Like many parents across Maine, Kristin Trivilino has been feeling anxious about what a return to school will look like this fall.
The Sanford mother of two has a sixth-grade daughter who has had pneumonia in the past and is slightly more at risk for getting sick. She also worries whether her fourth-grade son will have the patience to keep a mask on all day and if that requirement will lead to at-home meltdowns when the school day is over.
Remote learning last spring wasn’t perfect, but with so much uncertainty around what school will look like and how safe it will be in the coming year, Trivilino and her family recently made the decision to homeschool.
“It just got too stressful to be in limbo,” said Trivilino, 33. “Especially for me. I need time to plan all this and put everything together. I want to make sure we have a significant amount of time, so I made the final call last weekend. We are going to homeschool.”
Around Maine, uncertainty about the coming school year is prompting many families to embrace the idea of homeschooling. It’s not clear yet whether the uptick in interest will lead to increased numbers, as the Maine Department of Education doesn’t yet have data on how many families have submitted notice of plans to homeschool for the coming year.
But anecdotal evidence suggests some families seeking stability and worried about health concerns are considering homeschooling their children, and longtime members of Maine’s homeschool community said they’ve also seen a surge in interest.
“The coronavirus is the driving topic right now,” said Kathy Green, co-founder of Homeschoolers of Maine, a Camden-based religious ministry that provides support and guidance for homeschooling.
Green said she’s seen a 10 percent increase in homeschool informational session registrations over last year and estimates overall interest to be up 15 percent based on a rise in Facebook followers and newsletter subscribers.
“People are concerned about what school is going to look like for their children, whether it will be a healthy place for them and whether their children we be able to adapt to the policies that will be in place,” she said. “Also, in general there are so many unknowns right now. People are not sure what things will look like, so they’re planning ahead for that.”
State officials announced Friday that schools in every county could open for in-person learning this fall, but final decisions from most school districts have yet to be made. Districts are currently considering remote, in-person and hybrid options as well as the possibility schools will need to suddenly shift from one model to another depending on the evolution of the virus.
Parents who normally stay home or now find themselves working from home because of the pandemic are considering keeping their children at home too, motivated by health concerns and skepticism about how social distancing will work in schools.
Some parents said they were unhappy with last spring’s remote learning and are excited about exploring a different option rather than waiting to see what their schools might offer.
The social aspect of school is important to many, but with a different kind of school year inevitable, they say it just makes sense to stay home.
“They’re not going to be meeting in the cafeteria for lunchtime because they’re not anticipating having the cafeteria open,” said April Kate Vansandt, who is planning on homeschooling her granddaughter, Aria LeBoeuf, who would be a freshman at Massabesic High School in Waterboro.
“They’re going to lose out on those social opportunities, anyway, so I don’t think that will be as big of a factor as it historically has been.”
According to the Maine Department of Education, there were an estimated 6,770 homeschool students in 2019-2020, though that number has not been finalized due to the state’s move to an online homeschool notification process last year that resulted in some duplicate entries. Maine has 182,500 students enrolled in public, private and charter schools. About 3 percent, or 1.7 million, of the country’s school-age children are homeschooled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Families who opt to homeschool in Maine are required to file letters of intent with either their home school department within 10 days of withdrawing their child from school and by Sept. 1 in each subsequent year.
Preliminary data from a department survey administered last month show most families are likely to send their children back to schools if they open for in-person instruction, but some are skeptical about schools’ abilities to implement health and safety guidance.
Of the 32,352 respondents to the survey, 47 percent strongly agreed they would send their child back in-person, 25 percent agreed, 8 percent disagreed, 9 percent strongly disagreed and 12 percent did not know what they would do.
Twenty-six percent of families said they strongly agree schools will be able to adequately implement safety guidelines, 34 percent agree, 16 percent disagree, 11 percent strongly disagree and 14 percent did not know. The preliminary results do not include the responses of 164 people who took the survey in a language other than English.
Kelli Deveaux, a DOE spokeswoman, said they are hearing from parents who want to learn more about home instruction and are asking questions about the next school year and what it will look like for their students.
“We encourage families to speak directly with their child’s principal or superintendent to learn more about the (district’s) plans for instruction,” Deveaux said in an email.
“Many (districts) are offering families options to maintain their school community connection, as some may not be comfortable, for whatever reason, with the instructional plan that the school is using at any point in the school year, as we know that these models may fluctuate with the health advisory system updates.”
Members of Maine’s established homeschool community were already expecting to see some increase in interest driven by a new state law taking effect in September 2021 eliminating non-medical exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren. Now numbers are also being driven by the coronavirus.
Dawn Nguyen, who five years ago started the Facebook group Maine Homeschool Field Trips, an online support group for homeschool families, said she is also seeing an increase in interest. The group has about 1,700 members, about 100 of whom joined in the last month. In addition, Nguyen recently started a web page with commonly asked questions and answers to help respond to new homeschool families.
“There’s such a huge influx, it’s changing the feel of the community that’s here,” said Nguyen, a certified teacher who has been homeschooling her own children for years. “I think that it’s putting pressure on us to provide the information they’re needing, because there’s a huge number of them.”
