COVID Spurs Catholics to Take Another Look at Home Schooling
Parents weigh educational options as the new school year looms.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This summer, as another surge of COVID-19 cases swept through California, Mary Harrell took stock of the Golden State’s public-health guidelines for school reopenings and made the decision to enroll her four children in a Catholic home-schooling program.
“Based on our experience with distance learning last spring, my husband and I decided that if we had the children at home in the fall, we would rather choose a home-schooling program,” Harrell told the Register. “It was too much to juggle the distance-learning requirement with a growing family and the costs of tuition.”
At present, Harrell has no intention of making this switch permanent and hopes her children can return to their school in the near future. But she’s keeping an open mind for now, as she and her husband celebrate the fact that the cost for enrolling all four children in a home-schooling program was a fraction of last year’s tuition bill.
After the couple totaled up their education budget for the fall, “My husband said with surprise, ‘That’s so cheap.’
“And I said, ‘That’s because I’m the teacher.’”
As U.S. public and private schools prepare for their first full pandemic school year, the fraught national debate over school reopenings during the pandemic has mostly hinged on whether students will return to their classrooms or continue online instruction at home.
What has been lost in the cacophony of expert opinion and political rhetoric is the growing number of Catholic and non-Catholic parents who are quietly enrolling their children in established home-schooling programs and informal support groups for the first time. And while some are customizing their own approach, choosing between a mix of religious and secular curricula and resources, others are signing up for a full package at an accredited program.
Harrell opted for Seton Home Study School, the most popular Catholic program on the market, and will pay about $1,600 for all four children.
Sarah Norman, a Catholic mother of three in Reston, Virginia, will adopt a different approach for her oldest child, a rising second-grader who previously attended a public magnet school.
“We are going to be picking and choosing, math from here and language arts from there,” said Norman, who hopes to keep her family involved in their parish’s vibrant catechetical program.
T.J. Schmidt, a staff attorney at the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, estimates that just over 2 million children were home-schooled during the 2019-2020 school year. Looking ahead to the fall, he suggests that number could easily double, as his organization handles a surge of inquiries from first-time home-schooling parents who want legal advice on withdrawing their children from public school and need information about state laws governing the education of children at home.
“Parents are agonizing over this decision, trying to understand what would be best for them and their children,” Schmidt told the Register.
Catholic educators have also registered the explosion of parental interest in home schooling, a shift that could further weaken a parochial school system already battered by the pandemic.
“Uncertainty around the reopening of schools is driving a lot of this,” said Mary Pat Donoghue, the executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has heard from Catholic parents, teachers and school superintendents whipsawed by shifting state and local public-health orders.
She flagged one recent skirmish over school closures in Montgomery County, Maryland, that underscored the intensity of parental emotions around this issue. In this case, Gov. Larry Hogan reversed a public-health order closing private and parochial schools, after thousands of families petitioned his office to demand a reprieve.
On Aug. 3, Hogan issued an order that curtailed the power of local health officials to impose “blanket closure” mandates.
“Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines,” read the governor’s statement. The flare-up revealed parents’ deep apprehension about a return to remote learning if schools don’t reopen for the school year.
The disquiet is not limited to parents in the Washington metro area.
“This spring, America took an involuntary crash course in remote learning. With the school year now winding down, the grade from students, teachers, parents and administrators is already in: It was a failure,” concluded The Wall Street Journal, in its harsh postmortem of the final months of the last school year.
Some public and private schools performed better than others. But teachers had little time to prepare for online instruction, underprivileged students often lacked internet access, and mothers and fathers struggled to take up the slack while managing their own work schedules.
Last May, a poll from USA Today/Ipsos found 6 in 10 parents were investigating some version of home schooling for the upcoming school year, with about 30% of respondents reporting that they were “very likely” to take that step.
Donoghue acknowledged parents’ simmering frustrations and shared one story of her own: a mother of four whose children who were taught by a total of 25 teachers, each with their own Google classroom portal.
Parents who have decided to home-school hope to avoid such problems in the fall, she said. They are drawn to established programs because they are user-friendly. And instead of trying to keep up with a typical school calendar and work flow, parents “can be the teacher and decide when things are due.”
These key insights help explain why thousands of parents are enrolling their children in Catholic home-schooling programs like Seton Home Study School, Mother of Divine Grace School and Kolbe Academy.
