As shutdowns and social distancing debates dragged through the summer and COVID-19 flared in the South and West, politicians and educators in Washington, D.C., wrangled over a big question: How should they direct a mighty army of 57 million schoolchildren? Meanwhile, parents across the country wondered how they could provide for their little platoons, children used to the routine of school and likely to be on their own for part or all of the fall.
A May survey found 40 percent of parents compelled to school at home because of COVID-19 said they’d be more likely to homeschool in the future. No one knows how it will all shake out this fall, but homeschool co-ops, Facebook groups, and online schools report exponential growth. In July, so many people filed online requests to homeschool in North Carolina that the portal temporarily shut down.
Parents across the country are stitching together a patchwork of online schools and traditional curricula, hoping homeschooling will offer stability and safety for their kids. I spoke with many parents and went deeper with four families—in Virginia, Texas, California, and Michigan.
Fairfax County, Va., sits across the Potomac from all the capital debates. There, Charlotte Wright thinks not about 57 million students, but about two in particular: son Liam, entering fourth grade, and daughter Hailey, entering second. Wright never wanted to homeschool: Spring shutdowns and imperfect fall reopening plans forced her to consider it.
When the Fairfax public schools shut down in mid-March, Wright, a full-time executive assistant, and her husband, a contract manager, began telecommuting. From their makeshift offices in a bedroom and living room, the Wrights juggled work while keeping Liam and Hailey entertained. They often resorted to sending the kids downstairs to play Minecraft.
Two weeks became a month before the schools reopened online. That brought new problems. Wright needed stable internet to host work meetings, but Liam and Hailey often interrupted her meetings to get help navigating their online classes. With everyone online, their internet connection slowed to a glitchy crawl. Even when Liam and Hailey made it to class successfully, teachers spent more time managing disruptive students than teaching.
Within a week, Wright gave up on school. Instead, her kids spent the next six weeks, eight hours a day, at a friend’s martial arts studio. They practiced taekwondo forms with two other students and learned a little Korean. In his spare time, Liam played Fortnite with friends and shrugged off COVID-19 fears. Hailey, though, absorbed the apocalyptic news often playing on television. She started talking about death and coming to her parents’ room in tears at night. The Wright family road-tripped to Michigan so the kids could stay with grandparents, spending summer in the garden instead of on the internet.
Meanwhile, the Fairfax school district announced its fall plans: a choice of hybrid or online options that required parents to choose by July 15. Wright had no intention of returning to online chaos but considered the hybrid plan a possibility. She and her husband could at least work uninterrupted two days a week. But the thought that kids would have to wear masks all day sounded miserable.
In early July, a friend suggested homeschooling. Wright scoffed, but then reconsidered. She joined Facebook groups, subscribed to a homeschooling podcast, and talked to an experienced homeschooling parent. Her attitude shifted—maybe homeschooling was perfect for a pandemic. Maybe she could fit it around her schedule, and still teach Liam and Hailey to love learning.
Wright laid out the idea for her husband, who agreed to try it. While other Fairfax parents debated online or hybrid, Wright set up homeschooling headquarters in her kitchen, filling a cabinet with supplies and stacks of spelling, math, and cursive workbooks.
She plans to teach at the kitchen table for an hour each morning, starting with the Pledge of Allegiance to imitate public school structure. Her husband will teach history on his lunch break. In Virginia, fourth graders study state history, so Wright will let Liam choose Virginia history books that suit his taste for blood and guts. Their paper-based curriculum will allow them to do homework in the kitchen while she works in the living room, without her wondering if they’re exploring YouTube instead of completing assignments.
Once the kids finish their homework, they can wander the house and grassy front yard. Television is off-limits until after 5 p.m., but they can dig into the blue laundry basket of art supplies that Wright stashed in the kitchen. She plans to buy an electric piano, plus acrylic paints and canvas for Hailey, who loves to experiment with paint.
When Wright asked Liam what he thought about homeschooling, he worried about missing friends. She hopes to organize COVID-19-safe playdates for him. She told the school principal she plans to return next year and is staying in the PTA, but Wright said she is relieved to have a settled plan for this year. She still has curriculum planning to do, but that seems easier than living with uncertainty.
MIDWAY ACROSS THE COUNTRY, in McKinney, Texas, Rachel Carothers has also tried to escape uncertainty. She works in theater, but with that canceled she poured her energy into building stability and fun for her kids after their public schools went online in March. Her early pandemic Facebook posts about where to find toilet paper gave way to photos and notes reporting the highs and lows of pandemic schooling.
Carothers wrote a daily schedule for son Cai, grade eight, daughter Adair, grade five, and daughter Larkin, kindergarten. At first, they groaned. Adair’s anxiety spiked without the comforting structure of school, and she started picking her skin. Day after day, Larkin melted down over writing assignments.
Carothers persisted. She tracked what routines eased Adair’s anxiety. Baking helped, so she let the fifth grader experiment with recipes. Adair set a goal of making and frosting the perfect cake. Carothers eventually found a writing curriculum for Larkin that inspired fewer meltdowns. She set up her workstation near Larkin’s TV tray desk so the affectionate kindergartner would stop dragging Carothers across the house every time she wanted help.
Carothers boiled down the blur of internet resources into one Google Doc of links to her favorite ideas and activities. She brainstormed ways to keep the kids active. On a sunny day, they held a jump-rope competition and colored with chalk on their shaded driveway. On a rainy April day, they played beanbag toss inside and poured orange and purple paint onto cardboard palettes to paint designs on rocks. Evenings, they took turns video calling friends on the tablet.
Slowly, Carothers hammered out a functioning schedule, balancing academics, enrichment, and everyone’s mental health. Each school day ended with a five-minute party, blowing bubbles or holding a dance-off to celebrate another day down.
