After school went online for her three daughters in the spring, Rebecca Rautio was disappointed with the lack of education her children received. Her oldest child, in sixth grade, would finish a week’s worth of work on Monday, and would have live contact with her teachers just on one weekly Zoom call that was more social than educational. Her other two children quickly lost interest and struggled to stay focused on the screen. But sending her kids back to elementary school and junior high in person this fall felt risky: Rautio was wary of embarking on months of stop-and-start school and of exposing her children to the coronavirus. In June, Rautio started assessing other options.
After reviewing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that guide public-school curriculum, Rautio wondered if she could offer her kids a more thorough educational experience at home. She consulted with friends who had homeschooled pre-COVID, and researched curriculum options. She was doubtful of her ability to teach her kids, but she now had the time: in the spring, she had quit her job of ten years as a preschool teacher because of the virus. The first week of August, she unenrolled her kids from school.
“I think of myself pre-quarantine and if somebody would have told me I’d be homeschooling my kids and baking my own bread and gardening as much as I am, I’d be like, ‘You are crazy,’” Rautio said. “We look like a totally different family, but in all good ways.”
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Rautio is one of the many Texan parents who chose to unenroll kids from public school and homeschool for the first time this year. While the Texas Education Agency won’t release official data on withdrawals until the end of the fall semester, the Texas Home School Coalition, the most prominent homeschooling interest group in the state, reported an immediate surge in public-school withdrawals after the TEA released its plan for returning to in-person school in early July. A tool on THSC’s website through which parents can generate withdrawal letters was used to withdraw 3,114 students this July, up from just 201 last year. This August, the organization reported a 400 percent increase in withdrawals through the website over last August. In the 2018–2019 school year, the TEA reported that 22,967 students left public school for homeschool options. The agency declined multiple requests for interviews on withdrawal trends this fall.
THSC public policy director Jeremy Newman said the organization has received double the amount of emails and calls as usual this summer, straining its team. While Newman expects most of these new homeschoolers to return to public school post-COVID, if even a fraction continue, that could double or triple Texas’s homeschooling population.
“We don’t go through system-wide crises like [this] very often, but individual families go through crises like that all the time,” said Newman. “When they experience that, they turn to some form of education that is flexible enough to meet their needs, and because homeschooling has so many different options available, I think that’s why so many people have turned to it.”
In Texas, homeschooling is loosely regulated, making it relatively easy for parents to pull their kids from school. A 1994 Texas Supreme Court case, Leeper v. Arlington ISD, defined homeschooling as a form of private schooling in Texas, offering parents almost complete freedom in teaching style and curriculum. To withdraw a child, parents in Texas must only send a letter to the child’s school stating the intent of leaving, and follow a curriculum at home that covers reading, spelling, grammar, math, and citizenship.
For many, homeschooling isn’t viable, however. Costs can run as high as $1,000 per student per year, and public schools offer essential services, including therapy, for children with disabilities. In many ways, the trend toward homeschooling reflects larger inequalities the pandemic has exposed: those who can afford to escape the ramifications of COVID-19 will do so, while others are left with more instability. “How are we not thinking about what this means for families? Why aren’t we thinking about children’s health?” said Courtney Robinson, founder of Advancement and Excellence Foundation, an advocacy organization focused on breaking the school-to-prison pipeline in Texas. “The parents that have resources and means are; they aren’t sending their kids back to school.”
Nonetheless, Jube Dankworth, cofounder of Texas Home Educators, a nonprofit supporting homeschooling parents, says her team has received a flood of questions from parents since May. Some are pulling their children from school because of COVID-19 fears, but the majority are disappointed with their district’s back-to-school plans. Virtual learning means hours of screen time—a no-go for many parents—and in-person learning will be a diminished version of what students are accustomed to. “All the things that are fun about school are all the things being taken away, [like] seeing your friends at lunch and playing on the playground and choir and P.E.,” said Cyndy Shaefer, a new-to-homeschooling parent in Brookside Village who decided to unenroll all three of her kids from Pearland ISD.
Parents who experienced a tumultuous spring as districts scrambled to transition to distanced learning worry that the fall semester will bring more of the same. While many districts promised Wi-Fi hot spots, one-to-one technology programs, and access to teachers, some never delivered. Shila DiModica, a stay-at-home mom with four daughters, found her experience in April and May with Spring ISD “unrealistic” after the district never delivered a laptop for her two oldest daughters to use at home. When schedules overlapped, they both couldn’t access their teachers. While her 7-year-old was unaware of the instability around her, the situation was harder on her 10-year-old. Frustrated with the experience in the spring and the unknowns of the fall, DiModica decided to try homeschooling them. She says she’s nervous, and conflicted about forcing her viewpoints on her children with a Christian-based curriculum, but it was difficult to find the perfect program that was inexpensive, doable for her as a new teacher, and the right fit for her children.
“You don’t want to mess up as a parent,” she said. “That’s the biggest fear.”
She chose Lifepac, a company offering grade-level packets covering all five school subjects in one. The school-in-a-box model is popular among new homeschoolers since it eliminates the stress—and lowers the cost—of sourcing curriculum for each subject from multiple companies, but it disallows tailoring subject matter to each child’s learning style. DiModica is supplementing with another program to fill in any gaps. She spent a little more than $600 to purchase curriculum for both children but the unexpected costs, such as the amount of ink and paper it took to print free supplemental worksheets, surprised her.
To navigate the problems of designing a curriculum and the unforeseen difficulties of teaching children at home, many new homeschooling parents seek the help of veteran homeschoolers on social media. The plethora of groups suggests the wide variety of needs: Greater Houston Moms Homeschool, Black Homeschoolers DFW, Austin Area Secular Homeschoolers. On the forums, some post deer-in-the-headlight comments: Should I buy a lesson planner? What records should I request from the school? Many parents are using Facebook and Nextdoor to find other families in their area to form a “pod” with and chip in to hire a teacher.
Katie Proctor, a former educator in Midlothian who pulled her kids from school, feels like there’s not a winning solution. Even in homeschooling she knows there are drawbacks. Like many parents fretting about the fall, she ultimately chose the option that would give her the most peace.
“I like to be in control,” she said. “Choosing homeschool for us was one way to have way less anxiety about school.”