Three years ago, Maxine Blin loved going off to second grade at the Carlisle Public School every day, eager to sit down amidst her classmates and interact with her teacher.
But when the pandemic closed schools nationwide in March of 2020, Maxine couldn’t get on board with Zoom schooling.
“It wasn’t the school’s fault at all,” said her mother, Margot Morse. “The teachers bent over backwards to make it work. But Maxine would crawl under the table and refuse to show her face on the screen.”
Morse had long been curious about homeschooling, and with a toddler and a 4-year-old, the family made a decision when their school reopened the following fall. Maxine would stay at home.
She was in good company: approximately 17,000 other children throughout Massachusetts registered with their local school systems as homeschoolers in the 2020-21 school year, according to numbers published annually by the Massachusetts Department of Education, which is more than twice the number in 2019-20.
That figure dropped to just over 13,000 in 2021-22, still substantially higher than pre-pandemic.
“The education disruption brought about by school closures and other COVID policies led a lot of families to investigate other education options,” said Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and author of “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.” “There were families who had already been thinking about homeschooling but never had the catalyst to give it a try. The school shutdowns of 2020 gave them that nudge to experiment. Other families had safety concerns when schools reopened. They wanted something that felt more controllable.”
In many cases, families who started homeschooling as a result of the pandemic envisioned it as a short-term measure. But two years later, with public schools across the state fully up and running, some students haven’t returned as planned. The ongoing threat of infection is a deterrent to ending their homeschooling experiment, and indeed, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported a rise of nearly 60 percent in COVID cases among 10- to 19-year-olds during the third week of September.
Other families discovered they preferred the flexibility and adaptability of homeschooling. For Morse and her husband, Guillaume Blin, it meant they could take their three children to visit relatives in France last month.
“We’re kind of year-round homeschoolers,” Morse said. “So if we want to go to France for a month in the fall, we call it French immersion. Each of the kids chose a favorite French historical figure to learn more about” — Joan of Arc for Maxine, Cezanne for Tristan, who is 6, and Coco Chanel for 3-year-old Astrid.
The Albecks of Canton, for whom homeschooling technically began before the pandemic, are another family who never expected to go on for more than a year.
When Smaranda Albeck arranged to take a sabbatical from running her gymnastics school in the fall of 2019, the plan was to pull her son Henry from second grade for nine months of world travel before he returned to a traditional classroom setting.
Between October of 2019 and February of 2020, the Albecks visited Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Madagascar, Dubai, and India. In each country, they spent time as volunteers at local schools, meeting children and helping them with their lessons.
When word of the burgeoning pandemic diverted their plans to go to Southeast Asia, they headed instead to New Zealand, where — after a nine-week lockdown in a rented cottage — they then had another three months to explore the rest of the country. Henry, who turned 8 that year, developed a host of new interests, from military history to botany. By the time they returned to Canton, he and his parents were sold on the idea of homeschooling.
The US Census Bureau published figures showing that nationwide, the percentage of households with children being homeschooled rose from 5.4 percent during the 2019-20 school year to 11 percent in 2020-21.
Although he concurs that numbers rose dramatically with the onset of the pandemic, William Heuer, director of the Massachusetts Home Learning Association — an advocacy group dedicated to helping families navigate the state’s requirements for homeschooling — believes reliable data about how many children are being homeschooled at any one time is difficult to pin down.
“Our opinion is any statistics you read have to be taken with a grain of salt,” he said. “It always comes back to the question of how you define it. If you homeschool for part of the year, does that count? If one kid in the family is homeschooled and the other isn’t, are you a homeschooling family?”
Virtual learning didn’t work for a child from Maynard, either.
“I had always wanted to try homeschooling,” said Emily Schadler, “but my daughter really wanted to go to kindergarten. I wasn’t going to prevent her from it, especially after she was admitted to our school system’s Spanish immersion program.” However, when schools went online, the deficiencies of virtual classes essentially canceled out the benefits of immersion language learning, and Schadler and her husband, Scott Greenaway, decided to keep their daughter, the eldest of their three children, home for first grade.
“We did a lot of outdoor activities that first year,” Schadler recalled. She and her husband learned about the “1000 Hours Outside” challenge, a curriculum designed to promote outdoor learning, which led to encounters with other local homeschoolers.
“I’m a naturalist by training and my husband is an art teacher, so we feel like this is our jam,” Schadler said. “Now none of our kids want to go back to regular school.”
With the COVID threat having lessened, Schadler said, her children attend programs at museums and other indoor facilities in addition to learning at home. “It feels like a whole different scene in homeschooling now than it did when we started,” she said.
Indeed, circumstances are quite a bit different now than when many families first became homeschoolers. While some parents, like Schadler and Albeck, expect to continue indefinitely with their home-based program, others were happy to return to a more conventional situation. For the 2021-22 school year, the number of registered homeschoolers in Massachusetts dropped to just over 13,000.
When Jamie Panarello and her partner decided to keep their daughter Harper home from the Marblehead schools for two years, they worried far less about Harper’s academic progress than about her social development. “She’s an only child, and so her peers are like brothers and sisters to her,” Panarello said. But both mother and daughter suffer from asthma, and the risk of contracting COVID seemed too high, especially before vaccinations were available to children.
Paradoxically, Panarello’s perspective changed after all three family members underwent a bout of COVID last June. “It made me somehow feel more comfortable about the upcoming school year,” she said. “We got through it OK, and at that point I recognized that we couldn’t hide forever and maybe it was time for us to go back to living a normal life. We missed our friends and family. We missed our usual schedule.”
Harper returned to Brown Elementary School in Marblehead this fall to start third grade.
Morse, the Carlisle mom whose eldest child began homeschooling in 2020, said that no decision about homeschooling need be final, nor should a single decision be applied to all three of her children. This year, the older two are learning at home while the youngest goes off to preschool a few days a week.
“We’ll take it one year at a time,” she said. “It’s not like you have to declare that you’re a homeschooling family or you’re not. COVID has given a lot of people, myself included, the excuse to explore an alternate path that I might not have been brave enough to explore otherwise.
“Maxine was thriving in traditional schooling before the pandemic, and I predict someday she’ll return to it. Maybe in high school; maybe in middle school; maybe next month. My 6-year-old told his grandmother that he’ll homeschool until he can go to a university with an excellent robotics program, but when he’s 14 he may be desperate to get away from us. Or maybe that will happen when he’s 7. Or maybe I’ll be the one who’s ready for everyone to go back to school.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boosted by the pandemic
When Governor Charlie Baker first ordered public and private schools closed in March 2020, parents started looking for alternatives.
- About 17,000 children throughout Massachusetts registered with their local school systems as homeschoolers for the 2020-21 school year, more than twice the number in 2019-20.
- Nationwide, the percentage of households with children being homeschooled rose from 5.4 percent during the 2019-20 school year to 11 percent in 2020-21.
- In Massachusetts, the percentage jumped from 1.5 percent to 12.1 percent while many other states did not show a significant change.
SOURCES: Massachusetts Department of Education, Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey