House Majority Leader Alec Garnett now spends his mornings exploring nature in his backyard or venturing out on walks. His days continue unfolding with arts and crafts projects, coloring and storytime.
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As the state lawmaker has shifted to working from home with the legislative session suspended because of the new coronavirus, he’s taken on another role: homeschool teacher.
It’s a delicate balancing act. With two children, Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and his wife are juggling their own workloads with the education needs of their son, 4, and daughter, 20 months.
Both kids attend Fisher Early Learning Center through the University of Denver. Since the center closed two weeks ago, the Garnetts have tried to create structure for their children, largely by filling their days with activities that will stimulate and educate.
The pivot to homeschooling is temporary because Garnett and his wife, Emily, plan to enroll both kids in Denver Public Schools.
But for other Colorado families, it’s a longer-term prospect. With in-person instruction canceled for K-12 students through April 17, some families are contemplating making the move to homeschooling permanent. Parents are finding out that teaching their kids at home isn’t as simple as turning on the laptop, but as they dabble with homeschooling, some say it’s making them think this could be the right approach for them.
Curtis Durham’s family is among them. Durham is going through “a homeschooling baptism by fire situation” as his third grader and sixth grader try to keep up with online learning at Westridge Elementary School and Deer Creek Middle School in Jeffco Public Schools.
The idea of homeschooling has long been a consideration for Durham and his wife, who live in unincorporated Jefferson County. Durham first researched homeschooling before his older child was born. The idea bubbled up again immediately after schools were set to be closed in response to the coronavirus.
“As soon as this happened, I knew it was going to be an opportunity to see how the daily routine would work,” he said.
“Enormous appreciation” for educators
Colorado’s homeschooling community is diverse, composed of families who opt for that approach to education for a range of reasons, said Jaclyn Stevens, who teaches her fifth-grade son at home in Arvada while her third-grade daughter attends public school.
Colorado had 7,880 homeschooled students in fall 2019, compared to more than 913,200 public school students, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Education.
Stevens, who has taught her son at home for almost three school years, has become a resource for parents learning how to educate their kids at home since schools were shut down. Parents are cued up on her business’ Facebook group, where she has offered advice on how to adjust from supporting a child attending classes at school to supporting a child completing their schoolwork at home.
Another Facebook group called “Emergency Homeschooling,” which connects families educating their kids from home because of the coronavirus with families already homeschooling, has drawn close to 1,900 members.
Stevens said she’s seen a flurry of parents racing to create detailed schedules, which isn’t necessary. While schools craft precise schedules to accommodate the large volume of students they’re educating, families have more flexibility as they deal with fewer kids, she said.
Whether many parents will fully transition to homeschooling, Stevens said, will depend on how much they’re supported by their school and district throughout the current period of online learning and on the timeline of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“If we feel like this is just to get to the end of the school year, I think that’s a lot different than if we’re looking at this situation prolonging through the fall,” Stevens said.
Cindy Englan Wentz advises families on homeschooling through Rocky Mountain Education Connection. Englan Wentz, who homeschooled her two sons, fields many calls from parents who say online learning does not work for their children. Part of the problem is how much online instruction forces a student to interact with a machine.
“There’s no feedback,” she said. “They’re not talking to a person.”
Children become bored, their attention wanders and they have no real incentive to complete their work, she said.
But even as Englan Wentz anticipates more families flocking to homeschooling, she hasn’t seen the virus lead to more interest.
“It’s just steady with people coming in,” she said. Parents’ inquiries about homeschooling follow a seasonal pattern, Englan Wentz said, with families looking into it toward the start of the school year, a few months into the academic year, over winter break and at the end of the school year.
Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford University who has studied the homeschooling movement since its emergence in the 1980s, is skeptical that many families across the country will choose to pursue homeschooling their children largely because of the high cost.
Home education, he said, requires a parent — often a mother — to be home to teach. Not all women can afford that lifestyle, nor are all women interested in that kind of lifestyle. The vast majority of parents work, either because they have to or want to, he said.
However, the general public perception of home education could improve through the crisis, Stevens added, similar to the way that public perception of online education is likely to improve.
“Wars and calamities change expectations,” he said.
Perception of teachers’ work in the classroom is already changing, said Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, who has heard a lot of gratitude for educators among his friends with children.
“All of them are expressing enormous appreciation for what teachers and schools do everyday,” he said.
Garnett has chimed in on that pool of praise, suggesting in his second week of homeschooling that teachers deserve $2 million salaries.
“My respect for teachers has only grown with my challenges of trying to be as good as they are,” he said.
Testing out home routines
In Jefferson County, Durham and his wife, Nicole, have eased into a groove with their two children as they’ve all begun to acclimate to distance learning. The family dives into schoolwork around 9 a.m. each day and reaches the end by about 1:30 p.m., Curtis said.
But it hasn’t been an entirely seamless process. They’ve had to learn to navigate the online learning tools and how to keep track of assignments and directions from teachers.
Curtis acknowledged that JeffCo Public Schools didn’t have a lot of time to roll out remote learning and said the district is doing its best to produce a system that works.
Both parents, who already work from home, are leaning toward a shift to homeschooling, potentially after the end of the current school year. Neither Curtis nor Nicole has experience teaching — Curtis’ background is in mechanical engineering and Nicole works in finance marketing — but the family is focused on researching curriculum to build off their research from more than a decade ago. They also plan to talk to other parents who homeschool their own children and reach out to homeschooling groups for pointers on resources.
Curtis is confident that his children would benefit from homeschooling, in part because they wouldn’t have to contend with distractions caused by disruptive kids in a classroom.
The parents recognize their advantage in having careers based from home, which has been particularly helpful as they’ve tried to find a new home rhythm with their children’s schooling, their own work priorities and household responsibilities.
“We realize how lucky we are that both of us already work from home,” Curtis said. “The parents who have to go to work, I just can’t even imagine how they do it.”
For Timnath resident Jacqueline Maldonado, a mother of three, the consideration to transition from public school to homeschooling weighs heavily on health and safety. Maldonado has 8-year-old twins, Ruben and Cecilia. Ruben has a compromised immune system and asthma, and when he gets sick, his bronchial system becomes brittle.
Maldonado wants to protect her son and began thinking about homeschooling when the coronavirus outbreak started to become more serious. She also believes homeschooling would give her twins a “different education” with her teaching style relying on the ways she was taught rather than the learning methods her kids are exposed to in school.
She’s not as worried about the teaching demands as she is about the logistics of incorporating homeschooling into her family’s life. As a business owner with an office in Fort Collins and the ability to work from home, Maldonado said she would have to reconfigure her schedule to work with both her children and her clients, with help from her husband.
She also acknowledges the potential social challenges of homeschooling. Her children are social and love school because of being able to interact and play with friends.
Still, Maldonado’s family is open to homeschooling, particularly to keep her son safe. She’s already started researching Colorado’s requirements for homeschooling and what the process to make that move would entail. For the remainder of the school year, it’s likely that her children will continue their studies from home.
“Let’s face it,” Maldonado said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last. We don’t know what the after effects are going to be of this.”