Homeschooling Vs Virtual Learning: Conversations, Observations & Data
Four months. “Is this how you would behave in school?”
Four months. “I’m going to send you back.”
Four months of home education, and Celeste Bremer is at the end of her rope with the tears and the daily fights.
When the pandemic closed life down, Rhode Island schools stayed open. No mass-exodus to Zoom, just a single choice. In person, or virtual?
The Bremers chose the latter, which proved to be difficult, and required notable hand-holding to get the children through.
Says Celeste, “I figured, if I’m going to have to spend time with all of that [virtual learning], I might as well do it at my own pace, on my own schedule.”
So, a new choice was made—and one letter of intent later the Bremers were homeschool approved. Which in itself, came with obstacles. Particularly, how to balance the role of mother with the brand-new role of teacher.
“On Monday,” Celeste tells her fourth grade daughter, “you’re going back to school.”
The threat only makes things worse.
The Homeschool Option
Since the pandemic took hold in 2020, school has become something of an experiment, leaving teachers, students, and parents alike, in the unfamiliar waters of distance learning. A survey by the United States Census Bureau says nearly 93% of households with school-age children started some form of distance learning due to COVID-19. Because of this, virtual learning is now something many students can relate to. But some families have turned to yet another option: homeschooling.
According to an article in The Atlantic from September 2020, “homeschooling organizations and consultants have faced a deluge of panicked parents frantic to find alternatives to regular school,” while other parents had been considering such a change since before the pandemic.
Homeschooling in general has become more popular in recent years. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says the percentage of homeschool families nearly doubled between 1999 and 2016. Cut to the pandemic, where a November 2020 Education Week poll shows that “nine percent of parents who weren’t home schooling their children last school year said they planned to home school their children at least some of the time this school year.” Whereas typically, “a little over three percent of the nation’s school-age children are home-schooled in a given year.”
A 2017 Business Insider article says homeschooling may be appealing to parents because it’s easier to tailor to children’s interests and development, and reduces exposure to the negative aspects of public school social spheres. “Bright spots [in public school] do come along, but often at a steep price—like the love of learning or the desire to pursue interests other kids deride as ‘weird.’” In addition, they say research suggests homeschooled children “tend to do better on standardized tests, stick around longer in college, and do better once they’re enrolled,” as compared to their public and private schooled peers.
During the pandemic, the main reasons behind the spike in homeschooling are a bit different. In a time where kids are at home anyway and classrooms are struggling to adjust to new formats, many parents see homeschooling as a less stressful alternative to virtual learning, or simply a change they have an unusual opportunity to test out.
Public schooling remains the most common practice in the U.S., but options like homeschooling are a welcome choice to many parents, especially ones who see their kids struggling with virtual learning.
Still, homeschooling—like any approach—has its dissenters. In 2020, Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, made waves with a paper in Arizona Law Review.
Bartholet writes that homeschooling is not constitutional, as she feels it gives parents too much control over their children, and can be used to deny them access to a “meaningful education.” She argues that with a child at home, there is too much opportunity for maltreatment or abuse, and feels homeschooling poses both academic and democratic concerns. Bartholet says many homeschoolers try to isolate their children from culture, and have the ability to teach sexist or racist views freely. In conclusion, she calls for a “presumptive ban,” where homeschooling would be off-limits unless a parent “demonstrates justification for permission to homeschool.” The regulations Bartholet wants would make it very difficult for many families to homeschool.
Responses to Bartholet’s paper note that with a child in public school, parents and teachers alike can still indoctrinate toxic values, and public school is not a cure-all for abusive situations.
Amber O’Neal Johnston, a Black homeschool mother and blogger, posted a video response saying, “I don’t know if Elizabeth Bartholet realizes that the public school system is not deemed a ‘safe place’ for Black children.” Johnston is concerned the paper could make people stand against homeschooling out of a belief that they’re being racially supportive. She describes the situation as being someone with a platform working to over-regulate homeschooling, making the argument that because there are some racist parents, all kids should go to public schools, where the education system would teach them to love Black people. “I think we kind of tried that before—a few times in America—and it didn’t work out very well for us,” she says.
Conversations around homeschool laws are not new. In fact, they date back to the beginning of the movement.
Some Homeschool History
In the 1970s, educational theorist John Holt advocated for home education, believing (as quoted in a 1981 article from Yankee Magazine) that “it’s a nutty notion that we can have a place [public school] where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.” He also worried that classrooms were designed to make children compliant employees. Holt’s method of education is now known as “unschooling,” and was a precursor to modern homeschooling (which rose as a movement in the late 1980s.)
