There’s no doubt homeschooling has been on the rise in the United States in recent years. Recent statistics show that homeschooling accounts for about 3–4% of American students (that translates to just over 2 million kids). But with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis still sweeping the globe, nearly every student in America is now doing school-at-home. EdWeek.org has an interactive map showing school closures across the country, and the numbers are changing constantly, but it’s safe to say that almost all — if not every single one — of our 76 million students are now being educated at home.
As a long-time homeschooler, I’ve fielded a lot of questions over the past two weeks from parents who want advice on managing their child’s education. I’ve also heard one phrase a lot more this month than I have in my previous ten years of homeschooling:
“I just don’t know how you do this.”
Truth? I don’t.
I don’t do school-at-home. I homeschool. There are some seemingly subtle, but actually significant, differences. Some people will see these differences as advantages for homeschool, while others will undoubtedly see them as drawbacks.
In addition to being a long-time homeschooler, I spent five years teaching in a public charter school and have many friends still in the teaching field. I am seeing behind the curtain, so to speak, watching them juggle this new set of expectations and trying to keep up with the “new normal”.
As always, YMMV, and there are exceptions to every rule. But in general, here are eleven differences between homeschool and school-at-home, presented as neutrally as possible:
- Homeschoolers, for the most part, create their own curricula. Some families purchase boxed or pre-packaged curricula, but most do not. Families choose curricula based on their child’s needs (more on this later), their own technology skills and capacity, and sometimes even their own strengths and interests. I taught music for years, so my children take private lessons at home with me, learning drums, guitar, trumpet, piano, and cello. Other homeschools might not include any functional music courses, and might instead spend time building up highly technical scientific skills, having their children finish high school-level physics by the time they’re thirteen. In a school-at-home situation, as you now know, your curriculum is decided by the state, district, or school administration.
- Homeschoolers do not have backup. Homeschoolers have to build their own network of resources to answer questions, find emotional support, or decide “Am I doing this right???”. If you’re doing school-at-home, paid professional classroom teachers are still involved. These teachers are rewriting lesson plans, grading assignments, giving feedback, answering questions, and providing online tutoring when needed. Parents in a school-at-home situation have a ton of support in comparison to homeschoolers.
- Homeschoolers use the technology they are comfortable with. They use what they have, what they like, and they definitely are not required to learn to use three or four new forms of technology in a week.
- Homeschool is completely customizable. My eleven-year-old is doing algebra, but is reading at a 5th grade level and writing at a 3rd grade level. This would be impossible in a classroom, even with an IEP; his dyslexia holds him back, and he wouldn’t be able to work three years ahead in math (unless he had some magical saint-angel classroom teacher who was willing to do one-on-one instruction with him in addition to all his IEP accommodations). School-at-home requires that students stay more or less together, working on the same set of standards. A classroom teacher can only keep track of so much, and that goes doubly when they’re trying to keep track of everything remotely.
- Homeschool is usually very social. Every city in America, and most small towns, have homeschool communities. We meet for play days at the park (I’ve attended homeschool park days with upwards of fifty kids playing together), we go on group field trips, and we swap kids for co-operative learning environments. Homeschool parents enroll their kids in the same dance classes, sports programs, city arts classes, and other activities the public school kids are enrolled in. School-at-home due to a global pandemic has almost zero socializing built in. One thing we share with school-at-home families: this quarantine is really cutting into our kids’ social lives.
- Homeschoolers often spend some time each day focusing on life skills. Cooking, cleaning, meal planning, grocery shopping, errands, helping run a family business, woodworking, and all those things that boomers tend to complain “they just don’t teach kids these days” are all baked into most homeschools. School-at-home certainly leaves room for these lessons, but they aren’t inherently part of the program, and parents would have to try to fit it all in, in addition to also getting their own work done at home.
- Homeschool is usually on the family’s schedule. Homeschoolers can take school on the road, or work in the car on the way to a doctor’s appointment across town. Homeschoolers can take breaks, build their own schedule, or take most of the year off if they get their state-required work done quickly enough. (Some states do have requirements about attendance or a specific number of instruction days, though.) School-at-home has strict attendance policies to enact (thus all those Zoom meetings your kindergartner is attending) in order to meet state requirements for funding. School-at-home is only as flexible as your regular public school calendar will allow.
- Homeschoolers aren’t hyper-accountable to an outside source. The most rigorous state requirements for homeschooling do require testing and annual evaluation, but even in those states, homeschoolers are not turning in daily work to prove that they’ve finished a lesson or mastered a concept. Most states have much less oversight than that. Thus, homeschoolers can move at their own pace. School-at-home requires parents and students to check emails weekly, if not daily, and log in to online forums and meetings and turn in written, graded assignments multiple times a week.
- Homeschool is not typically tied to an electronic device and internet connection. Homeschoolers use the tools available to them. It is entirely possible to homeschool with zero internet connection (I wouldn’t want to do it, but it’s possible). It’s almost completely impossible to keep up with our new school-at-home situation without a broadband connection and a laptop. Students who have been using a cell phone and a library wi-fi connection to keep up are now stranded at home, falling behind. Even families with strong internet connections and home computers aren’t used to sharing those computers with their elementary schoolers.
- Homeschoolers often have a full-time homeschooling parent. While there are exceptions to this, they’re rare. Most homeschooling families have one parent who dedicates a large chunk of their time and energy to homeschooling, especially if there’s more than one child being educated in the home. Parents doing school-at-home during this pandemic are trying to balance multiple full-time jobs or job loss, or other significant time constraints. It’s a lot harder to answer questions about the quadratic equation and Edgar Allen Poe in between conference calls while everyone is sharing one kitchen table as a workspace.
- Homeschooling is a choice. While some families certainly were choosing to do online schooling prior to this pandemic, tens of millions of families were effectively forced into it with very little notice. Our local school district was on spring break when the U.S. started really wrestling with COVID-19 and we got approximately nine days’ notice that our high schooler would be doing school online. Being forced into something so quickly, especially while so much else is changing and placing unexpected stress on the entire family is disorienting, frustrating, and even scary.
Homeschooling is different from school-at-home. If you’re struggling to manage school-at-home, your friendly local homeschoolers probably have some useful advice and can be a source of emotional support. But if, at the end of a long and difficult week, you find yourself saying, “No way could I do this for a year, much less a decade!”, just know that homeschoolers are not having to do what you’re doing.
And you’re doing just fine.