When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in mid-March, millions of parents found themselves suddenly thrust into a dual role of parent and teacher. Although longtime homeschoolers are quick to note that last spring’s e-learning ventures were a mere facsimile of the true homeschooling experience, it gave first-timers a tiny taste of what life might be like in the absence of public school. While some parents are hoping and praying that school returns to its normal schedule come September, others have taken the decision into their own hands, deciding to flip the switch and homeschool full-time for the 2020–2021 school year.
One of those parents is Sarah Smith Cruz of Crofton, who as of late June, was “90 percent” sure that she would withdraw her 6-year-old son, Lucas, a rising first grader, to teach him at home. Her reasoning is two-fold: First, there’s the safety aspect. “I am absolutely positive that our district will do everything they can to make it safe for the kids, but at the end of the days, they’re still kids,” she says. “Monitoring children or asking them to self-monitor at that age and keep themselves constantly 6 feet apart, not to touch their face or even to keep their mask on is asking a lot.”
Second, Lucas didn’t thrive with spring’s e-learning requirements. “He had such a joy for learning. We were losing that,” Cruz recalls. She notes that she doesn’t plan to homeschool Lucas forever—this would be a “bridge-gap” to make it through the current pandemic, and Lucas would return to public school for second grade.
Whether the plan is to homeschool for one year or 12, the big picture of home instruction can be overwhelming for a first-timer. When Cruz saw other moms sharing a similar thought process in a local Facebook group, she took the initiative to create a separate group on the social media channel as a way to start immersing themselves in home instruction. With both new and veteran homeschoolers in the group, the conversation, Cruz says, has already been “tremendously helpful.”
The First Steps
Glen Burnie resident Ashley Gilbert began homeschooling her son, Jeremiah, a rising seventh grader, after they moved from Colorado to Maryland and she found herself displeased with the way his school was set up. Gilbert looked at the curriculum, hemming and hawing over whether she wanted to give homeschooling a try. Her hesitation was knowing that the weight of her child’s education would rest on her shoulders. “It’s one thing to say the school is not doing enough,” Gilbert muses. “But when it’s all on me, that’s a lot of pressure.” Eventually, just weeks before school was due to start, she made the decision to pull Jeremiah out.
According to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDOE), the first task a parent or guardian must complete to start homeschooling is to simply sign a statement from the DOE consenting to home instruction requirements and submit it to the county superintendent at least 15 days before beginning. Although the state does not provide a required curriculum, all home instruction must include education in English, math, science, social studies, art, music, health, and physical education.
Beyond that, parents have freedom in deciding how to best school their children. “I’m starting to recognize that just like people mention that there are different parenting styles, apparently there are homeschooling styles,” Cruz notes. For example, there’s traditional homeschooling, which is similar to what you would do in a public school, Gilbert says, while there’s another form called “unschooling,” which she describes as “child-led,” incorporating lessons based on the student’s interests.
It behooves a first-time homeschooling parent to talk to others about how they structure their child’s education, recommends Beth Wilson of Bowie, who has homeschooled each of her four children for different lengths of time over the past 10 years. “Carve out some time to meet with them,” Wilson advises. “What resources do they use? How did they get involved? What are the positives? What are the struggles? Just have that conversation.”
Additionally, if both parents work full-time, there should be a discussion among the adults as to how home instruction will fit into busy schedules. Although Wilson was a stay-at-home mom when she first started homeschooling her children, she eventually went back to school for a nursing degree and now works part-time. Working while educating at home is a challenge, especially with younger students who need supervision to stay on task—but it’s not impossible, particularly with the support of family and friends.
“If you want to homeschool your kids, it’s a priority,” Wilson comments. “You are obligated legally to school them, and you don’t want to do them a disservice. . . . It does require changes in the family dynamic; it does require adjusting schedules. Those conversations do need to happen.”
Keeping in Compliance
Even though there’s flexibility for parents to decide how their children learn the required subjects, the state is not entirely hands-off in the process. When a parent first makes the decision to homeschool, Wilson urges them to acquire a copy of the COMAR, the state’s regulation code. “I tell anybody who asks that you need to get a copy of the COMAR, so you understand what is being required of you by the state,” she says.
Additionally, either the county or an approved entity known as an “umbrella,” which is often a church, synagogue or community group, checks in with all homeschooling families at least once a year to ensure adherence to state regulations. It’s a parent’s choice as to which organization reviews them. “Some counties have better reputations for reviewing than other counties, so it just depends as to which county you’re in as to which preference you have,” Wilson says, adding that you can change from the county to an umbrella—or vice versa—at any time.
Setting Up For Success
Once the legal aspects for home education are understood, a parent needs to research what style will work for their family. Homeschooling often thrives on frequent field trips or joining groups known as “co-ops,” both of which may or may not be possible for the upcoming school year, given the pandemic.
A co-op refers to a group of parents who come together to provide instruction for all the children on certain subjects or day, or by collectively hiring a tutor. Wilson notes that over the past 10 years of homeschooling, her family has been involved with one to two co-ops per year, fluctuating on what her children needed. “When you’re part of a homeschooling group, your kids have friends that they can spend time with,” she remarks. “You’re also sharing some of the workload of doing all the classes.”
However, it’s important to note that while a co-op can supplement home instruction, it cannot provide regular daily instruction to an organized group of students who are not in the same family—this, according to the MSDOE, equates to an unapproved nonpublic school.
Above everything else, new homeschooling parents should give themselves a break, Gilbert says, especially if the country’s collective health situation leads to continued or renewed closures and quarantines.
Last spring was tough on everybody, she says, even veteran homeschoolers, who are used to having a bevy of in-person opportunities for socialization and learning.
“Give yourself and your kids grace, knowing that this was something new that was thrust on everybody,” Gilbert advises. “It’s not going to be perfect—take it as an opportunity to learn how your children learns, how they’re wired, and adjust it as necessary.”