When Sharon Jackson looks out on the mid-pandemic landscape of New York City, she sees a scary place for a sixth grader. Her daughter, Sophia, just graduated from the kind of Lower Manhattan public school where the PTA can easily raise money for iPads and SMART Boards. Jackson liked that Sophia’s days were structured, and that she was able to make a handful of close friends. The past six months, however, have left Jackson wary of how school might affect her child. For one thing, Sophia doesn’t like wearing masks. “If we go to Whole Foods, she’ll put it on, but she just feels very restricted,” Jackson told me. At home, there’s no need for such barriers: “She can do her studies in her underwear.”
Jackson has started noticing more unhoused people in the park near her apartment in Tribeca. The city “feels less safe in general to me right now,” Jackson, who is white, said, citing “the rioting, the rowdiness, the random acts of violence happening.” (While shootings have spiked in New York this summer, the overall crime rate has remained flat, and far below the high crime levels of the 1980s and ’90s, according to a recent New York Times report.) With protesters calling on the government to defund the police, she feels as if “there’s less protection” in the city. With families facing economic hardship and the city on edge, Jackson fears Sophia could be exposed to danger. “You don’t know if there’s a kid in the classroom [whose] parents are going through a tough time, and maybe that child would act out and snap and decide they want to hit another kid,” she said. And when a vaccine for COVID-19 eventually arrives, Jackson is worried that New York officials will make proof of vaccination mandatory for kids to attend public schools. “I’m not comfortable with a vaccine that’s not rigorously tested,” Jackson said. “To expose her to something that just is so questionable doesn’t seem like a sound decision.” Before the pandemic, she never wanted to homeschool her daughter. Now, she said, it seems like her best option.
COVID-19 has created a strange natural experiment in American education: Families who would have never otherwise considered taking their kids out of school feel desperate enough to try it. Reopening has been chaotic: In New York City, the start of school has been pushed back to late September, as teachers and principals scramble to prepare for a semester split between online and in-person learning, fighting to secure the extra staffing and testing needed to safely bring kids back to class.
Homeschooling organizations and consultants have faced a deluge of panicked parents frantic to find alternatives to regular school. Some families hate the idea of their kids sitting on Zoom for hours at a time. Others worry about exposing family members to the coronavirus or seeing schools close suddenly after a surge in cases. Although some of these parents will likely put their kids back in school once the pandemic is under control, homeschooling advocates see this period as an unlikely opportunity to evangelize their way of life, which they describe as more flexible, creative, and adaptable to each student than traditional school. Homeschooling families, which included roughly 3 percent of school-age children in the United States in 2016, have lots of different reasons for wanting to educate their own kids. But they’re united in a common assessment: They want out of the traditional system. The question is whether COVID-19 will cause a temporary bump in homeschooling as parents piece together their days during the pandemic or mark a permanent inflection point in education that continues long after the virus has been controlled. Some families may find that they want to exit the system for good.
Like many other students, Sophia pushed her way through the end of the school year in the spring, graduating from elementary school in a quickly coordinated Zoom ceremony. But Jackson wasn’t satisfied with the thought of another cobbled-together semester, so over the summer, she started investigating alternative options for the fall. She found her way to Joanna Allen Lodin, one of many former homeschooling moms who have set up shop as small-time sages for families interested in leaving the traditional school system. Since May, Lodin has received a “snowball” of requests for information, she told me, and has hosted one or two information sessions a week for curious families.
“I’m hearing everything, from parents who thought this spring was a disaster for their kids and who feel that they could do it better,” she said, to “people who said this spring was revelatory” and loved having their kids at home, concluding that “school is just babysitting, and I can do this better, and I’m going to homeschool them now.” The common thread, she said, is that “parents are terrified of failing their children.”
A wide range of parents are attempting to homeschool this fall, and families with experience are trying to help them along. Kristen Rhodes, a former public-school special-education teacher who lives near the Georgia-Florida border, decided not to put her 5-year-old son in kindergarten this year, because she was worried about him having to wear a mask, and instead joined a group of fellow Christian parents and kids who use a curriculum called Classical Conversations. Nicole Damick, a homeschooling mom of four in Pennsylvania, has been eager to talk up homeschooling to curious friends and acquaintances: Life is lovelier with kids around, she wrote me in an email, “instead of forcing them off every morning with a crappy sandwich to endure the small daily abuses of a system that treats them like a value-added commodity to shoot out the other end of the K–12 pipeline.” Erik and Emily Orton, who homeschooled their five kids in New York City long before the pandemic, have been fielding questions from families worried about the cost to families who hope their nanny might become their kid’s educator, which the Ortons had never heard of before COVID-19. “The larger misperception is that it’s expensive, that it’s complicated, and that it’s time-consuming,” Erik Orton told me. “In our experience, it’s none of those things.”
