How the Pandemic Helped Me Make Peace with Home-Schooling

When the pandemic lockdown hit the United States in March, an old friend (who attended elite private schools his whole life) called and quipped, "the home school revolution is finally taking off!"

On Twitter a few days later, I saw some conservatives positing that more Americans will keep home-schooling after the pandemic and that the coronavirus will body-slam public schools. That's the long-held dream of some home school communities. And it's the new nightmare of atheists, leftists and public school loyalists.

And, true, the Boston Globe reports public schools in Massachusetts were down by 37,000 students, or 4 percent last fall. Chalkbeat reports New York's public schools lost 31,000 students in 2020 year compared to 2019. Similar data is rolling in from parts of Virginia, California, Wisconsin and beyond. A survey by RealClearEducation last May found 40 percent of parents are more likely to consider alternative education, including home-schooling, after the lockdown ended last Spring. And, to be sure, many of us whose children remain in public schools are actually hybrid homeschoolers, with kids studying online from home, learning from their public-school teachers but with more in-person family time.

Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, published an 80-page opus in the Arizona Law Review last year that regurgitated research about how home-schooling may be damaging to children and give parents too many rights. She planned a conference on the topic as well (which was postponed because of Covid-19). Her paper drew thunder and lightning from the home school community and its defenders.

The American Atheists non-profit said, in January, that it is nervous about "the number of families choosing homeschooling skyrocketing" during the pandemic and it worries that 64 percent of parents homeschool to "provide religious instruction," according to the U.S. Department of Education. It's unclear if these secularists are afraid of children having more time with their parents in general—or only for those whose children are completely detached from public schools and whose parents offer religion within the curriculum.

Time will tell if the number of long-term homeschoolers rise from the roughly 3 percent of school-age population in the United States that is home-schooled according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But still, I scoffed at the Twitter pundits championing a home school contagion. As someone home schooled for nearly 12 years in my formative years, I had strong feelings on the matter. For me, the Pandemic-induced home-schooling—the situation where most children in America are attending school from home using some combination of digital tools—initially brought a sense of loss, stress and déjà vu.

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Five-year-old Lois Copley-Jones, the photographer's daughter, does her Math studies in her bedroom on January 25, 2021. Online learning is showing many former oppnents of homeschooling, like atheists and leftists, its value. Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Sadness, stress and déjà vu

My daughter and I lost our cherished morning walk to the bus stop and our pleasant interactions with neighbors and classmates. In my neighborhood, after the children get on the bus, they talk about Pokémon cards, their soccer teams and YouTube channels before the parents walk to the commuter train to NYC and stop for a coffee on the way. Like parents and children around the country, we lost that sense of community too.

The stress mounted last March to June as my then second grade daughter rebelled at doing school on a Chromebook. Our district, school and teacher (wonderful overall) were, understandably, not ready for the pandemic-induced home school situation and dumped assignments into confusing tangles of Google pages. We had little to no video teaching happening. It created confusion for students and extra work for parents, many of whom work full time jobs.

My daughter would slam her book in frustration, flail on a bench in our kitchen and yell, "I HATE online school!" In fact, she wrote a narrative essay for a class using that exact title. She seemed disheartened as the weeks wore on with limited interactions from peers and friends. This experience is widespread for American families during the pandemic.

The situation brought déjà vu, reminding me of the lonely and frustrated feelings I had as a child, often studying by myself or with my older sister and then, during our lunch break, watching from our living room window as children across the street at an elementary school in Rapid City, SD, played at recess. We had to content ourselves with tossing a frisbee in our front yard.

As we grew older and my parents had five more children, we moved to a more rural part of South Dakota. My father became a pastor at a non-denominational country church. We lived in a parsonage, nine people in a double-wide trailer house. Somehow, my parents continued to home-school and, for the most part, I felt more isolated. My sister and I would flip open our Saxon math books and were supposed to teach ourselves pre-algebra. When we completed that book, our high school math education was announced complete. My sister and I were shuttled off to work with a ministry that I consider a cult.

Was our high school education complete? We had, after all, scored high on standardized tests and aced the GED math section. But that logic would later cause me problems when I went to college at the University of South Dakota. Despite being an honors student, I had to drop calculus and take remedial math for lack of adequate high school math. It delayed my college graduation and cost me thousands of dollars. Later, I managed to complete two master's degrees, one in journalism from Columbia University and an MBA from Steinbeis University in Germany, and to become a professor as my second act in life. My older sister, an intelligent woman with five children in Minnesota, is now pursuing her bachelor's in her 40s, earning good grades and scholarships. I'm proud of her.

So these kinds of lonely and bitter memories came flooding back as my daughter anguished over her laptop. I retreated and took over all food shopping and cooking duties. My wife soldiered on, helping my daughter through math and Mandarin and every subject in between, their yelling matches escalating as we trudged through April, May and June.