According to an article by Donna M. Johnson in the Peabody Journal of Education, homeschooling was the norm until states began passing compulsory attendance laws for public schools. By 1918, all states had such laws. During the homeschool movement, when the public school system was being openly criticized and many families were returning to homeschooling, some states initiated court action against home education. But “in the face of this opposition,” writes Johnson, “secular and Christian home educators worked together throughout the 1980s to establish or regain the legal right to homeschool.” Still, Johnson notes that cooperation between homeschooling and local public schooling has existed throughout the movement. The initial battles over the legality of home education, she says, have ended. Despite occasional clashes from time to time, there is a general acceptance from public schools.
Homeschooling laws vary from state to state. Homeschool organizations such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, and local homeschool groups, make those requirements accessible online and can help parents navigate the transition.
In New York, parents give a notice of intent to the district superintendent, and each year submit an Individualized Home Instruction Plan. Parents must keep records of attendance, file a quarterly report, and have their child take a biyearly standardized test, starting in fourth grade (it is yearly for high school students).
In Rhode Island, parents must submit a notice of intent to their local school committee to gain approval. After that, they are required to provide instruction for the same number of days that public school students receive, teach the required subjects, submit a record of attendance at the end of the year and follow any local district requirements.
Distance Learning Isn’t New
Distance learning, like homeschooling, has a long history. According to an article by Kathleen Harting and Margaret J. Erthal from Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, it dates back to the 1700s. Originally called “correspondence learning,” it developed along with a reliable postal service. Instructors would mail lessons, students would complete them and send them back, and instructors would reply with feedback. One of the early pioneers was Anna Eliot Ticknor who, in the 1800s, created a “correspondence school” in Boston. She taught 24 subjects in 6 departments, instructing mostly young women who would otherwise have little access to such education. She, along with other early correspondence teachers, believed that education should be available for everyone, regardless of social class.
Around the 1870s, Harting and Erthal say universities joined the correspondence learning trend. They discuss how William Rainey Harper, who developed a correspondence program in New York in 1882, is often considered to be the “father” of modern correspondence education. That modern education grew to include textbooks, TV, radio, video tapes, home experiment kits and computer software as channels for learning. By the 1990s, with support from the federal government, distance learning initiatives were being created at the state level, and many universities were incorporating online programs. With the internet, distance learning eventually grew to include what we call “virtual learning.” According to the NCES, 90% of distance education courses in 2000-2001 (by degree-granting postsecondary institutions) offered asynchronous computer-based courses, while 43% offered synchronous courses.
During the pandemic, teachers have found themselves joining the virtual education ranks with little time to prepare. In many cases, this meant going temporarily asynchronous last year. Now it is often synchronous, continuing classes as usual, but presented over Zoom.
So What’s the Difference?
Where we stand today, what are the differences between the homeschool and virtual experience? Does one tend to be easier than the other for families? Are they equally effective? How do the structures and lifestyles compare? And for those who are sticking with the public school system: has the pandemic altered the way they view homeschooling?
When it comes to homeschooling, no two families teach the same way—and parents choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons. For Anne Wiedenheft, a homeschooling mother in Ossining, New York, the decision to homeschool was made long before she had kids.
After graduating college, Anne returned to school for a semester of student teaching, where she had to write a paper on one-room schoolhouses. “When I was doing the research, in the same journals there would always be articles about homeschooling—and I’d never heard of it before,” she says. “I think homeschooling is a lot like one-room schoolhouses, in terms of having multiple age groups together, and I was so fascinated by that idea.” She says the lifestyle, one where the family learns together, drew her in. “Sending your child away from you, it’s been so normalized,” she says. “But it really isn’t normal to send a 2 or 3-year-old away from parents who love them.”
When she became a first-grade teacher, Anne saw how creative her students were, and incorporated a lot of choice into the classroom. Even so, she says being there for six hours a day was exhausting to them. “I thought, this isn’t where they need to be,” she says. “I felt like I was jailing them.”
She says students who weren’t ready to read often felt dumb. “I thought, they shouldn’t feel like that just because they’re seeing other kids who are already reading,” she recalls. “They should be given another year to explore, where we can try again. But you don’t have that freedom in school, especially towards the end of when I was teaching, when so many standardized tests came out.”
Another reason Anne liked the idea was faith. She felt that through homeschooling, it would be easier to give her kids an understanding of God. By the time she had children, Anne had friends who homeschooled (though she says she feels no inherent connection/community with other homeschool parents) and had gathered resources, so she says getting started was fairly easy. Socially, it was simple too. “I didn’t get people asking if I was qualified to teach my kids, because I was a teacher for 10 years first.”
As a mother of four, Anne says the structure of her schooling has varied over time. “When the kids were little, it’s something we’d all do together,” she says. Usually, they would have a history period, and do activities and games. Then, she would break them out individually for reading and math. “But a lot of what we did, it was like a pack of puppies,” she laughs. “Then once they started hitting middle school years, we separated out a bit more.”