The pandemic may play into some of the instincts of parents inclined toward homeschooling. There’s “this notion that school itself is kind of a risky place for children: They’re too fragile, that they’re more likely to get sick,” Mitchell Stevens, an education professor at Stanford University, told me. “If you have school anxiety about your child, COVID is your worst nightmare, because school is not a civic community; it’s a public-health risk.” American history is filled with people making the civic case for common schooling. Horace Mann, the 19th-century education reformer, argued that public school is essential for forming prudential citizens. This idea has never fully won out in American culture, however. The homeschooling world is dominated by parents “who believe that their family comes first and are less concerned with public health or the public good,” Jennifer Lois, a professor at Western Washington University, told me. These parents often “end up choosing those kind of family-first” options.
The problem is that in the chaos of the pandemic, it’s not clear how much common good any kind of school is doing. The children most likely to suffer under hybrid models of remote and in-person learning are those who don’t have access to the internet or whose parents have to work long hours outside the house, Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who studies Black homeschoolers, told me. These kids may have few other options—no matter how bad things get this fall, they’ll likely be stuck in traditional schools, while parents with more resources may decide to pursue alternatives. “I understand not wanting to send your child to school in a COVID context,” Fields-Smith said. But as families of all kinds face a potentially challenging fall, everyone seems to be in it for themselves, with no clear way to help other families thrive. “If you think about the American culture, it’s a lot of rugged individualism,” she said.
Academic studies of homeschooling tend to divide the community roughly into Christians and hippies, and Sharon Jackson falls more into the latter camp than the former. She and her husband both work as personal trainers and fitness consultants—Jackson once won second place at the Reebok National Aerobic Championship, which involves exactly as much colorful spandex as you’d imagine—and she’s not on a 9-to-5 schedule. As she read up on homeschooling, she found herself attracted to the concept of “unschooling,” which claims that children learn better when they direct their own studies, rather than following a set curriculum.
This was the argument I heard again and again from homeschooling advocates: Nontraditional schooling isn’t just about fear of regular school. It promotes academic excellence. “People have this idea in their head of what homeschooling is, and it isn’t,” Robert Bortins, the CEO of Classical Conversations, told me. “The thing people think about is the 1980s, jean-denim-skirt homeschoolers, and that’s not how it is anymore.” His company saw more than double the visitors to its website in July of this year compared with July 2019, he said. Rob and Jen Snyder, who oversee LEAH, a Christian organization that says it is the largest homeschooling group in New York, told me that they’ve gotten a huge surge in interest, building on last summer’s exodus from schools after the state repealed a religious exemption to vaccine requirements. While parents have been asking how to homeschool their children so that they can stay on track with traditional school, “there is no going back to normal,” Rob Snyder said. He believes that the pandemic will permanently reshape how parents think about school.
On every front, the pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in America’s public infrastructure: a health-care system that cannot broadly serve everyone who needs care. Sharp disparities in infection and death rates that underscore America’s existing inequalities. An education system that depends on children being together, in person, to function. Many of America’s most vulnerable families are going to spend the fall struggling through scattershot remote learning setups, assembling child-care coverage, and caring for family members who will inevitably get sick in a resurgence of cases. For people who were already inclined to doubt the system, the pandemic has just confirmed their suspicions about America. “Freedom is a state of being that is one’s birthright,” Jackson wrote me in an email. “The mainstream media just spews out propaganda to control people and a young person’s mind is so impressionable and that’s not how I want to raise Sophia.”
Even homeschooling will look different this fall, though. Around this time of year, a few hundred homeschooling families typically gather on the Great Hill in Central Park. They call it the “not-back-to-school picnic”—a chance to socialize with like-minded families who have found similar freedom in leaving traditional school behind. That won’t be happening this year, because of New York’s rules limiting large gatherings. And in normal times, many homeschoolers actually spend little time at home, so these students will feel the effects of museum closures and extracurricular-class cancellations. Still, Jackson told me that she is excited to begin Sophia’s studies. Without the pandemic, she said, “I would have just been staying in the system.”