When Alberta mom Tina Teerling decided to home-school her five children this past fall, her goal was to give them back a sense of normalcy and “remember what life was like before the pandemic.”
But now, after nearly five months of home-schooling under her belt, she’s considering continuing even after the pandemic is over. It’s a better fit for her family and values, she says.
“I’ve come to realize that traditional schooling doesn’t line up with our values,” said Teerling, whose children range in age from 3 to 9. “I want our children to grow up and be able to critically think for themselves, to evaluate information they are given, not just recite it, and to be in search of information.”
“We are following our own program that is parent-led,” she adds. “Overall it has been an extremely positive experience.”
As scores of parents were thrust into home-schooling for the first time due to the pandemic, the experience sparked a home-schooling sea change that could have staying power, says Patty Marler, a spokesperson for the Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada. Marler recently spoke with over 100 families to gauge their pandemic home-schooling experience, and said many—surprised by their success—are planning to stick with it.
“[The pandemic] has exposed people to home-schooling like never before,” said Marler, who homeschooled all of her four kids starting in the 1990s.
“People I think have a greater respect for it as a real, valid, educational option for their children, and many people are experiencing many of the benefits.”
Although exact figures are hard to come by, through data cobbled together from provinces, education departments, and home education associations, Marler estimates that the number of families that have chosen parent-directed home-schooling has doubled in the last year—from around 100,000 in 2019 to 200,000 in 2020.
Online School vs Parent-Led Home-Schooling
Marler notes that the school-directed online learning format that became prevalent over the past year is a much different experience than parent-directed home-schooling. She says frustration with virtual learning is causing some parents to consider taking the lead role in their child’s home education.
“Many [parents] said that the March-to-June digital learning experience was so frustrating for them that they knew they had to try something different,” she said of the parents she spoke with. “So they decided to forge their path and attempt home-schooling, because they knew the fall would look the same—and they are so glad that they did.”
A common frustration for parents was the many hours children were required to sit in front of a screen for online learning, which is even harder for young children, she said. Many parents also complained of the workload involved in monitoring assignments—often while trying to manage working from home themselves. This was especially difficult for parents dealing with multiple children and grade levels.
Calgary-area mom Samantha Shannon says that although distance learning has been a positive experience overall for her 7-year-old son Lochlan, who is on the autism spectrum, it’s been difficult for her to find support for his special learning and behavioural needs. With much of the usual extra-curricular activities cancelled due to pandemic measures, she says her son also has too much “free time” and many competing needs to manage.
“I’m teacher’s assistant, I’m special education aide, I’m gym teacher,” she says. “Plus you have the cleanup, and preparing for any science or art classes and all the extra time to scan in and submit assignments.”
Marler says the difference between school-led distance learning and parent-directed home-schooling is that parents don’t need to follow a pre-set formula, and can instead develop a plan tailored specifically to their child’s and family’s needs. This means, for example, choosing curriculum or extracurricular projects that align with their child’s interests, following schedules that fit the whole family, or instructing multiple children together.
Flexibility a Key Benefit
Martina Kranjcevic, a mother from Sunnyslope, Alberta, who started home-schooling her two children aged 4 and 6 in September 2020, said she is surprised that it’s been a success and plans to continue after the pandemic threat has passed. The flexibility that comes with home-schooling has been key in that decision, which has many advantages for their farming family, she says.
“It takes less time, our schedule is more flexible,” she says. “We can focus on areas where our kids need help. We can add other things as we choose. We farm, so we have more time at seeding and harvest.”
Kranjcevic notes, however, that it takes “a lot of planning and prep work” if parents want a completely customized curriculum.
Meanwhile, Marler says there are so many home-schooling resources available online now and parents can choose what works best for them as long as students can meet provincial requirements. Since parents are teaching one or several kids instead of managing a large classroom, they tend to get through the curriculum much faster, which allows for more flexibility, she says.
She also noted that several of the home-schooling parents she spoke with continue to work or have home businesses, and have fine-tuned their home-schooling over the past year to work within their situation.
Jada-Lynn Muncaster in Lacombe, Alberta, is currently home-schooling her three children aged 5 to 7. She says she finds it stressful to ensure her kids get a well-rounded education at home, but will ultimately stick with it because it allows them more time with their dad, who often works away.
“This way, when he is home we can take a day off to visit [with] him,” she said.
Marler also heard from parents who said their kids who used to struggle in an institutional environment due to factors like special learning needs, anxiety, depression, health problems, or bullying are thriving in the home setting. And as outbreaks of COVID-19 force schools to close with little warning, home-schooling can offer stability for parents worried about the pandemic’s impact on their child’s education, she says.
Marler says a lot of the initial struggles she heard about from home-schooling families was due to a lack of confidence at the start while navigating a new way of doing things. Now, a year into the home-schooling experiment, she said she rarely hears those issues come up. She’s also hearing similar stories from other home-schooling organizations.
“Many parents are surprised by how well things were going for them and these comments were coming from parents no matter what the ages of the kids whom they are now home educating,” Marler said.
“This is a consistent message that is coming up more and more in discussions with home-schooling organizations across the country.”