With about a month until the school year begins in most of Maine, districts across the state are planning to reopen their classrooms, at least partially. But with COVID-19 still spreading, many parents are opting to keep their kids home or to withdraw them from public schools entirely.
We continue our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus” with a look at the choices that some parents are making during the pandemic.
Remote learning was hectic this spring for Lisa Dulac and her two kids. The mother from Poland would try to sit down and read with one son while the other darted around the house.
“I have a 7-year-old who needs to catch up on his reading,” Dulac said. “And then I had a four-year-old, running around playing and wanting to play with his brother, because that's what they do when they're home. They play together.”
So when Dulac heard that her children's school would likely be partially reopened this fall, she was eager to send them back. But in the last few weeks, she has reconsidered. As she has learned about the mask mandates and social distancing guidelines required of students, she worries that her now five-year-old may struggle to learn and socialize in this new version of school.
“If I can somehow manage, so my five-year-old, as a kindergartener, doesn't experience that as his, first, sort of, what school is like, then I'm going to keep him home and try to distance-learn,” she said. “And maybe try to get together with other families that have decided the same thing. So we can socialize with them. Sort of, like, a small pod.”
Dulac is not alone. In Portland, 11 percent of families who responded to a recent district survey indicated they would keep their children learning remotely. The numbers are similar in other cities, such as Biddeford and Bangor. Many families point to health and safety concerns, particularly in areas of the state that have been hardest hit by the virus.
Some families are opting for remote learning, despite the fact that online schooling frustrated many parents and students in the spring. Some students did well, but others, particularly those with disabilities, language barriers or a lack of internet access, struggled to access the services they needed.
Maine Deputy Education Commissioner Dan Chuhta said that should be different come fall.
“We were referring to the learning that was occurring in March on, as really emergency learning, in many cases. And this, because of the time we've had to prepare and plan for, it is, in some ways, more intentional, just because of time that educators have had to prepare for it.”
Yet for some parents, their continued worries are pushing them out of the school system completely. Many are now looking at homeschooling.
“Just the overall uncertainty, I think, is on a lot of people's minds,” said Kathy Green, with the group Homeschoolers of Maine. Green said her organization is seeing about a 15 percent increase in interest this year.
“Just not knowing what's coming in the future, for sure. And so just wanting to take this time to pull back and just pull their family together. And take a break, take a breather.”
While parents choosing remote or home schooling this fall say they are doing what is best for their families, the trends do worry some educators and experts. Bates College Professor Mara Tieken said these alternative schooling options are really only available for certain families — those who can afford to stay at home or even hire a private tutor. Others do not have that option. Tieken worries that divide could further exacerbate long-standing gaps in student achievement.
“We're seeing how these options can end up segregating or perpetuating racial segregation or class segregation in and around our schools,” Tieken said. “And then also, to the extent that these options are better or more rigorous, we can also see how this might exacerbate educational inequality.”
And some organizations caution that families' decisions this fall could have larger consequences for them, too.
“The laws are really kind of cloudy, and they're muddy, and it can be difficult to navigate,” says Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, which provides support to families of students with disabilities.
Woodcock said she has been informing families that if they choose to homeschool, their kids could lose out on services that were provided through public schools in the past.
“You're assuming all that responsibility, which means you have to come up with the curriculum and all the materials, and you won't get any support from school districts on any of those things. So you will be 100% providing the education of your child to your child without any supports in the district.”
Woodcock's organization is planning to hold webinars later this month on school reopening, with details about what homeschooling could mean for parents as they try to decide what to do in the fall.
You can find out more online about our series on how public schools in Maine are preparing to reopen this fall. Go to mainepublic.org/coronavirus