Parents and guardians across the state were suddenly thrown into distance learning when school buildings closed to help curb the spread of COVID-19 back in March.
The transition did not go well for Aime Collins of Anchorage.
“The transition this last spring was, in a word, crazy.”
Collins works full time at an early-learning non-profit and her husband is a stay-at-home dad so they had childcare. But trying to educate a 5-year-old while caring for a 2-year-old at the same time was an immense challenge.
Collins said she doesn’t want a repeat of what happened in the spring, so she’s considering homeschooling her older son.
She said she’s not really a fan of homeschooling because she wants her son to have face to face interactions with other kids. But her son has asthma and won’t be able to wear a face mask at school.
“Thinking about his mental health and his physical health being potentially exposed to either COVID or an environment that just upsets him we’re kind of feeling like we don’t have a lot of choice,” Collins said. “We might need a more structured home curriculum, if we’re going to keep him engaged in Learning.”
Collins said she would rather use an established home school program that does distance-learning professionally and offers more guidance, than use a model the district creates.
There are 31 homeschool programs, or what the state calls correspondence schools, in Alaska.
One of them is Family Parternership Charter School, based within the Anchorage School District. According to the Principal, Jessica Parker, it’s the largest charter school in the state. And it’s getting bigger. Parker said enrollment is currently the highest it’s ever been. She said she’s already hired an additional teacher and plans to hire another in the fall.
“The number one drive is COVID and the uncertainty of the school district,” Parker said.
Family Partnership’s program was able to continue without missing a beat when school buildings closed in March, Parker said. And now more parents are looking to secure that same continuity for their children.
Parker said her days are filled with responding to questions and inquiries from parents, like Collins, exploring different education options.
“After graduation, this is all I’ve been doing is just answering parents questions: ‘What if school doesn’t start? What if we change our mind?,'” Parker said. “That’s my main gig right now.”
Daryl Bowers is the director of Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), one of the largest home school programs in the state based in the Galena School District. Bowers said he is also fielding a number of inquiries into his program.
He said brick and mortar schools are built for face-to-face instruction so distance education can be a quite a leap.
While he hasn’t seen the same amount of growth that Parker has yet, he’s anticipating it.
“I think that August and September could be a very busy month for us,” he said. “Where parents are looking for support for educating their kids at home from an actual home school program.”
Shigone Beighle of Anchorage said she’s already decided to home school her 10-year-old and 6-year-old in the fall.
Beighle is a physician’s assistant in an emergency room and her husband is a full-time student.
Beighle said she doesn’t want to risk spreading the coronavirus to her children who could then take it to the schools. She also said she doesn’t want her children to bring the virus back because they have family members in the home who are at risk.
“We do not know what’s going on with the virus,” she said. “In school, it’s very easy to spread, so it might be better to err on the side of caution and take the home school year until we know more.”
But, homeschooling isn’t for everyone.
Both Collins and Beighle have partners who are not working full-time and can help. But they both say their families will need to make significant adjustments.
Beighle’s partner, a full-time student, will not be returning to school in the fall. Collins is hoping she will be able to continue to work from home in order to lend her husband a hand.
Parker, the principal at Family Partnership, acknowledged home schooling is a major commitment.
“We actually ask parents to sign a contract, saying they understand this is the harder option, not the easier option,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure they understand that this is more work. This is not less work. This is more work. ”
But in the absence of a concrete plan from the district, some families are preparing to take on the challenge.
The Anchorage School District is convening a task force with multiple working groups as well as sending out surveys to gather input about what reopening school will look like in the fall.
ASD says one option – completely online- is being considered for families who don’t want their children to return to school buildings.
The district hopes to be able to provide a plan in July. But some families aren’t waiting for that decision.