Homeschooling is not the same as distance learning

COVID-19 is a catalyst for many Arizona parents considering homeschooling. But there are many reasons parents might choose homeschooling over distance learning options.

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Arizona homeschooling
“Homeschooling” isn’t a catch-all phrase for any learning done at home.

As uncertainty about the coming school year dragged into July, Glendale mom Arika Hall made a decision. Her family will homeschool their middle-school-age son along with their two preschool children.

COVID-19 is a catalyst for many Arizona parents considering homeschooling. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the Pima County Superintendent Dustin William’s office and Facebook groups serving Arizona homeschoolers have seen an uptick in interest. A poll of Raising Arizona Kids readers in early July showed that 77 percent of respondents were “not at all confident” about sending their children to school for in-person instruction by mid-August. And a national poll found only a minority of American parents were feeling ready to send children back into the classroom.

So what other options do parents have? Learning from home can look like the district-based distance learning many families experienced this spring, but it can also come in the form of an actual homeschool.

What is homeschooling?

“Homeschooling” isn’t a catch-all phrase for any learning done at home. Rather, homeschooling is K-12 education that takes place outside of public district, public charter or private school settings. While it is often associated with families who are deeply religious, 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate many other reasons families choose homeschooling: concerns about the school environment, a desire to use nontraditional education approaches, and the complicated logistics of educating a child with special needs. Homeschooled children can be taught by parents, tutors or community members.

In Arizona, homeschool regulations are loose. Parents or guardians need only present a one-page affidavit-of-intent form to begin homeschooling. Maricopa County, the parent or person with custody of the child must file a notarized affidavit-of-intent form with the County Superintendent of Schools within 30 days of beginning homeschooling. Statewide, every child age 6-16 is required to receive instruction in at least reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science. But how this is done is up to the parents’ or guardians’ discretion.

What homeschooling is not

When schools closed this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents experienced distance learning, virtual learning or some combination of the two. Distance learning takes place in a location other than a classroom — usually at home. However, it still uses learning tools developed by a school or educational institution. These days, distance learning almost always involves computers or other electronic devices; therefore, it includes what is called virtual, or online, learning.

Online learning is distinct in that it uses not just virtual classrooms to connect students and teachers, but online learning platforms — such as Blackboard and Canvas — to guide students through lessons. To make this all a little more confusing, virtual or online learning doesn’t even need to take place away from the classroom. As of Aug. 17, Arizona public schools must provide a safe place where children can do their virtual schoolwork even while delays in traditional teaching are ongoing. Monitors — not teachers — will keep an eye on students, who are expected to maintain safe distances.

According to social media posts, many Arizona parents are navigating these varied options with astounding agility. Still, for those hoping to sidestep chaos, uncertainty, computer-based learning, and the risk of catching COVID-19, homeschooling offers an alternative.

Choosing to homeschool

There are several reasons parents might choose homeschooling over distance learning options. A recent New York Times article looked at the challenges parents are facing guiding their students through the maze of distance learning activities and assignments. One family, for instance, had to navigate five different learning apps and eight teachers’ mismatched distance learning methods.

Homeschooling appeals to Hall and her family in Glendale, because it doesn’t require these kinds of screen-based check-ins. Hall will be teaming up with her sister and a friend who is a middle-school teacher to create a small homeschooling co-op. Her son did well with distance learning last spring, but the idea of instead learning from this family friend, in person, got him “beyond excited,” Hall says. “Their personalities work together.”

The co-op homeschooling model can provide benefits particular to the pandemic era, too. Like the small-scale childcare “pods” that families have turned to during the pandemic, this model actually allows parents breaks from responsibility, something many parents have been looking for after months of rolling quarantines. Each family has time off from teaching when it is another family’s turn to teach.

Plus, homeschooling co-ops limit social contact while still allowing for some socialization. “There are only six kids total, and three of them are mine. It definitely feels safer than a classroom,” Hall says.

The homeschool learning curve

Homeschooling presents exciting opportunities for some parents, but sounds completely overwhelming to others. Brooke Shepard of Goodyear had planned on homeschooling this year because she is at high-risk for COVID-19 complications. But after she got an email from her district letting her know that online learning would be an option, she was relieved. “I think following set lessons with teachers will be easier to keep up with,” she says.

Superintendent Williams, in a KGUN Tucson webinar on homeschooling, urges caution before families make the switch because “homeschooling is very difficult.” He encourages parents to first check out distance learning options because schools already have support mechanisms in place to help students learn.

“When you see networks of parents doing homeschooling who do it well, you can see some impressive things going on,” John Pedicone, a former Pima County Superintendent, said during the same webinar. “Then I’ve also seen the opposite of that,” he added.

And then, there’s the fact that some schools are simply worth waiting for. Andrea Knob of Scottsdale is choosing distance learning through her children’s charter schools this fall because she and her husband “love the schools” their children attend. The two parents work remotely, so keeping up with the school’s required virtual meeting schedule might be a challenge. Still, she said, “We thought that our school did an amazing job” with distance learning in the spring. They don’t want to lose their place in the school, “so homeschooling would be a last resort.”

If homeschooling is the best choice for your family, you will find that it can be done, in spite of the challenges. The Pima County Superintendent’s office says it welcomes communication with parents hoping to homeschool, and will continue to provide support for special-needs children learning from home. And there is no shortage of online homeschooling resources and educational materials.

“In the beginning, a local co-op group and support was vital,” says Scottsdale mom Jana Tingom, who’s been homeschooling her kids for four years. And as you start to plug in, “there is no lack of socialization or ways to learn.”

4 homeschool resources for Arizona parents

Arizona Families for Home Education is a statewide support organization, directed by a Christian board, that provides legal information and resources to all Arizona homeschooling parents.

A to Z Home’s Cool is national website with exhaustive resources by state. It was started by a home-schooling mom in the San Jose, California, area who worked in the tech industry.

Home School Legal Defense Association is a nonprofit advocacy organization established to defend and advance the constitutional rights of parents to direct the education of their children. It offers links to articles, legal perspectives, legislative updates, research, state-specific informational and international home-schooling information.

National Home Education Research Institute is a clearinghouse of research for the public, researchers, home schoolers, the news media and policy makers.