It’s no surprise the surge in virtual schooling from home our nation saw during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as a new—and very different—school year began in August and September, there was a boom in families withdrawing from traditional schools and starting homeschooling.
In fact, Michael Donnelly from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association says homeschooling as doubled in nearly every state, and even tripled in some. Michael Donnelly unpacks this homeschooling surge on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
“We’re hearing that a lot of folks are experiencing very positive outcomes,” says Donnelly. “They’re enjoying the flexibility that homeschooling allows. They’re enjoying the ability to tailor a curriculum, a different curriculum from what the schools had been offering, that is working better for their children. They’re enjoying the fact that their kids are not stuck in front of a computer screen.”
But this surge means that there are thousands of families homeschooling for the first time who are likely in need of some resources and advice from those who have been homeschooling for years. “Take it one day at a time,” Donnelly says to these parents. “See what’s working, and don’t be afraid to change something if you feel like you want to make a change.”
“We’re a pluralistic society, and we need to embrace differences in all kinds of areas, especially the area of education. […] I’m hopeful that coming through this virus situation, one of the things that people will be more comfortable with is embracing that kind of pluralism in education.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Michael Donnelly discuss the homeschooling boom, and provide resources and advice for newly homeschooling families.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Among the many changes and challenges that come with living through a pandemic, perhaps one of the most difficult has been school. When students were abruptly sent home last spring, families and schools alike often felt ill-equipped to continue students’ studies at home. But as weeks turned into months, many families for the first time began looking at homeschooling with new eyes.
With various reports suggesting that many students are failing to thrive under the changing landscape of distance education, hybrid splits between school and home, and other options, it might be helpful for non-homeschooling parents to learn from veteran homeschoolers regarding how they have navigated these challenges for many years now. Michael Donnelly, senior counsel with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, is here to talk about it.
Mike Donnelly, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
MICHAEL DONNELLY: Thanks, Traci. It’s great to be with you today.
TRACI GRIGGS: After finishing last school year at home, did you hear of families who discovered that they were surprised to find they could actually homeschool?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: Traci, absolutely. A lot of folks, during the early stages of the virus situation decided that they were going to try the homeschooling thing. And a lot of them found that it worked out really well, and they decided to keep on doing it. And what we saw over the summer was that that number actually grew significantly. As it became clear that things were not going to be going back to normal for the school year, parents made the decision in August and then even into September that they were going to be keeping their children out of the various remote/ hybrid/whatever they were doing programs in the public schools, and they were going to go ahead and homeschool. And we saw record-breaking growth, which has been validated by government surveys, members of our association, and other organizations involved in homeschooling. And I think it’s safe to say that what we’ve seen is that regular homeschooling has at least doubled in most places, and in some cases, it’s grown by much more than that.
TRACI GRIGGS: Because you’re talking nationally, right?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: That is correct, on a national basis. But even on a state-by-state basis, there is no state that has not seen very significant growth. And of course, North Carolina had a very large homeschooling population, even before this all began.
TRACI GRIGGS: What have you heard from families who have students still enrolled in public schools and how they’re dealing with things?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: You know, a lot of people said we’re going to continue with the public school. People juggling work schedules, and they want their kids to be involved in the public education programs that are available to them. And they said they were going to stick with it, and they did. And what we’re seeing though is that a lot of folks, again, seeing that things are really not kind of going back to where they want them to go are saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” And the common things we’re hearing are, you know, there are issues relating to kids, and these can be health-related issues with children experiencing headaches from being on computer screens for too long or boredom. I mean, it’s difficult for teachers who are trying to do the best they can, I know, to teach through a computer. It’s just such a totally different kind of learning, and it’s not working real well for a lot of kids to family situations or family issues where parents aren’t able to juggle all the multiple things that are being asked of them with multiple children. So, we’ve just seen an increase in the frustration, and we’re actually seeing an increase in the number of folks who are joining our association. And anecdotally, we’re hearing that homeschooling is continuing to rise pretty significantly here, even as the school year goes on.
TRACI GRIGGS: Are you hearing from these families that have made the switch to homeschooling, or is it too early to know how they’re doing?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: You know, we’re hearing some things. There hasn’t been a lot of data collection on what’s happening with the homeschooling families right now, but you know, we’re hearing that a lot of folks are experiencing very positive outcomes. They’re enjoying the flexibility that homeschooling allows. They’re enjoying the ability to tailor a curriculum, a different curriculum from what the schools had been offering that was working better for their children. They’re enjoying the fact that their kids are not stuck in front of a computer screen. A lot of folks where their school that was going on that was part in class and part not in class, some of those kids, they weren’t thriving, and the parents said, “I’m not going to keep sending you back there. We’re going to do the homeschooling.” So, lots of different reasons for people and lots of different benefits that folks have expressed that they’re experiencing from unplugging from the public education system and trying homeschooling.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. Do you think these new homeschooling families are surprised to find how many resources and networking avenues there are among homeschooling families?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: Probably a little bit surprised. I mean, folks who’ve never homeschooled before, you know, they just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s very doable, but when you have never done something before, it seems a little daunting. And the reality is there are so many resources. Some folks even report to me that it’s overwhelming. I mean the availability of curriculum, both online curriculum and sort of physical curriculum that you can buy from various vendors, and also that there were so many homeschoolers. Again, North Carolina has a very large homeschooling population. Many support groups, both through Facebook, or other social media sites, and also in-person, although obviously, the in-person meetings have been somewhat restrained as a result of some of the things going on with this coronavirus. The homeschooling community is very welcoming, and we’ve really been encouraged by what we’ve seen with people reporting that they feel very supported when they finally ended up connecting with another homeschooling family.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, for those families that are just entering into homeschooling though, this is not necessarily exactly how homeschooling goes, right? I mean, there are some things you guys, as you mentioned, are not able to do right now.
