Fear of rising COVID-19 numbers in Prairie Mountain Health, coupled with parental concerns over the province’s back-to-school plans this fall, are fuelling a surge of interest in homeschooling in western Manitoba.
A pair of homeschooling Facebook groups centred in Westman have seen their memberships spike in recent weeks, and with the start of classes in the province only five days away, several parents seem to be weighing their options as they consider homeschooling as an option during the pandemic.
“When me and my husband sat down and decided that this was best for our family, we really, honestly sat down and together came up with the idea that there is honestly no right answer for this,” said Jody Savannah, who created a Facebook group approximately a month ago called “Westman homeschooling during Covid-19.”
“There’s no right answer to send your kid back — that’s not going to be the best answer. And keeping the kid at home is not going to be the best answer. It’s a lose-lose situation for every family out there in my opinion.”
When Savannah first started the online discussion group, there was already a core membership of approximately 70 people like herself who had come out of the end of the 2019-20 school year — and the pandemic-induced closure of the schools — giving serious consideration to homeschooling in the fall, even before the surge in coronavirus cases hit the region over the summer.
“And as soon as the (province’s) back-to-school plan was released, a lot of people were really unhappy with that,” she said. “The numbers of people joining recently have just been really really high.”
The group, which is mostly a site for parent collaboration on curriculum, parental support and teaching practices, targets parents who do not wish to permanently homeschool their children, but rather intend for them to re-enter the public school system in the future when the pandemic has subsided.
As of Sept. 2, the group had 295 members, with another 30 requests to join waiting in the queue. The growth in membership, Savannah says, is a direct result of concerns that area parents have regarding the province’s lack of support for Manitoba students and their families. Her biggest concern was that the Brandon School Division, where her kids normally attend classes, was willing to help children who have medical conditions with remote learning, but not other children.
Many of the group’s members have multiple children, some of them with health concerns and some without. Her own children, like herself, have asthma, which was one of the deciding factors for her and her husband to pull their kids out of the public school system.
“If me or my children got this, we’d be hospitalized for sure,” Savannah said. “We thought health was more important than the social aspect for our kids.”
Many new members still plan on sending their kids to school on Sept. 8, but she says they are “putting their toes in the water” to see how the back-to-school plan comes together, and keeping their options open.
Another homeschool Facebook group in western Manitoba that has been established as an informal network of homeschoolers in western Manitoba for several years — the Westman Homeschool Connection — has also seen its membership surge over the last month as parents look into the options available to them for educating their kids. In fact, the group’s membership has all but tripled — it had 165 members before the first COVID-19 case was announced in Manitoba, and as of Tuesday its membership stood at 480.
“And we’re still processing a fairly large number of new member requests,” said Westman Homeschool Connection administrator Cathi Dyck, who added that interest in joining the group really took off over the last month. “People have been making their final decisions. I think people were dealing with the shutdown, and then August — for the last month our administrator has been dealing with a dozen requests per day on a busy week. It’s been quite crazy.”
When the Sun first reached out to Westman Homeschool Connection, the administrators posted a poll to its members to find out what had prompted them to join. Of the 146 votes cast, 57 were members prior to the onset of the pandemic, 51 decided to homeschool “just for this year” because the changes to the school system were unpredictable, 31 said they were already considering homeschooling and COVID-19 tipped the scales, and six said COVID-19 had nothing to do with their decision to homeschool. One other was just keeping their options open.
“I think there’s a huge variety of reasons. It’s different for everyone,” Dyck said. “A lot of people who went through COVID school, if you will, in March through June are saying that they really saw benefits being at home with their kids. One of the comments we had on the poll in our group was that … there was a couple of parents who had kids who were struggling in school for whatever reason — for either academics or peers — and they saw a huge turnaround in their kids just in a couple of weeks, which is great.
“And that convinced them to temporarily try homeschooling and see how it goes.”
One of the Westman Homeschool Connection members who responded to the poll said that when she contacted the school to notify them that she was keeping her child home this year, the teachers were glad to hear it because they were trying to figure out how to manage distancing and seating.
“So they’re seeing support from the school division and accommodation for doing this temporarily,” Dyck said. “It’s actually helpful in some ways to classroom managing. There’s a lot of teachers who are so stressed out this year.”
When reached by the Sun Wednesday, Westman Homeschool Connection member Corrie Ford said she can understand the hardship that parents are going through in deciding whether to send their children back to school or make the leap to homeschooling during the pandemic. But drawing upon her own experience, she says that homeschooling can be done successfully, and becomes easier with time.
“I am not surprised by the recent influx of homeschoolers this year,” Ford wrote. “The stress that would be involved in making a decision to send a child/children into an unknown situation of schooling during a pandemic would be a huge worry. Our decision to homeschool was made (six) years ago. For anyone starting out it does seem a bit overwhelming. However, it gets easier as you go. We have a good homeschool co-operative and family support system which I believe makes our homeschooling very successful.”
Like their public-school counterparts, homeschool students have also been affected by the pandemic, as it severely limited the ability of families to meet and do social activities together last spring. Dyck says this was especially difficult for families of younger children.
“I ended up doing a lot of phone supporting, online support for young moms who had kids stuck at home, especially in the spring before it was possible to really get outside for any length of time,” Dyck said. “Even just not having the ability to go visit with another family in the first part of the shutdown as regularly, that was very very difficult for homeschoolers everywhere.
“We find that February is hard anyway. We’re waiting for spring. And then March and April hit, and it was just awful.”
Though current provincial restrictions in Prairie Mountain Health limit group meetings to 10 people, that is still an improvement over what happened in spring when Canadians were being told to stay home.
Yet there has still been an impact. Ford says her 10-year-old daughter, who had been enrolled in public school band classes for the past year, will instead have music taught at home.
The Brandon School Division, too, has noticed more inquiries from parents over the homeschooling option. Supt. Marc Casavant didn’t have numbers handy Wednesday afternoon, but said there has been a noticeable increase since the end of June and toward the end of the school year.
“We’re not talking large numbers,” Casavant said. “It’s a relatively small number, but it’s early enough that people could be considering and weighing their options.”
Casavant says one of his major concerns for the students in the division remains the lack of student-teacher interaction, specifically the face-to-face interaction that was apparent during the end of the previous school year.
“I think teachers pride themselves on delivering curriculum and making sure students have skills required,” he said. “Having delays that aren’t in the control of the children themselves, it doesn’t feel good to me that students may be missing out on core academic learning opportunities.
In terms of support for parents in the division, Casavant says families have options when it comes to the 2020-21 school year, including homeschooling, independent schools or the public education system, and says people are free to choose what they would like to do. But it’s important that whatever decisions they make, to ensure they research their options.
“Be informed what you’re getting yourself into.”
The Sun also reached out several times this week to the Manitoba Association for Schooling at Home, the largest homeschooling group in the province. Though we were unable to obtain a comment from the organization before deadline, the organization’s answering machine stated the office has been receiving a “high volume of calls” this summer, and it could take several days to return calls.
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