Published July 28th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Jessica Mattingly wakes up around 5 a.m. each morning. She works from home for a few hours before five kids roll out of bed. At roughly 8:30 a.m., the school day begins — and she’s the one facilitating their learning.
At least, that’s her regular schedule. Mattingly welcomed a boy and a girl eight months ago, and their needs, in addition to an increased workload, mean she adjusts her schedule as needed.
Luckily, she’s got experience on her side. With several older kids already out of the house, this isn’t Mattingly’s first homeschooling rodeo. And now, as a board member for the LEARN Home Education Network, a homeschool community in Kansas City, she’s helping other parents who are considering a switch to homeschooling this fall.
“We have had a huge uptick in requests to join our Facebook page,” she said. “We probably get between five and 10 requests a day. On a busy week, we used to get five a week.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, about 3% of U.S. kids were homeschooled in 2012. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the country, even more families are considering the switch, often on short notice due to the mounting uncertainty surrounding the reopening of schools.
But it’s not simple. There’s a lot that goes into the decision to homeschool, from state laws, sibling relationships and support groups. Here’s what you need to know.
Missouri and Kansas both have laws regulating homeschool education.
In Missouri, parents are required to give their kids at least 1,000 hours of instruction in a school term, 600 hours of which should be focused on reading, language arts, math, social studies and science. Parents should keep work samples and conduct periodic assessments of their choice.
In Kansas, homeschools are treated like non-accredited private schools. Parents will need to register their school, select a ‘competent’ instructor, and teach for about the same amount of time yearly as public schools. Kansas does not have any specific curriculum requirements, but recommends language arts, social studies, science, math, physical education and fine arts.
In both states, parents should notify their child’s public school that they’ll be withdrawing.
Charyti Jackson, the executive director for Families For Home Education, a Missouri-based homeschool advocacy group, said it’s important for parents to consider all options for the fall. Carefully considering each option can help parents understand the legal responsibilities they carry. Taking virtual classes through a public school, for example, wouldn’t fall under either state’s definition of homeschooling.
Deciding to homeschool isn’t as simple as pulling a kid out of school and setting a textbook in front of them at home. For one, teaching methods that work in a classroom won’t necessarily have the same effect when it’s mom or dad giving the lesson.
“Parents need to take it slow for their expectations of being both a parent and a teacher,” said Nicole Campione-Barr, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Kids are usually better behaved for their teachers than their parents, because they trust their parents, and they trust that they can let their guard down with them.”
Mattingly said engaging in a process of “deschooling” may help parents and kids transition. The premise of deschooling is helping kids expand their understanding of when and where learning can occur, in order to realize that education doesn’t exclusively come from school.
“There’s a lot of experiential and life learning that happens in homeschooling, regardless of the type of homeschooling you do,” Mattingly said.
For some families, it may be easier to transition to virtual classes offered through their public school instead of complete homeschooling.
“It might be easier for families if there’s still a teacher through virtual school, rather than them being the official homeschool teacher,” Campione-Barr said. “There’s at least someone there that’s a boundary — that might be an easier transition than going to a full homeschool where the parent is the teacher as well.”
For families with multiple kids, homeschooling presents an educational shift. A 10-year-old and a 14-year-old would be in separate classes in a public school, but the flexibility of homeschooling means they may learn subjects together.
Jacklynn Walters, the media director for Midwest Parent Educators, said some of the best learning can occur when older kids teach a subject to someone else.
“I love encouraging my older children to help with the younger ones,” Walters said. “They not only love teaching it, the younger ones actually really welcome the older children. It’s a great family dynamic where you’re building and learning together, and also building stronger relationships within the family as a whole.”
Campione-Barr said early anecdotal evidence has shown that the isolation caused by COVID-19 has actually improved sibling bonds in some cases, because they become peers. She cautioned that co-learning can still cause frustration, though, especially if the younger child doesn’t want to listen to their sibling.
Mattingly, who has two eight-month-olds, a 6-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a 16-year-old, said it isn’t really feasible to do the same lessons with kids who have significant age differences. Instead, she helps her kids work individually as needed, at the time of day that works best for them.
“My teenagers are up late, so we do stuff late at night, or with my younger kids, we’ll do it earlier in the morning when they’re available,” Mattingly said.
She said many families will set up concurrent activities for their older and younger kids.
“If they have preschool, toddler-age kids and they’re trying to homeschool a high school-age kid, they’ll give the younger one their ‘tool work,’ maybe coloring pages or a sensory bin of some kind,” she said. “Something special that only comes out when it’s time to sit down and work with the older child.”
Like anything else, homeschooling takes time to master, and the added stress of the pandemic has forced even established homeschoolers to change the way they do things.
“It is a rough time for everyone, parents, teachers, administrators…trying to determine what to do,” said Jackson, the executive director of Families For Home Education. “In the homeschool world, we’re also trying to figure things out, because we have homeschooling co-ops, we have activities that we do, things along those lines.”
Many homeschool co-ops, where families share classes and socialize, have gone online. Midwest Parent Educators, which hosts a yearly conference where educators come in to teach on a variety of topics, had to cancel the event.
Despite the circumstances, homeschooling communities are finding ways to adapt. Midwest Parent Educators and Families For Home Education are both hosting online webinars and workshops to help prospective homeschool parents. The LEARN Home Education Network has started test runs of some virtual co-op options, where people can offer book clubs, video games and other online experiences.
Campione-Barr said those virtual experiences, while not the same as in-person meet-ups, will help kids find the peer support they need.
Above all, homeschooling organizations stressed the need for parents considering homeschooling to reach out to their local homeschool communities.
“What you saw this spring was not homeschooling, even though your kids were home,” Jackson said. “Everyone was scrambling trying to figure things out. Homeschooling is a whole different world than what we saw in the spring.”
And if things don’t go perfectly at first, don’t sweat it. Mattingly said people thought they were doing something wrong if they couldn’t follow strict homeschooling schedules after schools went virtual, but in reality, flexibility in the beginning is key.
“Having grown kids, I want to convey that it’s all going to be ok…I think folks panic that if they do something wrong, there will be gaps in their education, and that it’s all going to fall apart,” Mattingly said. “But learning is not a discrete event, people can always learn.”
Emily Wolf is a Dow Jones summer intern at Kansas City PBS.