Homeschooling gave Anne’s children the space she had hoped, when it came to having time to grow. For a while, she says, her eldest struggled with writing. “In [public] school, that would have held him back,” she explains. At home, they were able to continue on with other studies, while practicing writing until it clicked.
Currently, Anne has two high schoolers and an elementary student at home, and her eldest is off at college. Those at home will watch CNN 10 together, a news program for kids, followed by Bible and prayer. After that, she switches back and forth with her youngest two, doing lessons with one while the other does independent work. She has a list of things to get done, but says it doesn’t have to be in a certain order.
Sarah Wiedenheft, 18, is the oldest child still at home. Unlike the younger two, her work is handled completely independently. She has some online classes, offered through Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, AIM Academy, Houghton College and Cedarville University. Aside from that, she learns from textbooks. “There are practice problems or activities that I do. I mostly do that myself,” says Sarah, “but my mom usually oversees it. If I’m having trouble, she’ll teach me what I need to know, or find other resources for me to learn.”
Sarah frequently does school in her room, but has often heard people say they couldn’t work that way. “The living room and my bedroom are where I hang out, but they’re also places I associate with doing school,” she explains. “If you haven’t grown up with that, I think it would be harder to concentrate,” she says. “I’m not sure there’s anything inherent about the environment; I think it’s about your associations with it, and your headspace when you’re in it. And I think that’s something you can change for yourself.”
A common question Sarah receives about homeschooling is “can you wear your PJs all day?” while another is “is it legal?” Aside from that, she gets asked “but what about prom?” Sarah laughs, “like yeah, that’s going to be my biggest worry.” Shrugging it off, she continues, “I think people see homeschoolers as really sheltered and kind of weird.”
Without hesitation, Sarah says she would homeschool her own kids one day. In combination with the freedom it brings, she says there’s a fun culture. “I feel like my homeschool friends and I have such a cool history,” she says. “The stuff we’ve done together is so fun, and I feel like that’s not there with my public school friends. Like, maybe there’s not as much room for imagination or messing around, because you don’t have enough time when you’re in school.”
Elaborating on homeschool culture, Sarah laughingly brings up the in-jokes her group shares. “There are funny things, like this stereotype of homeschool moms being into essential oils, and cooking everything homemade,” she says. “Or, I don’t know, the super sheltered homeschool kid, whose parents won’t let them do anything, or the homeschool kid who wants to be a public schooler,” she explains. “I just find it really funny.”
Usually, Sarah would see friends more often, through her co-op, youth group, or extracurriculars. However, during the pandemic those have been closed or severely limited.
A little ways over, in Peekskill, New York, Anya Steger began homeschooling as an experiment. The decision came when her elder daughter, Sophia, was attending Catholic school at the age of 8. “She was gradually more tired and less excited about learning,” says Anya. “She always wanted to play violin late at night, but I had to tell her to go to sleep, because she had to get up at six in the morning and there was no time.”
Anya had sent Sophia to Catholic school for her physical and mental health. She felt her daughter wouldn’t manage well at the local public school, being smaller and more sensitive than the kids there. “And she had asthma,” says Anya, “and had pneumonia every two months or something, so she missed a lot of school and had to catch up a lot.” In addition, she had airborne food allergies. So when Catholic school wasn’t working out, homeschooling seemed like an option to try.
After becoming homeschooled, Anya says Sophia became a really happy person. “She was learning for her own curiosity and pleasure, and it was just wonderful to see. And then she could practice [violin] in her own time,” says Anya. Sophia kept her passion for violin, practicing frequently, and attending Precollege—a K-12 education program—once a week at Manhattan School of Music (MSM). Now, she is a college senior at Julliard. Her younger sister, Helena Steger, 16, is still homeschooled.
As a Catholic school parent, Anya never felt like part of a community. But with homeschooling, she has met many interesting, open-minded people. It’s been nurturing, she says, for her and her children. Because their friends are supportive, it’s mostly strangers that have misconceptions.
“Larger society tends to think parents shelter their children from damage of popular culture, or install very strong religious beliefs,” she says. “People who don’t know us, and the way we live, think we must be intensely trying to keep our kids from something.” When encountering someone from far away, Anya usually makes a disclaimer. “The reason we homeschool,” she says, “is to give more freedom—and artistic freedom—to our kids.”
Schooling at the Steger household involves a lot of movement. Helena attends MSM Precollege, for flute, and is in the children’s chorus for opera at the Met. “Because of doing so much music, so much commuting to the city, we never had a set schedule,” says Anya. They never had times designated for certain subjects—because every day is different—but they have an idea of how many hours they want to cover for each subject. “Sometimes the homeschooling is a bit slower,” Anya explains, “when there are more trips or activities. But other times you can speed up and do more academics.”