“This will be an unprecedented year for us,” Draper Warren, director of admission for Seton, told the Register.
Based on the number of new enrollments and inquiries Seton has already received this summer, Warren expects a groundbreaking school year.
“We had 12,000 students in 2019-2020,” he said. “It could be 40%-50% more this year.”
Warren said many parents told him that they had been thinking about home schooling for years, and the pandemic gave them the final nudge.
“Generally, parents who choose our program are very committed to the faith, and that is why they are drawn to Seton, and not K-12,” he said, referring to a highly regarded secular home-school curriculum.
“In some cases, their children’s schools aren’t reopening, and in other cases they are worried about mask requirements,” he said, noting the general rule that students must wear masks throughout the day for in-class instruction.
Mother of Divine Grace School, a classical Catholic home-schooling program established in Ojai, California, also reported a big jump in new students and expects to reach capacity before the fall.
“The current pandemic is the main reason people are seeking enrollment in our school,” said Christopher Sebastian, director of public relations for the school. “The growth of new families coming into our program has gone up by 90%.”
Last year, 1,800 families and more than 4,600 students were enrolled. Currently, the numbers for the upcoming school year have risen to 2,300 families and more than 5,900 students, he said.
The accredited program offers a range of personalized options for families, from tutorial assistance to online classes, and that provides flexibility for parents who need to carve out time for their work during the day.
Tuition, which varies from $750 to $1,350, covers the whole family and is based on whether the oldest child is in elementary or high school.
Kolbe Academy, located in Napa, California, offers a range of full- and part-time programs that include online and self-paced options. Tuition for a family’s oldest child enrolled in a full-time online high-school program is $4,699.
The majority of first-time home-schooling families contacted by the Register reported that one parent — typically a stay-at-home mom — would take primary responsibility for the new venture. But a significant portion of households depend on two incomes, and parents who need more flexibility are investigating “hybrid” educational models, which combine on-site classes with home-based learning.
Kari Beckman, a Catholic mother of eight and the founder of the Atlanta-based Regina Caeli, has seen an uptick in enrollment over the summer and expressed sympathy with parents looking for fresh options.
Parents can be pulled in two directions, she told the Register. Many are concerned about remote learning models that require too much screen time. But these same parents are looking for practical daily help with supervision and instruction, so they can provide a rich educational experience for their children and still handle other duties.
Beckman vowed that Regina Caeli’s 17 satellite centers located across the country would be open this fall, while following public-health social-distancing guidelines.
“Our [on-site] classes will take care of all instructional duties two days a week,” she said.
On each of the other three days of the school week, parents must reserve about four and a half hours to help their children with at-home instruction.
Some families that want to rely on experienced teachers to instruct their children are also investigating a new concept: learning “pods” led by a hired teacher and organized by parents with children in the same grade.
In this case, the goal is to replicate or enhance the academic program the children would otherwise receive in class, with the expectation that the pod would disband after school reopens for good.
Parents looking for a less structured approach have contacted regional and parish-based home-schooling support groups and cooperatives that may organize common academic, sports and other group activities.
“Our group has been receiving inquiries from Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” said Dee Mihaliak, a mother of five in Avon, Connecticut, who has headed the Adoro Te Homeschooling Group since 2005.
A veteran home-schooler with 21 years of expertise under her belt, Mihaliak said that she and her husband decided to educate their children at home initially “because we were looking for a better academic option and because we wanted to live out our faith.”
They stuck with it “because it has been a life choice for our family.”
This summer, during telephone calls and information sessions with parents, she has witnessed the disruptive power of a pandemic that has left families with no firm plans for the fall — even as many parents are consumed with worries about job insecurity and may be contemplating a move to bring down expenses.
And if schools do reopen, parents wonder whether their children will be comfortable wearing masks throughout the day.
These parents “are not rabid anti-maskers,” she said. But they fear that the masking requirement could distract from academics and place too much focus on the pandemic during the school day.
These families may see home schooling as a short-term antidote for uncertain times. But Mihaliak hopes they will stay the course and find a sense of peace, as they come to appreciate the unexpected riches of daily life for families like her own.
“Home schooling lends itself to quiet activities, like music, woodworking, drawing and painting,” she said. “These activities are mentally relaxing and open up quiet time when you hear God’s voice.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.