When Vermont K-12 schools reopen Sept. 8 not all students will be attendance. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many families across the state to make the move to homeschooling.
Retta Dunlop, founder of the Vermont Home Education Network, said she has noticed an “explosion” of public school parents showing up in various homeschooling Facebook groups looking for help with the process.
Dunlop said one VHEN member has been hosting free Zoom meetings where she helps parents navigate the process of filling out paperwork and creating a minimum course of study.
“She’s had dozens and dozens of all new families call into her meetings,” Dunlop said.
Dunlop said about 2,300 children were enrolled in home studies programs in Vermont last year. She expects that number to more than double this year as uncertainty about the state’s school reopening plans, — which, depending on the district, can include remote learning, in-person learning or a hybrid of both — has families considering other options.
“They’re looking for stability in the child’s education,” she said.
As of July 15, the Vermont Agency of Education had received 1,634 homeschooling enrollment filings — up 702 from the same date last year. That figure does not include additional enrollments that have yet to be processed, according to agency representative Ted Fisher.
He, too, credits the uptick in enrollments to the uncertainty the pandemic has created, but suggests that there could be a slowdown as districts release more concrete reopening plans. He explained that approximately a half dozen families have withdrawn their names from homeschooling enrollment during the past two weeks.
Fisher cautiously attributes those reversals to families getting more detailed plans from districts. “They have seen more specificity … and they’re feeling more comfortable,” he said.
But while some families may be having second thoughts, many more are committed to making the switch.
Dunlop expressed concern that such a sharp rise in enrollment filings to the AOE has created a backlog, leaving many families in the dark about their status.
According to Dunlop, the agency should issue a response within 14 days, explaining that, according to state statute, if the agency does not respond within 45 days, families are free to proceed with the home studies program.
Fisher said the agency’s home study team is “working diligently to process applications as quickly as possible given the increased number of enrollments,” but doesn’t anticipate any problems for families looking to enroll as long as their paperwork is in order.
“We expect that the vast majority of families will have no issues with the process, and we will work with families as expeditiously as possible to ensure they can provide the information we need to process their enrollment,” Fisher said.
Dunlop acknowledged the confusion and anxiety families figuring out homeschooling on the fly are feeling.
“One thing these parents don’t have that I did is, I chose homeschooling on purpose,” she said. “A couple years of research went into it. … I was familiar with the methods and the process.”
With the pandemic as an underlying reason many families are choosing homeschooling right now, Dunlop wonders how many will remain when schools get back to normal.
“I suspect most of these parents will go back to public school because that’s what they really want,” she said. “But some of them are going to figure out that they like homeschooling.”
Fisher said families that decide homeschooling is not a good fit may easily re-enroll.
“Families can withdraw from home study at any time, as long as they notify the agency that they have decided to re-enroll in a school,” he said. “At the same time, families can also enroll in home study at any time during the year and disenroll their student from a school.”
Rutland Town resident Collin Fingon is one parent mulling the homeschool option. He and his wife Jackie have a 5-year-old son entering kindergarten and are concerned about him not having in-person learning at such a crucial stage in his development.
“In-person learning needs to happen for the younger grades and that’s what we’re trying to get ahead of the curve on — to make sure he’s still got some in-person teaching ... that’s not just me and the mother,” Fingon said.
Fingon said he has been exploring homeschooling, but admits he still has a lot to learn about state guidelines.
He’s also been looking into private learning pods, where several families would collectively hire an educator to teach their children.
Dunlop said pods exist in a legal gray area in Vermont. According to statute, a family may include one child from a maximum of two additional families in its home study group. Anything larger would be considered an illegal private school.
“I have no good answer to tell them how to do that legally,” she said.
If Fingon goes the pod route, he said he would be using Rutland Town School’s remote-learning curriculum as a foundation that an instructor would supplement with additional lessons and activities.
“We’re kind of on the fence,” he said, explaining that he hasn’t entirely ruled out sending his son to school, which will also be offered in-person learning four days a week.
However, safety guidelines raise additional concerns.
“Our biggest concern at that young age was language skills and seeing the face and enunciation,” Fingon said. “How does someone pick up language being behind a mask?”
He also expressed concern for the health of adults in the school.
“I think the kids are pretty protected, but we obviously have to think about staff and the community.”
Ultimately, Fingon wants to have a plan in place in the event the state mandates another full lockdown.
“We’re all going to probably be home at some point so we should be prepared to have a better learning situation,” he said.