Because of their fluid schedule, her girls got to sleep in more than public schoolers. “They follow their body clock,” she says. “If they stayed up late, they’ll start the next day later.” Helena says the first thing people ask her about homeschooling is always, “what time do you wake up?” Amused, she continues, “they also either think I’m super smart, or that I have some kind of disability, or that I’m very different.” Smiling, she says she doesn’t mind.
On a school day, Anya makes sure everyone knows what they’re doing, and will follow up if something isn’t getting done. She divides the teaching with her husband, who does math with Helena in the evenings, in addition to her math studies through Khan Academy (an online learning tool). Anya focuses on other subjects, such as languages and science.
Until the pandemic, the Stegers did much of their homeschooling outside the home. Life was the train, the city, and outside events. Now, they are feeling the toll of remaining in one place.
Back in Barrington, Rhode Island, the Bremers are still in their first year of homeschooling. Although it isn’t perfect, Celeste has figured things out with her fourth grader. There are no more daily battles. In fact, her daughter wants to remain homeschooled next year.
With so many resources available online, Celeste says the change to homeschooling wasn’t hard to organize, and that the requirements from the state weren’t difficult to meet. “I was surprised, when I decided to do it, how easy that decision was from a state perspective.”
Celeste is using the same curriculum that her kids’ school is following, since she says she might send them back after the pandemic. It’s still in the air. The curriculum was made available on the school’s website, and she doesn’t want them to go back having missed what their classmates have learned. But she’s used homeschooling as an opportunity to throw in some more variety. “We’re memorizing the times tables, which doesn’t really happen anymore,” she says. “And we started working on cursive, because they don’t teach that in school anymore.”
In the morning, every day but Wednesday, her sister-in-law’s kids come over and do work with Celeste’s children. They sit at the table, doing vocabulary games and reviews, poetry, or whatever is planned for that day. “It’s been helpful for my fourth grader,” she says, “because it feels like she has kind of a class.”
They begin work around 9:30 a.m. “It’s all the same things from school, but we’re able to move at a faster pace. They cover their basics, do 30 minutes of math, 30 minutes of science, 30 minutes of social studies, then some of their ELA stuff, and we’re done by 11:00 a.m.,” says Celeste. She is also thankful that they have a nanny, who sometimes works with the younger kids while Celeste teaches the older ones.
They will sometimes read books together, or watch documentaries. “I had them watch a PBS mini-series. And we subscribe to The Great Courses on Amazon—it’s a bunch of different topics taught by experts in different fields—so they watched a 10-part lecture series on the industrial revolution,” she says. “Which my son enjoyed. My daughter didn’t like it so much.”
Celeste finds it difficult to accomplish other tasks during the day when balancing homeschooling, but also sees its bright spots, saying it’s far easier to see where the gaps are. “Not just in their education,” she adds. “I’m spending more time with them, figuring out how to handle different situations. And figuring out what’s causing anxiety in some of my kids, and what their interests are a little bit more.”
Enter a New Perspective: Hong Kong Homeschooler
Celeste’s sister-in-law, Po Tim King, has been homeschooling for six years. She has four kids, whom she taught in Hong Kong—where she is originally from—before the family’s recent move back to the states. “When she was 4, my oldest went to a private kindergarten for a semester,” says King, “then we pulled her out.”
King’s husband suggested homeschooling, and at the time, King had never heard of it. But with her spouse’s encouragement, she went for it.
It helped that she had a passion for teaching, having taught Chinese classes in elementary schools in the U.S. “I missed teaching in the classroom,” she remembers, “and I thought, oh, teaching my own kids is not a big deal,” she laughs. She began researching, looking at blogs, figuring out what she needed to get started. “Then we loved it!” she says.
Navigating homeschooling in Hong Kong wasn’t always easy. According to King, homeschooling is very uncommon there. “My parents, my friends, they would hear about it and freak out like, ‘woah, why don’t they go to school?’ or ‘why do you trap your kids at home?’” In those cases, King would explain what she was doing and why. “I don’t need them to agree. That doesn’t matter. But like for my parents, I wanted them to know I’m not doing something to harm their grandkids, it’s just a different way to be educated.”
King found a Facebook group for homeschoolers, but with no car it was hard to take her kids on outings or to meetups. Most of the social time her kids had was with their grandparents or local children. She never felt like they didn’t have a social life, but she still struggled with the feeling that she should be doing more. King thinks it will be easier to homeschool in the U.S., but says it’s hard to tell during the pandemic, because it’s hard to meet people right now or join a co-op.
