Over the summer, Kathryn “Kitty” Michelotti welcomed 1,000 new members to the Facebook group she runs for Granite State Home Educators, a non-profit focused on supporting homeschoolers in the state — about a 33 percent increase in membership. Most of the new people were stressed — asking questions about what curriculum to use, what a day of homeschool looks like and how they could possibly manage to educate their children while working. For all of them, Michelotti had the same advice.
“Spiritually, I would start with a bubble bath and deep breath,” said Michelotti, who lives in Derry. “You’re not going to mess it up.”
As a founding member of Granite State Home Educators and chairman of the Home Education Advisory Council, a liaison group that connects home educators with the New Hampshire Department of Education, Michelotti has lots of experience with homeschool. She also educates her three sons, ages 13, 10 and 6. Despite her enthusiasm for homeschooling, she says that the parents who are opting to homeschool this year because of the pandemic face unique challenges.
“It’s tough to be someone who has relied on schools to provide everything and take that on yourself without having really chosen it,” she said. “Homeschooling is something that’s difficult to do if you feel like you’re doing it under duress.”
During a typical school year, 2-3 percent of students in New Hampshire, about 5,000 kids, are homeschooled, according to Frank Edelblut, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education. The data for this year won’t be available until October, but Edelblut said that there has been an increase in the number of parents and students expressing an interest in homeschool.
“We have been doing regular webinars for parents through various home education support groups and libraries to answer questions for families,” Edelblut said.
That gets to a fundamental misunderstanding about homeschool — that parents are entirely on their own. In New Hampshire, RSA 193-A outlines requirements for homeschooling — including that parents notify their superintendent and that they keep evaluations or portfolios of student progress. Another portion of educational law — RSA 193-1c — stipulates that homeschool students can access curricular and extracurricular resources from their district. Practically, that means that if a parent is uncomfortable teaching math, for example, their student can attend math classes through the district.
“You’re definitely not on your own,” Michelotti said.
Edelblut said that for many families, homeschooling is the best choice during this unusual school year.
“It is a great option for many children and families,” he said. “The flexible instructional model nurtures student curiosity and gives them opportunity to pursue areas of personal interest. It is enriching to students and parents alike, but is also a lot of hard work.”
However, homeschool is inaccessible for some families. Many working parents can not take on the burden of teaching their children. In addition, homeschooling can complicate access to services for special needs students. These students, if homeschooled, will no longer have an individualized learning plan (IEP), but Edelblut said that students are still entitled to evaluation for special needs and any co-curricular services, like speech therapy, being offered to other students in the district.
Althea Barton, of Concord, homeschools her two teenage sons and is the Concord-area representative for the New Hampshire Homeschooling Coalition, which supports homeschooling families. While homeschooling offers lots of flexibility, Barton said that parents who are only planning to homeschool for one year and then re-enroll their students in public school should closely follow state standards and work toward grade-level competencies to ensure that kids are on track with their peers when they return to the classroom.
“Someone who is exploring homeschooling with the intention of getting kids back into school really does need to keep track of what their children would be learning in a school setting at grade level,” Barton said. Parents who intend to re-enroll in school might opt to participate in standardized testing to track student progress rather than just keeping a portfolio of student work, she said.
This school year will look different even for experienced homeschoolers. No homeschool co-ops in the state are meeting in person, and there are fewer field trips available to museums or other educational destinations.
Despite that, Barton emphasized that parents who intend to homeschool need to stay calm and allow time to discover what works for themselves and their children.
“There is a lot of panic,” she said. “Try to relax. You kids aren’t going to learn more if you’re nervous and anxious. No child will die from not covering every chapter in the book.”
Michelotti agreed. She advocates for giving kids some autonomy in deciding what their day looks like. Ask your children if they want to do schooling first thing in the morning, or if they’d rather sleep in. Let them chew gum or bounce on a ball if that helps them concentrate. The more buy-in kids have, the more they’ll enjoy homeschool, she said.
Still, parents should expect some difficult days, she added. Even experienced home educators have those, and new-to-homeschool families are exploring the boundaries between home and school, parent and teacher for the first time.
“The dynamic of becoming the teacher is tough because kids are used to coming home and decompressing,” Michelotti said. “It would be like your boss all of a sudden coming into your living room. Allowing some grace for our kids is important.”
Bethany Anderson, of Nottingham, plans to homeschool her two sons, who are 5 and 8. She’s been homeschooling her third-grader, but this will be her first time teaching both boys.
“There are some days I was to throw my head into the wall,” she said. “You take it one day at a time. Don’t feel like you’re the only one having a hard time. You’re not the only one losing your marbles.”
Overall, Anderson feels that doing what’s best for her sons is worth the sometimes draining days of home education.
“The number one comment I get from parents is that I’m brave. I’m not brave. We do what we have to do for our kids, and we do what we think it best,” she said.
Anderson’s religious beliefs informed her decision to homeschool, but said that all parents — whether homeschooling for secular or religious reasons — should reach out to the larger homeschool community for support.
“We’re all in this together,” she said.
Many parents feel overwhelmed by what they might not know, but Michelotti said that it’s ok to fail at teaching a lesson or to admit to your children that you don’t know how to do something. In this digital age the most important skill kids need is the ability to find reliable information that they need. Instances that might make you feel intimidated — like teaching new common core math strategies — can become teaching moments when you look up videos and other supports with your kids, she said.
“It becomes more about teaching kids how to be resourceful.”
Overall, the upcoming school year is going to be unusual for everyone, whether they’re doing in-person school, remote learning or homeschool. Taking a deep breath and doing your best will be enough, Michelotti said.
“Everybody is in a weird spot right now. That’s ok.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.