As August looms on the calendar, few subjects are getting more attention in Wilton than the return to school. With COVID-19 still in our midst, many parents have concerns about the risk of exposure to the virus itself and the myriad uncertainties that surround plans for Wilton Public Schools.
Those concerns and uncertainties were brought into focus this past Monday, July 20, when the district announced the ESY (Extended School Year) programming would stop in-person instruction indefinitely at the Wilton High School location due to a suspected COVID case. (ESY shifted to remote learning Tuesday, but just one day later Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi told GOOD Morning Wilton that the program was cleared by the Health Department to resume in-person learning next Monday, July 27.) The program had been seen as a trial success story which, it was hoped, would translate to a successful “full open” for the new school year.
Some Wilton parents have begun to take matters into their own hands, exploring the possibility of opting out of district plans entirely for the 2020-2021 school year and creating a homeschool environment instead.
The phenomenon is not just a Wilton one. J. Allen Weston, Executive Director of the National Home School Association, says membership in the organization has “dramatically increased” during the pandemic. (Note: NHSA is the only homeschool resource listed on the CT Department of Education homeschool information webpage, though many can be found in a simple online search.)
Precise numbers of homeschooled students aren’t available. In a statement to GMW, a representative of the CT Department of Education claimed the state does not track the number of students being homeschooled. This is perhaps due to the fact that parents in Connecticut are not legally obliged to notify their districts about plans to homeschool (more about legal requirements later in this article).
Up until this year, the U.S. government’s statistics put the number of homeschooled children at about 2 million, or 3% of total school-aged children across the country. Weston believes that number is underestimated (due to lack of state tracking) and that the number may reach 10 million during the next school year due to COVID-19, an estimate not verified by GMW.
Just as the pandemic has fueled the work-from-home movement, Weston believes the pandemic has created a unique opportunity for parents to question what education model is in their children’s best interest. As a homeschool advocate, he sees a “silver lining” in the pandemic forcing a discussion of how to best educate our children.
Be Careful When You Say “Homeschool”
Many people misused the “homeschool” term when remote learning came into play, using the term loosely to refer to students receiving instruction at home.
But to longtime homeschool embracers, homeschooling means something very different. Traditionally, it has meant parents teaching their children at home, typically for one of three reasons: an undesirable school environment, religious beliefs, or dissatisfaction with public school curriculum or methods. Some homeschoolers have even adopted the term “unschooling” to describe their more deliberate rejection of conventional curriculum and teaching methods in favor of more child-directed interests in learning.
Now, however, in response to COVID fears, another type of homeschool is quickly emerging: one that involves small groups of students under the direction of a privately-hired teacher in a familiar “classroom” model. Weston points out, “Hiring a teacher to teach their kids is NOT homeschooling, it is re-creating school at home. [There’s a] big difference.”
That may be why businesses like GetSchoolHouse.com refer to this approach as “microschools” and not “homeschools”.
This relatively new service matches families with teachers. The GetSchoolHouse distinguishes the two by describing a microschool, saying it is “the reinvention of the one-room schoolhouse, where class sizes are small groups of 5-8 students and there are mixed-age level groupings.”
GetSchoolHouse.com is garnering significant interest among some Wilton families.
GMW reached out to the organization for comment, but did not receive a reply as of publication time.
Connecticut’s Requirements for Homeschooling
Homeschooling is a legal right in all 50 states, but requirements vary significantly by state, with Connecticut among the least regulated states in the country.
Under the CT statute pertaining to homeschooling, the only “duties” of the parents of school-age children are to “instruct them or cause them to be instructed in reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and United States history and in citizenship, including a study of the town, state and federal governments.”
The statute goes on to say that a parent or guardian may opt out of public schools as long they are “able to show that the child is elsewhere receiving equivalent instruction in the studies taught in the public schools.” Precedents show that “equivalent instruction” can be interpreted to mean just about any well-intended efforts.
In the absence of legal requirements, the CT State Dept of Education makes the following recommendations to parents/guardians:
- Complete the Intent to Homeschool form (or Notice of Intent form) for each child annually and submit it to the Superintendent’s office for signature. (Note: this is not for approval, merely notice.)
- Review the Connecticut Core Standards. These provide parents with clear expectations of what a student should know and be able to do at each grade level. Aligning instruction with these standards and competencies will ensure a smoother transition should the child return to public school.
- Keep a log of attendance which reflects days and hours of instruction.