When her children were younger, King made a theme every month, using that to create lesson plans. But currently, King is experimenting with unschooling, an unstructured approach where learning follows the child’s interests. She says it’s easier, because she doesn’t stay up designing materials. She finds it fun to see her kids exploring what they want. “Yesterday, my 8-year-old suddenly wanted to make a gumball machine from scratch,” she says, amused. “This was not my plan, but okay, if she likes it. So she pulled all her resources—cutter, tape—and spent the entire afternoon making it.” Through the process, King saw her daughter make discoveries. “The cardboard was pretty thick, hard for a little girl. So she was learning how to use a ruler, measure to make a perfect square, and cut it.”
If she ever gets the opportunity, King thinks it could be fun to try worldschooling, a type of unschool on the go, where learning occurs through travel and experiencing culture. Maybe just for a year, around the U.S., she says. She’s heard about it, and it sounds enjoyable.
Even though she’s no longer using a curriculum, King still designs language-learning activities. She started making her own materials for learning Chinese, because that was hard to come by, unlike English-learning tools which were prevalent on the web. It was important to King to have both, because she wanted to provide a bilingual education. “As a homeschooler, I do not want to buy a textbook exactly the same as what kids [in Hong Kong] have at school,” she says. “The level is just not appropriate with little kids. It’s too much, too hard,” she explains. “I needed to find something simple enough, and I wanted an element of interactiveness. In China, we sit and listen. I don’t want to do lectures.” King started a blog, Fortune Cookie Mom, where she writes about teaching Chinese, and shares her teaching tools with parents around the world.
Bottomline Benefits of Homeschooling + Some Challenges
When it comes to the pros and cons of homeschooling, all of these parents and students highlight flexibility as a key benefit.
“Last year, when I was in middle school, I felt like I had no time to do other stuff,” says Hero Bremer, 13. These days, after schoolwork, she often draws, reads, or writes. “And I’m learning how to play guitar now,” she adds. Hero says it’s become easier to learn skills she wants to in her own time, since she’s less tired than she was in public school. “I feel like I can relax more.”
King points to rest as an upside, too, especially compared to Hong Kong, where she says students often do homework until midnight then wake up at six. She also mentions that homeschooling has more opportunity for interacting with diverse age groups. “I don’t agree that kids should be put in the same class with the same age,” she says. “Elderly to babies, mix it around and learn from each other.”
Family time is touched upon by multiple households, including the Wiedenhefts. “I think there’s a quality of possibility with relationships—and relationships between siblings—because you spend so much time together and know each other so well,” says Anne. “Of course, that has a con to it—there’s a time you need to let go, so I think you have to be more proactive than other parents in some ways. It can be easy to shelter too much, too long.”
Sarah says the biggest loss for her is access to sports. In New York, homeschoolers need their own leagues, but there aren’t any in a close enough proximity to her. Her mom points out another disadvantage, based on the logistics of their area. “It’s hard for kids to get together with their friends unless their mothers can drive them,” says Anne. “So, I think the moms stay involved in the social life longer than they would ordinarily. There are positives in that, but the negative is if a social group isn’t working, you’re stuck in a way that you wouldn’t be in a school with 400 kids in your grade.”
It’s Anya Steger who discusses the issue of money. “I think to be successful at this, one parent has to just not work,” she says, since students need someone who can be available to them. She adds that this was a big compromise for her family. “It’s always stressed, ‘we can’t afford this’ or ‘something didn’t get paid,’ or ‘ are they going to cut our electricity off or something?’” She describes their decision as an acrobatic, risky move. “That was the choice. A more intellectually and artistically interesting life, but always barely managing,” she explains. Still, she feels that the benefit to them outweighs the struggles.
For those unsure how to approach homeschooling, Anne describes it as a paradigm shift. “It’s not the same as public schooling,” she says. “Almost 100% of the things I used regularly as a teacher, that I excitedly brought into my homeschool thinking they would work, did not work at all.” Anne continues, “if you’re trying to, for every one of your children, recreate what a classroom looks like: it’s not going to work.”
Anya addresses the relationship between parent and child. “You have to be very careful to give your children an incredible amount of freedom and respect, so the relationship doesn’t follow some kind of power struggle,” she says, “some parents tell me, ‘I could never teach my kid, because we would argue all the time.’ But I think,” she continues, “if you’re tactful, and give enormous respect and flexibility with learning patterns, and differences of opinion, it’s an incredibly beautiful, friendly process. You have to make sure there is mutual respect.”
What King says to keep in mind is that you don’t have to do everything. “You can feel overwhelmed and forget the purpose of educating your kid when you try making it perfect,” she says.