MICHAEL DONNELLY: That’s true. Without the virus constraints, homeschoolers are very active in getting together. Many co-ops, sometimes very large co-ops, would get together. We call them “co-ops.” That’s parents getting together with families where the parents share the teaching responsibility for certain things. And they can be very large, they can be very small, but that’s more difficult to do under the current conditions. But what we found was a lot of families who were homeschooling during the pandemic, although they had to kind of change, they were used to having their kids at home, and so they, not quite without a beat, but they kind of kept on moving on with their education. And it was really exciting to see so many other folks trying out the homeschooling option and enjoying it.
TRACI GRIGGS: This idea that I think many people have that homeschooling is isolating for the kids sounds like that’s really not the case.
MICHAEL DONNELLY: It’s not the case. Homeschoolers are very social. We’re all social people. You know, all human beings are social. We like to get together and do stuff together, and homeschoolers are the same way, and they were doing that. And they’re still doing that. And what homeschooling allows people is to pick who they want to get together with. And under the virus circumstances, you want to get together with people you know. Maybe you don’t want to be around as many people you don’t know because you just don’t know what the health situation would be. So, this really allows people the freedom, the flexibility to integrate education into what they’re doing with their life. And with families home, there’s more family time. Parent and kids are together more. And some people might say that’s not so great, but what we’ve found is that parents are really enjoying that. And kids too, they’re really enjoying the freedom of flexibility and the opportunity to connect with each other that the situation has presented.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned the impact, and of course, we’re all fully aware of that. One of the impacts that we’ve been hearing about is a widening achievement gap due to the pandemic. Are you hearing that that’s the case?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: The achievement gap is a term that I have heard used. It’s been used a lot for a long time, and it can mean different things. But what I understand it to mean is that there’s this achievement gap between cities and schools in poor areas versus schools in more wealthy, affluent areas. And sometimes people talk about achievement gaps even within ethnic groups. I guess I’ve also heard some people talking about the achievement gap where, during the pandemic, some people who have more resources are able to provide for their kids versus those who have less resources and are struggling with the public school and really don’t have any other options. So, that is something that I had heard talked about, but in the homeschool community, parents are all free to help their children achieve to their potential.
And I’ll tell you what’s interesting when you look at the government surveys that have been done since the pandemic began, one of the groups that has grown the fastest are the lower income groups because homeschooling is not expensive. Homeschooling is something you can do in your home. It does not cost a lot of money to purchase curriculum for children, especially elementary grades, but even in the high school grades. And so, folks on the lower income spectrum are not barred from participating in homeschooling. It’s something you can do. I think there are plenty of kids who were probably doing just fine with the remote learning, and they’re getting the help from their parents at home, or they’re just able to make it work. There are many that are not, and they do need the option to do different things, and they should be supported in that from public policy. And society should embrace different ways of education. I mean, look, we’re a pluralistic society, and we need to embrace differences, in all kinds of areas, especially in the area of education. We should not be comfortable or be happy with just a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Unfortunately, there are many people who just want one-size-fits-all education, and that’s wrong. It’s not the right way for a country like ours to do education. And I’m hopeful that, you know, coming through this virus situation, one of the things that people will be more comfortable with is embracing that kind of pluralism in education.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do you have any tips for families who are either new at this or just kind of trying to hang in there, as far as how they can set realistic expectations for homeschooling or teaching their children at home?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: That’s a great question. Realistic expectations is a very important thing, right, because frustration comes when your expectations don’t meet with reality. And going into something you’ve never done before, it might be difficult to even know what to expect. So, I think that’s something that folks who are thinking about homeschooling should think about. Homeschooling is not schooling at home. It doesn’t take as much time to do the academics. Two to three hours a day is usually more than enough, and you have much more time for children to pursue other interests, other areas that they’re interested in. We’ve put together a website called youcanhomeschool.com, which has a three-step approach. Basically, you need to understand the legalities, and we’re the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. That’s kind of what we’re experts in. But we also have consultants and resources available on the website for people to find curriculum, learning about their children’s learning styles, those sorts of things. And we really want to encourage folks to think differently about education. When you have your kids home, it’s a very different approach. It doesn’t have to look like school; it can look very different. I know some of my daughters; they love to stay in their pajamas for a long time, and you know what, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that; you can do school in your pajamas, folks. You can let your kids sleep in a little bit later if you want to, not to get up at six in the morning to get on the bus. But you know, some kids like to get up real early and get through this schoolwork and then have the rest of the day for other things. So, you know, as a family, you’ve got to kind of figure out what rhythm is going to work for you. And it may be different for each person. You’ve got different things you’re juggling, work schedules, and other things, so every family is going to be different. I think, people who are thinking about doing it just have to be very flexible. Take it one day at a time, see what’s working, and don’t be afraid to change something if you feel like you want to make a change.
TRACI GRIGGS: All right. And if people are looking at making a change, is this the website you would refer them to first, youcanhomeschool.com?
MICHAEL DONNELLY: Absolutely, youcanhomeschool.com is part of our HSLDA family. They can join HSLDA. They can get information about how to get started homeschooling. There are videos there that are available for them and links to other resources where they can connect with other homeschoolers. So, it’s a great place to start.
TRACI GRIGGS: And of course, HSLDA is Homeschool Legal Defense Association. And we’ve been speaking with Michael Donnelly. Michael, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
MICHAEL DONNELLY: Thank you, Traci. It’s been a real pleasure to be with you and your audience today.
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