Like millions of American parents this fall, my wife and I decided to homeschool our children.
In March, when schools shut down across Massachusetts and much of the country, the school where our daughters were enrolled was just starting spring break. We canceled our travel plans and used the two weeks to try and prepare for life’s new reality, blind to the dominoes that would fall and lead us to homeschool.
We were fortunate that we could redo our work schedules so that we could support our then five-year-old children, even as we realized my wife’s food business would be shuttered for some time. We built a strong routine and rhythm so our daughters could experience some security and predictability amidst the chaos.
As believers in the importance of active learning that is personalized in which the students build executive function skills, we watched with lots of empathy, but also dismay, as our girls’ Montessori school established gradually a larger set of Zoom sessions each day that emphasized whole-class learning over the personalized-learning experiences the girls had enjoyed pre-COVID.
But our girls were happy enough, so my wife and I felt grateful that our girls could continue to be part of their school’s community and see their friends online. We fit the changing school schedule into the routines we had created. At the same time, we recognized that the type of social interactions the children were having wouldn’t suffice for the following year.
We began pushing our neighboring schools and ourselves. What would school look like next year? How should we make our own decisions? And maybe most important, what did we want school to look like in these conditions? What experiences and lessons did we want our girls to have and take away in the year ahead?
In May I asked our school district’s superintendent if the district would create a set of microschools within each school in which a few entrepreneurial educators could craft a more bespoke experience where students would make progress as they mastered concepts. With the daily classroom having abruptly barged into families’ home lives, parents were clamoring for more customization for their circumstances—from their work schedules and arrangements to their at-home technological structures—than what was offered typically. Such a venture could pave the way for more innovation if society returned to a “normal” state.
Given all the work on the district’s plate, however, it wasn’t something that it had the capacity to consider. When the flurry of activity around parents creating learning pods and microschools occurred just a couple of months later, that was something that sat with us.
Although commentators and experts like Brown University Professor Emily Oster kept touting the safety of in-person schooling for children, particularly when schools kept stringent and commonsensical safety measures in place, my wife asked us to think more about what an in-person experience would mean from an educational and social perspective.
Yes, we, like many, had immunity concerns within our family. But apart from the question of whether in-person schools would be safe, the bigger question she asked was would it be a positive experience? And did we have an obligation to use our ability to be flexible to decrease the density of children in classrooms for public health reasons?
As we discussed and sought transparency from our own school, we arrived at two conclusions.
First, what we valued most for our children in the year ahead was the development of their habits of success—variants of which also go by character or social and emotional learning. Academics were less important to us, although we acknowledged our children enjoyed academics and they offered a path to build habits of success. We were more interested in themes such as how our children would learn to be kind, lead, and follow and how they could keep in touch with others during a distanced time. We wanted to stoke their curiosity and drive to understand how the world worked, as well as to appreciate our good fortune and develop concern for those in more challenging and diverse circumstances.
Second, as we considered the way that school might be conducted in the fall, we prioritized physical activity and the benefits of learning in nature. As The New York Times chronicled the history of outdoor schooling in past plagues, we determined that we felt most comfortable with our children learning outside—from both a safety and developmental perspective. And it would give more leeway to children who would not always correctly use their masks.
This was an important point. As we considered what in-person, indoor schooling might look like, although child-care was important to us, we weren’t enthusiastic about the probable experience itself. As we read accounts of what in-person looked like in Europe—with strict adherence to standing apart from others and prevention of any meaningful contact—we were concerned.
When we socialized with another family whose children had spent more time in-person—and socially distanced—with other children over the past few months, we noticed how any time one of our daughters moved toward them, they instinctively flinched and moved backward. Although being physically distant was important to learn for safety, it wasn’t a social norm we were eager to reinforce at this early an age. In the best of times, as I’ve written, traditional schooling isn’t particularly social, and we worried that it would be far worse this year. Given the importance of our children developing socially, that was of concern. We worried about the “student shaming” that would occur by the adults when students inevitably violated safety concerns.
Our daughters’ school chose ultimately to do a hybrid of outdoor and indoor schooling with an option for full-time virtual that left us feeling nervous about the indoor experience, intrigued about the outdoor experience, and doubtful that a full-time virtual experience would be much better than what our daughters experienced the year prior. As we looked at the plans—and the lack of specificity—we realized that whatever schools thought they knew wouldn’t hold as they gained experience, if children, teachers, or staff contracted COVID-19, and as circumstances outside their control changed.
We asked to help the school create a microschool or to allow our daughters to attend in-person for the outdoor portion of the day and connect virtually with teachers for a couple of hours each week of 1-on-1 or small-group time. When the school predictably deemed that a non-starter in July, we knew it was time for us to choose or craft a different option.
Creating a home-schooling experience that was safe, social, and outdoors and offered some in-person childcare was the natural next step.