By April, Carothers had realized school would not return to normal in the fall. Their public school moved online smoothly, but the curriculum was intended for in-person learning, and Carothers didn’t see that changing by fall. She wasn’t comfortable sending them back in person either, so she searched for alternatives. IUniversity Prep, a Texas online public school, caught her eye. While her husband was supportive, her mother urged caution.
Since iUniversity Prep is first come, first served and has an enrollment cap, Carothers didn’t feel she could wait to apply. But once the school processed her application, she would be on a conveyor belt either to commit or lose her seats. She sweated it out into June, hoping the public school would release its fall plans before iUniversity emailed to set up admissions meetings. She got the email the same day the district announced its plan. The next day, state authorities contradicted the district plan and then delayed releasing new regulations.
Meanwhile, Texas COVID-19 cases exploded. The worsening situation caused Carothers’ mother to get on board, so in July Carothers took the plunge, buying curriculum for her youngest and enrolling the older two at iUniversity Prep. Decision made, her stress levels dropped: “Before, I felt like I was living in a panic attack. … Now I just feel nervous.”
NEAR LOS ANGELES, CALIF., documentary producer Beth McNamara didn’t grow uneasy about the coronavirus until March. She considered canceling a work trip but brought hand sanitizer and avoided handshakes instead. Her plane was eerily empty, and on the flight back she held her fleece over her mouth as a makeshift mask. Shortly after, she kept her two sons home from their private school. A day later, it went online.
Her 11-year-old quickly tired of long hours on the computer but embraced the at-home lifestyle. Most days he left his robe on the floor, changing into a green shirt off the top of his laundry pile and leaving on his pajama bottoms to attend Zoom classes from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
With McNamara and her television producer husband working exclusively from home, the boys and their parents bumped into each other around every corner. McNamara said they tried to balance positivity and honesty: “It’s like we’re on an island. Either you build the most cohesive, honest situation you can—or eat each other.”
Her husband and the boys bought bikes, whizzing down streets normally choked with traffic, while McNamara enjoyed time alone at home. Once in July the McNamaras escaped the house to their favorite beach for a few hours, wearing masks and leaving when other people trickled in midmorning.
Los Angeles County coronavirus deaths topped 4,000 in mid-July. After watching the superintendent of neighboring Los Angeles Unified School District explain the web of contacts students would be exposed to every day, McNamara resolved not to send her 14-year-old to public school. In June, their private school announced a plan for reopening that included parking-lot temperature checks, masks, and symptom questionnaires.
McNamara couldn’t imagine her sons learning well while wearing masks in the summer heat. She asked her younger son what he thought, and he said it wasn’t worth the tuition money to sit in front of a screen all day if the virus forced the school back online. With public and private school ruled out, McNamara turned to homeschooling.
McNamara had mostly negative impressions of homeschooling, but after a week of research, she thought it could work. In early July she asked friends if they wanted to form a pod with her. Most insisted school would reopen as usual. Unconvinced, McNamara called the private school, telling administrators she would take a year off to homeschool.
The 14-year-old earned a spot in the honors program at the public high school and wants to join its newspaper and Model United Nations, so he’ll attend that school online this fall. McNamara plans to supplement its curriculum with online courses through Outschool—her son took an anthropology course to try it out in July. With extra time at home, he’s honing his cooking skills, serving smoked ribs and turkey, and planning to make cheese. McNamara plans to teach her 11-year-old herself, supplementing her teaching with live math classes and choosing fast-paced books that might keep his interest.
WRIGHT, CAROTHERS, and McNamara have all been able to adjust their lives to accommodate homeschooling. But Neil Holshoe, in northern Michigan, has less flexibility. Holshoe, a surveyor, was declared an essential worker and kept going to work when schools shut down. His wife, Kristen, works from home, but her job diagnosing lab equipment errors requires rigid hours and nonstop phone calls. Neither parent can spend days supervising their three children, all 10 or younger.
They worked together to keep the kids learning this spring. In the mornings, after Neil Holshoe dressed the kids and left for work, Kristen Holshoe logged them in to their school Zoom meetings and apps before starting work at 9:30. The kids sat at a table or sprawled on foam mats near her desk in the basement. Although the 10-year-old tried to help her younger sisters, she often resorted to mouthing questions to her mother who was on the phone. Neil and Kristen soon gave up on Zoom meetings for the preschooler, digging out an old tablet for her to play counting games and color by numbers. Eventually, the school mailed worksheet packets.
The children often finished before lunch and spent afternoons playing endless games of Sorry! and trying to stay quiet for their mother on the phone downstairs. Neil and Kristen assigned them chores—cleaning the bathroom or kitchen, caring for the new puppy—to pull them away from the television. Once the snow of March and slush of April gave way to nicer weather, they played in the backyard and watched peppers and corn spring up in the raised garden bed.
By the time Neil Holshoe finished serving dinner and giving baths, the family was often too exhausted to spend much time reviewing homework. He tried to explain math concepts, but wished he had recordings of Zoom lectures so he could match his explanations to what the teachers were saying.
In July, the local school district still hadn’t announced fall plans. Neil and Kristen agreed they couldn’t handle another semester like the one they’d had. They’ve identified an online public school that would allow them to do school in the evenings or on weekends, and that could provide a solution.
In July, the Holshoes are keeping online school as Plan B, hoping their local school will return in person on schedule. They know time is running out to decide and don’t see any good options. With low academic expectations last spring, they made it work. But if expectations rise this fall while work schedules and school formats stay inflexible, Neil Holshoe doesn’t know how they’ll adapt. “Long term,” he said, “something would have to give.”
Esther Eaton is a World Journalism Institute college course graduate and intern