Utah school classroom August 2020
A teacher sets up a classroom at Freedom Preparatory Academy as the school prepares to resume classes on August 13 in Provo, Utah. Many students are homeschooled now or doing a hybrid. George Frey/Getty Images

Making peace with home-schooling

Fast-forward to third grade and the Fall semester, our district got its game plan down better over the summer. Our teachers actually taught online, spending time with the students via Zoom rather than sending recorded lectures. Our daughter responded well. She learned to type. She learned to adroitly manage Zoom and Google drive. I bought her a wristwatch so she could manage her own schedule. She has some social interaction with peers via the new system.

My office is next to hers. I hear her singing during her music class. She stops by my office at lunchtime so we can head to the kitchen to have a bite and hang out.

Does she still miss school in person? Yes.

Is she flourishing anyway? Yes.

And the experience of pandemic home-school has helped me make peace with my own home-schooling past.

While I agree with some criticisms about home-schooling, I also agree with some arguments by the apologists and recall many good things about home-schooling. I read a set of encyclopedias that exposed me to a broad set of knowledge. My mother, despite our poverty level status, had us listen to classical music and study music history. I learned to be a self-starting learner, requesting books and CDs through interlibrary loan in South Dakota. I learned to multi-task and think outside the box—sometimes practicing juggling while watching TV or riding an exercise bicycle while playing Nintendo in the evenings.

As a college professor, I value the perspective of students who are home-schooled and can see how their unorthodox upbringing or educational approach sometimes helps them think in creative or inspired ways.

Research by the Institute for Family Studies at the University of Virginia shows that the three biggest reasons people home school are: 1) Concern or dissatisfaction with academics or the environment at other schools; 2) A desire to provide religious instruction; 3) A desire to provide moral instruction. The post by Notre Dame sociology professor David Sikkink at IFS also cites data showing home school families in America are more diverse than many critics realize (41 percent are racial or ethnic minorities) and are more engaged and civic and community activities than their public-school counterparts.

Real Clear Education surveyed 628 registered voters last May and found Asian Americans (53.8 percent), Blacks (50.4 percent) and Hispanics (38.2 percent) were more likely than whites (36.3 percent) to choose home-schooling.

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The family's home schooling routine at Donna Eddy's home on April 09, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Too much homeschooling, like too much exposure to public school, may be harmful. Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Takeaways for lovers & haters

Does this mean I have converted back to the home-school fold in which I was raised? No. It does not. I look forward to returning to the bus stop and being more robustly connected to my community again. But I have gained some insights during pandemic-induced home-schooling.

  • Perhaps all parents can and will show anger during home-schooling. It wasn't just a function of my family growing up. Also, while my home school education was far from perfect, no education is exactly perfect. Learning to accept the past, to apologize and forgive—and to keep moving forward—may be the biggest, most healthy lesson of my adult life.
  • Social interaction is a human need. Too much of the wrong kind in public school may be harmful. And too little of the right kind in home school may also be harmful.
  • Religious formation is in the purview of parents along with the intellectual and emotional development of their child. But spiritual abuse is no more acceptable than physical or emotional abuse. The secular left should stop its hyperbole and bad logic on this front and focus on reasonable definition of the latter and reasonable understanding of the former.
  • Policy on home-schooling at local, state and national levels is a given. But it shouldn't be treated as a political football by ideological foes. That doesn't create healthy policy outcomes for children or families. Given the strong interest by diverse families in home-schooling, some in the secular left needs to avoid racist policies in their quest to hard regulate home-schooling. If anything, maybe this experiment with pandemic home-schooling can lead us to more and better hybrid models with innovative and improved public schools?
  • Technology, used well, has incredible potential to help us learn and thrive. Used poorly, technology can make us addicted and depressed. One positive pandemic home-school hack occurred when I stopped fighting with my third grader about iPad time and, instead, structured a deal in which she can play Minecraft for one hour after she reads either one longer book for herself or two smaller books to her sister. She negotiated a bit to also include iPad time for her sister. And, ever since, she has been content with these boundaries and stipulations, even proudly telling her teachers and classmates about this arrangement.

Parents do play a big role in education. So let's hope the pandemic, through ups and downs, shows us ways to be more involved and to not leave the entire responsibility on the public schools. While 2020 was a doozy of a year and 2021 isn't over, I am grateful the pandemic has helped me make some peace with home-schooling, at least temporarily.

Update, 2/18; 1:00 p.m. This headline was changed to better reflect the author's intentions.

Paul Glader is chair of the journalism program at The King's College in NYC and is a former staff writer at The Wall Street Journal. He is on Twitter @PaulGlader.