Anne reflects, “I think what I imagined homeschooling to be, took years to come. It’s messy, and it doesn’t look like your idealized view. I think,” she adds, “it was like two years ago—finally, after 13-14 years of homeschooling—when I thought ‘this is it! This is how I thought it would look.’”
Virtual Learning World: The Good, the Bad & the Unexpected
At Esek Hopkins Middle School, in Providence, Rhode Island, principal Timothy Milisauskas is running a school in a way that he never thought it would look. Currently, 281 students are in person, 223 students are virtual, and 10% of them are excessively absent—having missed about half of their classes.
Milisauskas says for each student that went virtual, the transition depended not just on the child, but on their home and family. A lot of kids at his school come from low socio-economic situations. Overall, it’s the kids with a higher economic status who tended to transition easier, having more support in the home.
According to Joy Cervone, an English teacher at the school, that can be for a variety of reasons. “Sometimes the students are babysitting younger brothers or sisters, even cousins,” she says. “There’s a lot on their plate. They might be 14, but sometimes they’re the ‘adult’.” In addition, access to stable Wi-Fi has proved to be an issue, not to mention food insecurity. And Milisauskas says even before the pandemic, some kids would miss school because of family.
In terms of distance learning, students have adapted differently. “Some are doing better, a small percentage,” says Milisauskas. “A lot of kids are doing the same, and there’s a bigger or equal percentage who are not doing well.” Many of their parents, he says, are essential workers, so a lot of students are alone. He says a lot of it also comes down to working habits—that usually, middle schoolers don’t have to coordinate as much, which means they are now adapting to a new kind of responsibility. Still, for a few students—especially those with anxiety—being on their own has been helpful in certain ways, as has the freedom to self-structure.
One student, Cervone says, would never show up to class. “She would get Fs. But once distance learning kicked in, she was an A student,” she says. “She had difficulty sleeping, so she was really up all night, and sleeping during the day. With distance learning, she was able to complete her assignments without ever having to attend Zoom.”
For those who do attend classes on Zoom, Cervone finds virtual teaching harder than face-to-face. “Teachers, we use a lot of cues from body language,” she says. This is hard since on Zoom, many students keep their cameras off. She tried using verbal check-ins, and when that was a dead end, turned to the ‘thumbs-up’ button, which has helped gauge how students are tracking the lesson.
On the national scale, according to a survey by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), students between third and eighth grade showed a similar reading performance in fall 2020 to same-grade students from fall 2019, but math was more impacted by the pandemic, with students scoring 5-10 percentile points lower than before.
Rather than academics, Milisauskas says the biggest issue is socio-emotional. His own daughter is currently learning virtually, at another school. He says she has Tourette’s Syndrome, anxiety, OCD and ADHD. “She had a lot of anxiety around school, so she was loving being home,” he says. “She could do what she wanted, and she actually caught up a little bit.” That said, isolation still has its hardships. “She’s really missing the other kids right now,” he explains. “The other day she said to me, ‘I’m lonely, dad. I want to go to school just because I’m lonely.’”
In Albany, New York, Ezra Savage, 14, attends Guilderland High School. The first word he can think of to describe virtual learning is “unstable.” He says that’s because of Wi-Fi, since weather can easily knock out the electricity. In addition, he says, “it’s a lot harder to focus at home, because your mindset is ‘I’m at home,’” whereas, “at school, it’s more like, ‘okay, I need to focus now.’”
One of the best parts of virtual learning, to Ezra, is the limited requirement for social interaction. Because of this, he says he would enjoy being able to stay virtual, even after schools fully reopen. Plus, he says, that way he can eat whenever he’s hungry, and doesn’t have to ride the bus. “At school, I don’t really eat anything, so that’s pretty annoying,” he says, explaining that this is because he’s uncomfortable eating in front of others. Ezra also feels a virtual platform makes it easier to stay organized, because there’s less papers floating around. But, he notes that in person, it’s easier to get help. “People realize when you’re struggling,” he says. “But online, you’re just kind of sitting there.”
Ezra’s mom, Sandra Savage, says she can’t wait for regular school. With five kids (three with special needs), she has a lot to coordinate. Last year, their distance learning started out asynchronous. “With Ezra, I was overly involved,” she says. “I did all the teaching, sitting next to him, reading everything, helping him with everything.” In the spring, she had a big whiteboard to figure out her kid’s schedules and make sure they got their work done.
Sandra likes how this experience has given her an inside view of what her children are capable of, and how they think. “That’s the positive part… but I also feel like there’s too much on me,” she says. “I feel the responsibility if they’re not doing well, like I should be doing more or should’ve done it differently.” Sometimes she’ll text other parents to ask if their kids are struggling with similar topics as her own. That’s the extent of the school community for Sandra, who says she never felt like a part of it, even before the pandemic.
