Education

As schools announce reopening plans, many parents opt to homeschool 

Hannah Allen and her 6-year-old daughter Luzsa at home in Craftsbury on Friday. Allen has decided to homeschool Luzsa this year. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont districts have begun announcing tentative plans for restarting preK-12 schooling during the pandemic. Most have settled on some form of hybrid approach, with children in the classroom or learning from home on alternating days. 

But for many parents, that’s either too much in-person school – or too little. And that’s led to a surge in applications to homeschool.

“We're straight out just trying to keep up with the message boards, the various Facebook pages,” said Retta Dunlap, the founder of the Vermont Home Education Network, a homeschooling advocacy organization.

According to the Agency of Education, 1,634 families filed paperwork with the state by July 15 to enroll in homeschooling for the upcoming year. That’s a significant increase over from last year, when only 932 enrollments had been received by that date. Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the agency, cautioned last week that the final numbers would likely change.

“This is a snapshot in time – applications are still coming in. The home study team says September 1 is a more accurate cut date,” Fisher wrote. The state accepts homeschool enrollments on a rolling basis.

Krysta Santopolo, a Newport mother with a preschooler and a first grader, said she initially decided to pull her two children from the local elementary school when her district said they wouldn’t be offering a remote-only alternative. 

“I know there are some people who don’t have the option. They don’t have daycare, they’re single parents, and they just cannot,” she said. “But it’s an option for us.”

Santopolo said she was particularly concerned about communications from the district that implied they couldn’t guarantee staff and students would be 6 feet apart at all times. And she reasons that with her children out of the building, at least it’ll be that much easier for those still in the classroom to social distance.

But in a follow-up interview, Santopolo said her family worried about ensuring her children got enough socialization if they were completely cut off from school. And she said she wasn’t sure if they would ultimately follow through.

“We’re just trying to do what’s best for our kids, and what’s right,” she said. “It’s turning out to be a very difficult decision.” 

Public schools sometimes allow homeschool students to participate in extracurricular activities, but during the pandemic afterschool programs will likely be curtailed.

Families who homeschool are no longer entitled to special education services, but they can still participate in some classes at their local public schools, so long as 3/5 of their core courses are delivered through their home study program.

The rise in homeschooling amid the pandemic is a national trend. And so-called “pandemic pods,” where small groups of families agree to educate their children together, and in some cases pool resources to hire private tutors, have popped up across the country.

But homeschooling is not an option for many working parents, and the phenomenon has exacerbated inequalities in the country’s education system. For $125,000 a year, Hudson Lab School, a Hastings, New York-based company will match a pod of families with a private teacher, help them complete homeschool paperwork, and develop a social contract that the group’s members agree to adhere to.   

Pandemic “pods” of more than three families probably aren’t allowed under existing Vermont law, Dunlap said, unless families go through the trouble of actually establishing a private school. But homeschooling co-ops, as such pods are called in non-pandemic times, have long existed under the radar, Dunlap said, and likely will continue to do so.

“It absolutely does. I just tell them, please just don't tell me,” Dunlap said. 

Dunlap insists that homeschooling is not just for the well-to-do. And Hannah Allen, of Craftsbury, is a case in point. The single mother plans to keep her first grade daughter home next year, while juggling school at Sterling College and working nights as a waitress. 

“I am worried that I’ll have to put my education and therefore career on hold in order to show up for my children in a way they need me,” she said. 

Allen said she finally decided to homeschool after Gov. Phil Scott announced he would push back the start of the school year a week to Sept. 8. She said she was worried about her daughter dealing with a succession of upheavals, and was nervous the school year was shaping up to be an uncertain proposition. School leaders have raised concerns they will not be able to staff in-person instruction. And districts have issued a patchwork of reopening plans.

“It seems like a mess. It is a mess. Understandably – without blame on anybody. It’s just a mess,” Allen said.

Absent a change by lawmakers in the state’s funding formula, a surge in homeschooling will also have implications for school finances. When headcounts drop in a school district, that puts upward pressure on property taxes.

Because the vast majority of preK-12 budgets were set in March on Town Meeting Day, Vermont schools have avoided the immediate financial fallout from the pandemic that schools are seeing in other states. But with the coronavirus economic impact expected to last well into the next fiscal year, education officials are bracing themselves for an extraordinarily difficult budget season this winter.

Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, flagged sharp fluctuations in enrollment as a concern for legislators on Thursday, and asked them to consider changing the state’s education funding formula so that schools are not hit with a “double-whammy” of plummeting enrollments and Covid-related expenses.

Allen said the local funding issue was something she struggled with as she was weighing whether to take her daughter out of school. She called herself a “crisis homeschooler,” and stressed she believes strongly in public education.

“I think our schools are already underfunded, and I really don’t want to see that get worse. So that kept me holding on for a long time,” she said. “And then finally I just was like ‘I can’t. I have to make the right decision for my daughter right now.’” 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that homeschooled students don't have access to public school classes. In fact, 3/5 of their courses must be delivered at home.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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