CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — For some parents, teaching their children at home after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools this spring was challenging, to say the least.
For others, it revealed another option.
With new cases of COVID-19 continuing and no vaccine, many parents have questions about what a return to school might look like.
Will young children be able to concentrate with face masks required? Will schools close over and over again if outbreaks occur, disrupting kids’ ability to learn? What if kids contract the disease and spread it to vulnerable family members?
Some parents are considering home-schooling their children.
Gabbi Gonzalez began thinking about home schooling after she didn’t hear enough from her daughter’s school to make her feel confident about returning. She has two children: her 11-month-old son, Augustus, and her 10-year-old daughter, Naobi. The family lives in Lyon after recently moving from Chicago.
She wonders whether her daughter, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, will be too distracted wearing a mask, or able to keep it on and never touch her face.
“I know teachers just don’t have the capabilities to monitor every student to make sure that they are taking the precautions required,” she said.
Gonzalez isn’t alone in her hesitation.
Home schooling support groups are receiving more calls and questions from parents. Winifred Haun, part of The Northside Unschoolers, said people learned a bit about home schooling this spring as schools were closed and families improvised to remotely teach their children.
“People do seem more interested in home-schooling their kids, especially when they learned that they don’t have to do everything just like the schools do it,” she said.
It’s an interesting moment, said Rachel Coleman, an Evanston mom of two and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. While home-schoolers aren’t in a building with other students, they are typically involved in many social activities, including play dates and museum outings.
“If a family is home-schooling for serious health concerns, they’re probably not going to be comfortable going out to museums and a whole bunch of play dates,” Coleman said. “It creates a very different picture of what home schooling can look like.”
If parents will be working full time, she advises considering whether the child might be better off at school. Home schooling works best when a parent is available to fully concentrate. She issued the same caution for any ideas a parent might have of leaving, for example, a teenager home alone to learn independently or with a younger sibling.
“It’s just not set up to work that way,” she said. “Education needs to involve engagement and interaction with someone who is not a computer.”
Coleman’s group has quickly tried to pull together an Introduction to Home Education course for first-time home-schoolers, she said, in part because of growing interest from families.
Illinois parents who home-school do not need to register with the state, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The state offers a voluntary registration process. ISBE spokesperson Max Weiss noted that parents or guardians should notify their child’s school about their new plan by sending a dated letter and keeping a copy for their own records. Otherwise, the school might mark a student absent and eventually refer them to a truancy officer.
State requirements for home schooling include providing instruction in English in these subject areas: language arts, math, biological and physical science, social science, fine arts and physical development and health. Students do not need to take standardized tests.
If parents want to eventually send a child back to public school, that school will make a determination of grade placement, and may administer a test to assess material covered during home schooling.
Coleman suggests parents find out how their child will be reassessed upon return. Use state standards as a guide for what children should learn in reading, writing and math. Consider whether your child’s school district is offering a distance learning plan.
Sara Lester was a preschool teacher for years, and her husband, Adam Lester, teaches high school. The Aurora resident said she feels confident about her ability to home-school their two sons, ages 3 and 4, instead of enrolling them in preschool and prekindergarten.
As a teacher, she knows the value of being at school. But she isn’t comfortable with the extra risk.
“I’m just not really confident sending them anywhere right now,” she said. “I guess until there’s a vaccine, a cure, or numbers drop more significantly, I just won’t feel comfortable putting my kid in that germy school.”
Her uncle had COVID-19, she said, and although he recovered, he said it felt like razor blades in his throat for weeks. Every day, she sees people bringing their kids to the playground near her home, even though it’s closed. And she sees many people not wearing masks.
“My family, we’re still taking social distancing really seriously,” she said.
She created a classroom in part of her kids’ playroom. She has been working on lesson plans.
“I’m just excited that my kids can learn at their own pace, and they can kind of help create the curriculum,” she said. “We can learn about things that they’re interested in and really just focus on learning and playing and having fun.”
Gonzalez is in touch with other parents who already home-school, and do it in groups — one parent teaches science, another teaches reading. She said she might feel more comfortable with a smaller, contained group, where the parents can share teaching responsibilities and ensure their families are taking similar safety precautions.
“It won’t be easy,” she said. “It’s not like our No. 1 choice here, because it will be a very tough year.”
The Lesters and Gonzalezes said they still plan to send their children to public schools when they feel it is safer.
“It wouldn’t be a permanent solution,” Gonzalez said. “But it would be for the next year at least, to make sure that there aren’t waves of this every now and again.”
Gonzalez said her daughter craves peer-to-peer contact and doesn’t want to stay home from school after months of quarantine. “She does want to go back and be able to play with her friends,” Gonzalez said. So she hopes to add group activities into their home-schooling schedule, and only after assessing safety concerns with those too.
Adam Lester, who teaches at Batavia High School, said he’s glad he and his wife didn’t have to weigh whether their sons’ learning would be disrupted. With his wife’s preschool experience, they will keep them home for now.
“Because our oldest son will be in kindergarten in a year, I would assume if everything’s back to normal by then, which everyone’s hoping, he would just go to kindergarten like normal,” Lester said.
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