Sandra says in terms of homeschooling, she never felt like she’d be cut out for it. “Maybe, if situational things had worked out,” she says. “There’s so much freedom to figure out what your child is interested in.” Ezra says he feels like homeschooling would be easier than virtual or public school.
With virtual learning, Sandra says they weren’t able to maintain a level that was working for Ezra. “They [the school] really wanted him to come back every other day,” she explains, “so he did.” Right now, he’s learning hybrid; days at home interspersed with days at school.
In Illinois, Rebecca Runyan, a 15-year-old student at Lakes Community High School, finds virtual school easier to stay on top of than in-person. “I think it’s easier for me,” she says, “because it’s a more comfortable environment. I’d rather be alone in my room than surrounded by a bunch of people.” She says it’s not something she would do again, but that virtual learning is doable. “Yeah, [virtual] would make it easier, but I would rather have the high school experiences,” she says. “It would be hard not seeing my friends every day.”
Able to wake up and get ready half an hour before school, Rebecca’s mornings start with a series of four 40-minute periods. Then there’s a lunch break, and three more periods. According to Rebecca, what she’ll miss about virtual school is that it gives her more time to go outside, and the freedom to eat whenever she’s hungry.
Tania Runyan, Rebecca’s mother, says her kids mostly stay in their rooms while they’re working, unless Rebecca comes downstairs for lunch or to do a virtual chemistry lab. Tania likes the little moments of seeing each other in the middle of the day, even if it’s just being in the kitchen for a couple minutes. “You have those opportunities to connect that were never there before in the middle of a weekday,” she says.
Tania has three kids. Although the younger ones are doing well with virtual learning, having chosen to stick with it despite an option to go hybrid, her eldest struggled. “She fell really, really behind,” says Tania. “She ended up withdrawing from school completely, and she’s going to get her GED.”
For Tania, the pros of distance learning are the comfort levels. Not having to worry about her kids’ transportation or packing a lunch. “All those little, daily life things that don’t seem like a big deal, until you remove them and it feels like a sigh of relief.” Also, her children are more well-rested.
As someone who works from home, Tania says there are also challenges with remote learning. “I’m used to having a lot of solitude,” she says. “If I have an appointment [now] where I feel like I need privacy, I’ll go to the park and sit in my car, because there’s always someone home.” Another example is with music. “Playing the fiddle is really disturbing in the middle of the day, for kids who are online trying to learn,” she says. “But I’ve been doing that for years! So I have to think a little bit more. I can’t just do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it.”
Years ago, Tania says there was a time she seriously considered homeschooling her youngest, who has ADHD, because she didn’t know if the school could meet his needs. However, she says he’s gotten the swing of things, and his teachers understand how best to work with him. “I think he and I would drive each other crazy if I were the one responsible for all that,” she says.
For parents who are able to homeschool, Rebecca thinks home education would be a good thing. “Maybe up until, like, elementary school,” she says. “Or like, finish elementary school and then have middle and high school in person,” she suggests. “Just for the experiences.”
Tania has known homeschoolers, and worked with a lot of homeschool students. “An assumption I’ve seen people struggle with is that all homeschool families are like these fundamentalist Christian families trying to shelter their kids,” she says. “That definitely does happen, I’ve seen it, but it’s wrong to assume that’s what all homeschoolers do. I’ve seen people homeschool because they didn’t think their public school was progressive enough.”
Either way, she feels like one struggle parents can face is having a false sense of control. “That kind of goes with parenting in general,” she adds. “I think for people starting out with homeschooling, there’s sometimes an assumption that you can control your child’s fate more than you actually can.” Tania says she’s seen homeschoolers who have gone to great universities and gotten great lives, while others went in directions their parents never dreamed of for them. “They put all this time and energy and heart into creating a learning environment that they thought would keep them safe from some of the dangers out there,” she says, “and those kids still made the mistakes they were most afraid of. Kids are gonna be who they’re gonna be—I’ve learned that a lot, lately.”
When the pandemic first started, Tania didn’t like the way parents talked about virtual learning. “People were saying things like, ‘oh, now we’re all homeschooling,’” she recalls. “It’s like, ‘no?’ There’s a difference between doing school at home and homeschooling.” What bothered Tania about those statements was the implications. “I felt like it was insulting to both school teachers and homeschoolers alike,” she explains. “It was basically saying, well homeschooling is just being at home, like no one actually has to teach you. Then it also assumed that teachers weren’t still doing their jobs.”
Tania says her husband is a teacher. “Watching him try to figure out how to teach during the pandemic… it took more time.”
