The pandemic has parents fleeing from schools -- maybe forever

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.