Back when my children were little, homeschooling was still a bit more radical than it is today given the current pandemic. For those of you who don’t know me, I was raising two daughters mostly alone after an early divorce. My oldest, Elizabeth, was profoundly disabled, blind, wheelchair-bound, intellectually impaired, and nonverbal. She was a 29-week preemie and very medically fragile. She was funny and sweet and loved butterflies. Diagnosed with a life-limiting mitochondrial disease at age 2 ½, we, unfortunately, lost her when she was 17.
Then there was my youngest daughter Caroline, who I don’t talk about or write about too much because frankly, she doesn’t like it. She’s 19 now and doing great but for a while there…
Caroline was a beautiful but intense child, as many special needs siblings can be. She was also very funny and artistic and loved to make movies and sing songs. But, when Caroline was younger, she struggled enormously. She was always that kid in the corner playing with something else while all the other kids were listening at storytime. Homelife was busy and tragic. Caroline had a lot of different caregivers, lacked consistency, and seemed to go from one crisis to the next and I just couldn’t seem to slow the pace down. Many of you single moms out there are nodding your heads right now because you know what I’m saying is true.
Then there was dance. This was her thing. And she was pretty good at it. She wasn’t the best in the group and as usual, she awkwardly struggled to make friends, but she found her way to the middle of the pack and I thought this would be okay. Elizabeth was getting more medically complex just as we were getting more involved in this dance community and Caroline was approaching early teen years. We were learning that some in the group were homeschoolers and it sounded like a great idea, so we dove into the deep end to learn more about it.
Caroline was in a group who were homeschooled because they were training in the arts or sports. This would include dance, actors, and athletes training like Olympians. Ever wonder how those 15-year-old gymnasts or skaters train all day? Or how those little kids can be in the musical “School of Rock” on Broadway? Homeschooling is how they do it.
But actually, I was finding out there is a big difference in homeschooling techniques, which has a lot to do with what is going on today during the pandemic. Homeschooling and distance learning are two very different things. Homeschooling involves the parents’ or caregivers’ lesson plans, and distance learning is still a school or teacher/tutor-led-and-approved curriculum that is facilitated on a distance learning platform. It is our old correspondence style coursework of the past, now supercharged by computers and the internet!
There were not many homeschooling or distance learning programs to choose from back then. We opted for distance learning and used an approved curriculum that was actually affiliated with a public school in our state because that made it free. Most of the other programs came with hefty price tags which we could not afford.
Our choice was called K12 (this is not an advertisement for their program) and although not too well known back then I see them advertising all over the place now. That gave Caroline access to an online classroom, a free computer, and free books/materials as if she were in public school because, after all, my tax dollars were paying for it anyway, and also a classroom teacher. Most importantly, I was her facilitator and I got to spend time with her. I got to see where her strengths were and where she was challenged. My fondest memory was when we worked on a history project together about the Trail of Tears. We built a board game about the perils of the road west because she was a visual learner like me.
Caroline was on her computer joining her class for about an hour or two each day around her dance schedule. The rest of the time was done on our own. The teacher would grade her work that we turned in. This is essentially what is happening today.
That brings me to my next point about special needs. Caroline’s learning challenges became clear to me during that time. I have heard from so many of you during this time of the pandemic as well that one of the best things to come out of all of this crisis is the closeness you have with your children. Being able to participate in those lessons with your children and their educators, you can see what they can do, what they cannot do. You can see how to present materials to your blind students, how to stretch your child for physical therapy, and how to break up a lesson plan for someone with executive function challenges.
And some of you are finding that your children are not making progress at home and that is okay too. It’s all information that is useful and helps us know what will work in the future. No distance learning or homeschooling program for your son or daughter. Or at least it must be designed very differently than what is being presented right now.
Tragically, many educators and the general public look down on homeschooling due to cultural bias, stereotyping, misinformation, and a lack of understanding about concepts and outcomes. Just before the pandemic hit, Harvard Law School announced an event to discuss homeschooling. “The focus will be on problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling.”
I myself had many discussions with friends and family alike, as well as my school system, about educating Caroline. There is a strong bias that homeschoolers are inferior, do not learn basic skills, and are indoctrinated with scary ideologies in the backwoods of America. I kid you not – the articles are out there, for example by Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, and you only need to read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir to be convinced of it.
This pandemic has given us an opportunity to look at our educational system for all children with fresh eyes but particularly for our children with special needs. Let’s put all our preconceived notions aside about education, wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Here are only a few things to consider:
- As the parent/caregiver, do you have the ability, desire, and time to create your own curriculum for your child?
- As the parent/caregiver do you require special training that you don’t yet have to teach or care for your child?
- Has your child responded well to less social stimuli at home?
- Has your child regressed without their peers?
- Does your child have a low incidence disability such as blindness, deafness, etc?
- Does your child require special equipment that you can only get at school such as a vision room or a standing frame?
- Does your child have a medical condition that will make it too risky to return to a classroom without a vaccine or herd immunity?
- What else needs consideration?
It costs a lot to educate our children in the system that we have. We may want to think through how we rebuild our special education system to be responsive to the educational needs of children and families and let’s actually include families’ voices this time. Secretary DeVos just announced that if schools were not going to reopen then she would hand out the money to families instead to educate their children. Well, why not? We could use it!