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hadley Feyen, 14, is an eighth grader at Tappan Middle School. Her virtual classes meet every day except Wednesday, when work is asynchronous. She has three Zoom classes a day, and an advisory in the mornings. The classes, she says, are 90-minute blocks, with a break between the second and third. Occasionally, her teachers will let her out early, since the classes are longer than they were in person.
Because she has to sit for so long, Hadley asked for a yoga ball for Christmas. Now, she uses it instead of a desk chair, and finds it to be an improvement.
From her seat on the yoga ball in her room, Hadley can people-watch out the window, surveying the golf course next door.
In class, Hadley says she’s started paying attention in new ways. “I’m learning the difference between how the teachers are teaching me,” she says. “Their different strategies that I didn’t notice until now.” She says part of it might be because she’s growing a lot during the pandemic experience. “It’s kind of helping me see which classes I enjoy more.”
Some parts of school, Hadley says, are harder. “I’m in band. We’ve never been able to play together,” she explains. Other classes, like algebra, are affected less.
As an extrovert, Hadley looks forward to returning to school, once she’s sure it’s completely safe. In virtual class, she says no one turns their cameras on, and she can’t interact with her friends. “In school, I would sit next to them, and we would be able to understand the lesson together,” she recalls. “Now, I’ll text my friend and maybe I’ll get a response before the end of class.” If no one replies, she says there’s a high risk of having to stay after class for help.
Hadley says she’s had homeschool friends before. “They were socially different from me and my other friends. It wasn’t a problem or anything, but they just didn’t get the same experiences that I did.”
With more time for personal endeavors, Hadley has started reading more. “I merged into young adult rather than upper-level children’s books,” she says, “and I started to do more creative things, because I’m not able to be on my phone and computer all day. That’s just not fun or healthy.” Hadley says her whole family is changing, she thinks for the better.
“My sister just started middle school,” she says, “and I’m going into high school now. We’re all sort of adjusting, and it’s something that we get to do together. We all understand that we’re going through it, and we’re finding ways to relate.”
Hadley’s mom, Callie Feyen, says she wants her daughters—who are very independent—to have experiences of school and working with other people. She says having that taken away is difficult. “I think that education, at least from my perspective, is a very communal thing.”
Callie, who used to be a teacher, sees some positives in virtual learning. “For the child who is more comfortable standing up or needs to walk around, this is the way to do it,” she says. She feels like the current situation is one that we can learn from. “I can see a situation where they decide school is best where they’re learning communally in the morning, then go home and work in a more study-hall situation,” she says, adding that there’s something to be said for doing work on your own.
“I love asynchronous days,” she says. “Tuesdays the girls stay up later because they know they can, and Wednesdays they have independent study time. I would love to see it be more exploratory, where they get to write fiction or poetry and that sort of thing.”
It saddens Callie that her youngest couldn’t have a fifth-grade graduation, and that the eighth graders won’t be having a ceremony either, at least in person. Some school trips, along with Hadley’s after-school soccer, have also been canceled or limited. The school district used to have a tight community with many events, and she misses that. But despite the circumstances, Callie says her kids are doing okay in school.
All Together Now
When thinking about the many approaches to education, Callie says “I have mad respect for anyone who does homeschooling.” She says there are days when she’s thought of cool projects to do with her girls, but that she would never consider homeschooling them because it’s not what her family needs. Specifically, she needs separation between mother and teacher. “It has made me think though,” she says, “what the end of education is. What the point of education is. Is it a service? Or an offering?”
Recently, Callie heard of a first-grade teacher telling her class that if they were late to the computer or to school, they couldn’t be let in. “That teacher was clearly stressed out. Everybody is teaching scared,” she says, “but to tell that to a 6 or 7-year-old is pretty detrimental. It makes me think the pandemic is sort of exposing what has been underlying. That education, I think, has become about the right answer.”
Callie says homeschooling is not a catch-all answer—and is not accessible to everyone—but it leaves more room for exploring and mistake making. “Whereas, these days, it’s more about how to take a test. How to get what you want. It’s not so much about how to think, or how to assess anything—including yourself.” According to Callie, that’s partly why she had a hard time teaching. “It’s probably why I walked away in the first place.”
When it comes to education, Callie feels there are always questions, assumptions, and unknowns. “If I was in private school, the private school kids had stereotypes about public schools,” she recalls. “And if I was in public schools, the public-school kids had stereotypes about private schools. And homeschool was always swirling around in that. Maybe there was some truth to it all, maybe there wasn’t,” she says. “But until you experience something,” she says, “you don’t really have a full understanding of what it’s all about.”
“Operating within the constraint of 10 minutes, these plays convey a sense of urgency. And Barkat succinctly utilizes a few characters and simple narratives to tell very powerful stories. I’d like to see what each would look like when produced for the stage.”
—Glynn Young, Amazon reviewer