- Maintain a “portfolio” for each child which contains activities, assignments, projects and assessments, as well as a log of books and materials used. Include results of any national assessments. (Local school districts may request an annual Portfolio Review. Retain a signed copy of the Notice of Intent form in the portfolio; it can become important for GED testing or official transcripts.)
What Seems To Be Motivating This?
GMW reached out to multiple parents in Wilton in various stages of exploring homeschool options. Our observations are that interest is strongest among parents with:
- Concerns about COVID risks to children or family members from exposure at schools
- A desire to pre-empt what is seen as a likely or inevitable return to a distance learning platform (for various reasons including quality of learning, social isolation, etc.)
- Two full-time working parents, who need a more reliable, predictable plan for their children’s schooling
It further appears the homeschool interest is mainly for children at the elementary level, rather than middle school or high school.
Lora Lee Pham lost her mother, a resident at Wilton Meadows, to the coronavirus. Pham’s father, in his seventies, lives in her home. Naturally, she is fearful of the virus affecting another member of her family and frustrated it is still circulating.
“I had hope, we all had hope this would be better over the summer. But it didn’t quite go that way,” she said.
Prior to summer, Pham had been disappointed with distance learning for one of her two children, a student at Miller-Driscoll. “It didn’t work well for him,” she said, despite the significant time she was spending to assist and participate in the learning. Prioritizing the time for her child’s distance learning came at the expense of a new business Pham had only recently launched.
With her desire to avoid the risk of COVID exposure and a possible return to distance learning, as well as to have a more predictable plan, Pham began to consider alternatives to the various scenarios for which the Wilton schools are planning.
Homeschool was not a foreign concept to Pham. Her cousins were homeschooled, and a personal friend is currently homeschooling her child.
Pham discovered she had several like-minded friends “and we started digging,” she said, dividing tasks like researching curriculum, hiring a teacher, and finding a venue. She now has a group comprised of four families in the process of formulating a strategy. (The GetSchoolHouse program is one they are researching.)
Pham posted about the subject on Wilton social media and was pleasantly surprised at the generally encouraging response. In addition to the public comments on her post, she said she received many private messages from people expressing similar interests or asking to join her group. Pham also reported having received many applications for the teaching position, mostly from substitute teachers, preschool teachers or teachers from other districts; none were from full-time Wilton teachers. “We aren’t looking to poach teachers” from the Wilton schools, she said. They’re even open to non-certified teachers, “if the fit is right.”
Pham understands the homeschool group is not a perfect solution to all the pandemic’s challenges. “Even with our [small] group, we have to be realistic,” she said, recognizing the possibility that someone in the group could get the virus. “We need to agree on a plan for what would happen if a child, or parent, or the teacher, gets sick,” she said.
But Pham sees exercising the homeschool option as a win/win, being beneficial for her own children and also alleviating some of the challenges for the district i.e., reducing class sizes, enabling better distancing for kids in the school or on busses. She is hopeful that the district will also see a mutual benefit, and possibly offer some level of guidance as the group parents figure out curriculum plans (something she has not yet discussed with any school administrators or Board of Education members).
That spirit of cooperation was echoed by Emily Mueller DuBrock in a letter she wrote to the Board of Ed, emphasizing that she is “a huge proponent of Wilton schools and happy to do anything to support… and help with [solutions]” to what she viewed as insufficiently rigorous remote learning, especially for children at or above grade level benchmarks.
In a phone interview with GMW, DuBrock reiterated her belief in the Wilton school system. “I believe in public schools. We picked Wilton [for the schools]. But we are missing an opportunity.”
As she told the Board, “Many families are anticipating the lack of learning to continue this year, and so they are making plans to hire their own teachers and develop their own curriculum to challenge and interest their children.” DuBrock told GMW she personally knew of five different groups, each comprised of several Wilton families, who are actively exploring the homeschool/microschool idea.
She pleaded with the Board to “step back into our winning curriculum.”
Another Wilton parent exploring homeschool options, who wished to remain anonymous, also expressed her admiration for the Wilton school district and the “heroic efforts” teachers and administrators made last spring and that they continue to make in preparation for the new year. “I don’t want to say anything negative about the schools. They are doing the best, best, best they can do. But they just have an impossible task,” she has concluded.
For this particular parent, social isolation was the issue with remote learning rather than instruction per se. She felt she could accept a hybrid plan (some remote combined with some in-person learning), but is unsure whether the remote learning will be improved from last spring. “We could [consider] distance learning this year, but what will that be this year? How will it be different from spring? How can we make this decision without knowing that information?” she wondered.