For Vansandt and her granddaughter, Aria, of Lyman, the decision to homeschool this fall was based on health concerns associated with COVID-19 and uncertainty around the fall.
“They have everything in flux and I would like to have a little more of a plan in place,” Vansandt, a nurse who works from home, said recently. “Next week is Aug. 1. I would kind of like to get things started and just know what direction we’re going in. That’s more for our family to have that feeling of being grounded. We’ve got a plan.”
They’ve been researching online curriculum and looking for ways to incorporate the things Aria is most interested in.
Vansandt said her strong suit isn’t history, so she’ll plan to probably buy something online. But she is good at math, so she’ll teach that independently.
There are no specific curriculum standards for homeschooling in Maine, but students are required like all others to have instruction at least 175 days per year and must complete annual assessments showing academic progress.
“I think it will be a lot safer than actually going back,” said Aria, 14. She said homeschooling will be lonely, but she didn’t mind online learning last spring. And there will be opportunities to see a small number of friends while socially distancing after school.
Some families who are looking at homeschooling are doing so because of health concerns for either parents or children who are immunocompromised or at risk for contracting the virus.
Derek Musteikis, who has diabetes and is on medication that weakens his immune system, said he is almost certain his two daughters, Cheyanne and Skyla, will stay home this fall rather than return to Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton.
“I’m a prime candidate for COVID and Bonny Eagle is a big school,” said Musteikis, 50. “There’s too much risk involved. We pretty much decided as long as this is around we’re just going to have to ride it out.”
Before the pandemic Musteikis worked as a mold maker for architectural projects, but his health has forced him to look for another job he can continue from home. He said his family is hoping their school district will make some improvements to remote learning – there was too much screen time last spring – and the girls can continue with the district remotely this year.
But they’ve also been researching free curricula available online in the event they choose to homeschool. It’s something the family has considered in the past but never followed up on because both Musteikis and his wife had jobs that required them to work outside the home. Now that’s changed.
“We know parents who swear they would never, ever do homeschool or remote learning and they’re looking at it,” Musteikis said. “They’re seriously like, ‘No, I don’t want my kid going to school.’ It’s a big thing.”
Homeschooling is just one option families in Maine and across the country are looking at as alternatives for the fall. Officials with both of Maine’s virtual charter schools said they’ve also noticed an increase in interest.
In some places families who can afford it are forming “pandemic pods,” small groups hiring tutors to help with at-home learning. Those arrangements have raised concerns about exacerbating disparities especially along economic and racial lines.
Vansandt said she recognizes she is lucky to be able to make the choice to homeschool. For many essential workers or parents who must work outside the home, it’s not an option.
“My heart goes out to the other parents,” she said. “It really does. I’ve wondered how many parents would prefer to do homeschooling but just cannot do it. That’s an unknown.”
Trivilino, the Sanford mother, said being a stay-at-home mom helped make the decision to homeschool easier.
“Part of the decision making was that it takes at least some of the burden off the school district,” she said. “I know there are quite a few families who are making the same choice. That way there are fewer kids in the classroom for the families who really need to send their kids to school, especially the parents who are working or kids with special needs who really need to be in the classroom.”
She said all the social distancing and safety requirements schools are looking at will be difficult and hard for children to follow. While the social aspect will also be hard, Trivilino said her daughter will still have an opportunity to see friends at dance lessons and her son will still participate in sports if they happen.
Neither child wanted to do online-based learning in the fall, so Trivilino said she is putting together her own curriculum. She ordered the next level of her daughter’s math textbook and some English and writing workbooks online.
“Our plan is definitely to get back to regular schooling when we all feel comfortable,” Trivilino said. “I’m not sure when that will be. We’ll reevaluate halfway through the school year to see what we’re comfortable with, how the school is handling things and what the numbers are like here.”
Karl Krebs, a stay-at-home father in Gorham, said he and his wife, who works at a midwifery school, have been struggling over the decision of how to educate their children, who are going into first and third grades.
Even if the district provides materials for families who don’t feel comfortable returning in-person, Krebs said it was hard to create a school environment and complete the district’s remote learning last spring.
“Our home has always been the place where you come when you’re done with school,” he said. “We have things we do at home that are not done other places. To try and change that with kids who are so young and get them to understand the structure of the world was really difficult. I have concerns about how to effectively do that and my ability to be a teacher.”
Krebs, who is also a student working on a master’s degree, said he is planning on taking a leave of absence this fall since he is planning on his daughter and son being home at least 60 percent of the week.
He recently learned about unschooling – a type of homeschooling where a student’s learning is self-directed and dictated by their interests – through an online group for stay-at-home fathers. Krebs thought it might work well for his children’s learning styles and it’s an option they’re considering for the fall, though they’re still waiting for more information from the school district before making a decision.
“All these things are weighing very heavily on parents’ minds,” Krebs said. “It’s going to cause some disruption to what we knew as normal. No matter what we do it seems like there will be disruption to that. It’s hard to know what the right decision is. Honestly it feels like there is no right decision.”