jafri felt she might as well try home-schooling with the younger ones, too.

“The best thing for my mental health is to keep them all home,” she said. “And it’s working for us. We get all our school work done in two hours a day and they are free to do what they want.”

Jafri, who works part-time and has a nanny, says August 2021 is the earliest she will allow any of her children to return to school.

The coronavirus pandemic, which shut down most of the nation’s schools in March, has provided parents who might have never considered home-schooling with a test drive of what it’s like to have the kids learning at home. Although many parents have struggled to balance their work with child care and schooling, for some, it seems like the best short-term option, for safety and to avoid online learning. For others, it offers a chance to experiment with home-schooling and consider it for the long term.

As of 2016, 3.3% of children in the United States were home-schooled, a figure that had stayed roughly the same for the past decade.

“I think we’re likely to see an uptick in home-schooling this fall due to health and safety concerns, and parents who have never considered it now seeing it as a good option for their kids,” said Aaron Churchill, a researcher at Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice.

The current economic slump could also trigger more parents to consider home-schooling, said Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University.

“A lot of parents will be at home. They’ve lost their jobs,” he said.

But he added that wealth will play a role in determining whether keeping kids at home is possible.

“Even though parents might be out of a job, they might prefer to have their kids in school, so free and reduced lunches are available,” he said. “And it enables parents to look for a job.”

He suspects that many parents who can afford to may try their hand at home-schooling but that it will be a short-term endeavor.

That’s how Meghan Browne, a mother to three elementary school-age children in Austin is thinking about it. She likes the public school that her children attend but is struggling with the amount of technology the kids have had to use with school online.

“Two to three hours a day on the screen feels like the antithesis of everything I believe in,” she said.

Browne suspects there will still be some distance learning in the fall, even if physical doors open, and that this will involve a fair amount of technology. So she is seriously researching home-schooling options.

Browne, is a graduate student and a children’s author, and her husband is a pilot for Southwest Airlines who travels several days out of the week, so the idea of home-schooling is stressful, and she worries about the possible negative consequences.

“I’m unsure of my abilities to be a teacher, my ability to run three separate classrooms under one roof,” she said. “It seems very intimidating to me.”

For Browne, home-schooling is a short-term solution, and she knows she will send the kids back to school as soon as she feels comfortable.

But Joseph Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, believes that the uptick in home-schooling will be long term, and that the pandemic will act as a catalyst in a movement that sprang into action over the past decade.

“There is a belief that hierarchy and bureaucracy is not the way to do it anymore,” he said.

He says that parents, increasingly, believe that they, not the school system, know what is best for their child. And in thinking about those best interests, some parents will decide that the best place for their children is home.

Angela Repke, a college lecturer in Grand Blanc, Mich., is one of those parents.

“Most days I’m like, ‘This is good for them,’ ” she said. “When they go to school they come home and they’re a hot mess.”

These days, her 8-year-old son is relaxed. He reads a lot and bakes, and he and his 6-year-old sister spend a lot of time playing silly games. Repke is amazed by how time at home has allowed her daughter to learn how to read.

“She’s just taken off,” Repke said.

Repke, who works as an adjunct, plans to balance her schedule so home-schooling is possible. She’s already turned down one fall teaching gig.

Whether she will home-school beyond the pandemic is unclear. Sometimes, she dreams of it being a special, magical experience for her and the children, one that could go on for years.

“I have this very Bohemian idea of it all, that we’ll go to the nature centers and nature preserves, spend lots of time outdoors,” she said.

But she says she will do what the kids want, and what they need.

“Really it’s up to my kids,” she said.

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