Combined with her concerns about the virus and managing her full-time working schedule, she feels homeschooling is a logical choice. Summarizing her thought process, she said, “What [plan] is the least disruptive and safest for my family?”
Adding to the safety question, she said, “No adults [I know] are going back to their offices any time soon. Why are we sending hundreds of kids back to a school?”
For Bailey Stoler O’Dea, another Wilton parent, the general uncertainty about the re-opening plan is a key driver of her interest in homeschooling. Like other parents, O’Dea wants to pre-empt a potential shift in the schools back to remote learning. “I want to be prepared for school closures,” she said. “I [also] think distance learning is hard for young children and lacks the crucial components of social education… I want my kids to have a social pod, unlike last spring when we all felt the pain of long-term social isolation.”
O’Dea’s school-age children are 8- and 5-years-old. Her decisions must also consider that her 5-year-old receives special ed services from the school district. Of note, Section 10-184a of the CT homeschool statute says that local boards of education have no obligation “to provide special education programs or services for any child whose parent or guardian has chosen to educate such child in a home.”
O’Dea said, “At this point, I am considering [homeschool] for my 8-year-old, but plan to start my 5-year-old in the public school system so that he can continue with his services. If schools close, which I’m assuming will happen, I would consider trying to have him join the [homeschool group].”
Board of Ed Response
Dr. Kevin Smith, Superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, told GMW his office has seen “nothing out of the ordinary so far” in the terms of the inquiries from families with questions about homeschooling, and no increase in Notices of Intent.
Dr. Smith respects families’ rights to make a homeschooling decision. “Parents are the first educators of their children and therefore need to make decisions that best fit their family’s needs and circumstances,” he said.
However, tasked with enormous planning challenges of its own, and consistent with district policy, the district cannot assist families in their homeschool planning. Dr. Smith explained, “We are here to partner with families and provide the best public education possible. With respect to re-opening school during this pandemic, we have been tasked with providing to the state plans for three models: 1) full-time in person for all students; 2) A hybrid plan which would enable a portion of students to be educated in person and the other portion remotely; 3) full-time remote learning for all students.”
Dr. Smith reminded parents they have the option to “choose to have their children temporarily participate remotely” if they have concerns about returning in person.
If remote learning is utilized, parents should not assume their child will have the same experience as last spring; regardless of what plan is finally adopted, Dr. Smith believes Wilton families can be confident that the planning process currently underway will meet students’ needs.
“Over the course of the last quarter of school, we listened very carefully to feedback from our families and from staff. We made the decision in May to transition the entire district to an online learning management system [Schoology] which would enable us to more seamlessly provide instruction across the three scenarios [above]. While we are still very deep into planning for re-opening, I feel very confident in the strength and quality of our educators and this school district,” he said.
He stressed that what students receive this fall will be very different from anything parents saw last year as the outbreak began.
“While the start of school will be far from typical, our staff is committed to providing as much normalcy, routine, and predictability for our students as possible. We will be delivering a high-quality education to all of our students, taking steps to prioritize community building and student social and emotional wellbeing, and we will be conducting key diagnostic assessments so we can have a clear picture of each child academically and address the needs that we see.”
Dr. Smith added, “As the lead public educator in Wilton, and a resident, I choose to have my own five children participate in our public education program.”
He welcomed families with questions on this subject to reach out to him directly.
A Privileged Choice?
Most of the parents interviewed for this article recognized that participating in a microschool is not a choice everyone can make. Costs are likely to be high, even rivaling the price of private schools. Surely, the proliferation of microschools could be viewed as another example of an advantage for the wealthy during the pandemic, widening educational inequities across socio-economic groups.
“When I started [looking into homeschooling], I thought, how privileged are we,” one parent said.
These families generally did not see the choice to homeschool being about academic advantage for their children, but rather the default option that best meets their needs.
One parent said, “It’s not about one-upmanship. It’s just the only way [parents] can manage the situation” notably in the context of a mother with a demanding job.
Another said, “[Fueling inequities] is a valid point. We’ve talked about it. It’s unfortunate, but for our family, I don’t feel we have a choice [but to protect my family].”
There are a number of legal, liability, and tax issues for parents to consider when hiring a teacher, starting with whether the is teacher an employee under Connecticut labor laws, or an independent contractor?
Consult a labor and employment attorney, or reach out to the HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association), a leading homeschool advocacy and resource group.