LONDON — For most Ontario students, September marks the start of school, but, for Hunter Gohl, 7, and his five-year-old sister, Hannah, studies began in August in the kitchen of their Guelph home, which now boasts a whiteboard, workbooks, and bins for crafts. “We’ve been doing little bits of math and spelling and stuff throughout the day, when they're interested, to get them slowly back into the groove of things,” says their stay-at-home mom, Natalie.
This year, Natalie, who, along with her husband, Josh, a nurse at a hospital in Kitchener, decided to home-school their children because of COVID-19. “It always has been something that we've thought about and looked at,” Natalie says. Building learning opportunities around her children’s interests appeals to her, as does varying the routine with activities, such as science experiments or day trips. “It gives us a little bit more freedom and the ability to adapt the education to their needs,” she says. “Having the pandemic in place gave us the push that we needed to jump into it.”
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The Gohls aren’t alone in their decision: according to the People for Education, a non-profit organization that supports and monitors public education in Canada, the families of 20 to 30 per cent of Ontario children in the public-school system have given notice to their school boards that they plan to keep their kids at home. Most will use their school board’s online teaching platforms. But, some home-schooling advocates suggest, an increasing number of families are also swapping the province’s curriculum for their own.
“Every home-schooler adopts their own method,” explains Ramona Maynard, who manages a Facebook page that connects about 100 home-schooling families in the Guelph area and helps organize group outings to such places as museums and apiaries. “Some might do a textbook approach where maybe a parent is working outside the home and doesn't have as much time for hands-on things,” she says. “Some might do what we call ‘unschooling,’ where there are no books at all, there's no curriculum — you’re doing cooking together, going outside together — or even a child-directed home-school approach where the child says, ‘This is what I would like to learn about.’”
The Gohls expect to home-school their children for several years; other parents, such as Katelyn Faria, who lives in Watford, near Sarnia, see it as a temporary measure to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Faria, who was herself home-schooled, says that logistics partly convinced her to home-school her five-year-old daughter, Rachel, for the year. The only way the long-term-care nurse, who starts her shift at 6 a.m., and her husband, a farm worker, could get their daughter to school was if they dropped her off at a before-school program. “Unfortunately,” she says, “the before-school program was taking longer and longer to get back to us” about openings.
Faria also wasn’t satisfied with the online curriculum for senior kindergarten. The goals seemed vague, and she worried that the half-hour sessions were too long for her daughter. “Her attention span is just not there,” says Faria. She plans to work with her best friend, a coworker who is home-schooling her son this year. “That'll be really nice for our kids to be able to get together and learn things,” she says, adding that having time to prepare her daughter for all the safety precautions that will likely still be in place when she returns to the public system next year is another benefit.
It’s not yet known how many Ontario parents have opted for the do-it-yourself approach to education this fall. According to a Ministry of Education spokesperson, home-schooling data for 2020/2021 from the province’s 76 public-school boards won’t be available until later this year. Carlo Ricci, a professor of education at Nippising University who helps organize the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents, an organization that provides information and advocacy about home-schooling, says its membership didn’t change immediately after the arrival of COVID-19 but has since grown by about 25 per cent. Currently, the federation has 460 members — 90 more than at the same time last year. The jump, he notes, may be the result of a recent decision to discount membership fees, or it could be related to the pandemic; he thinks it's the latter. “It might be COVID-related in that what might be happening is that parents tried out home-schooling — because of COVID, they were forced into that particular situation,” he says. “And then, once they were exposed to it and put in a position where they got to try it out, they recognized the advantages of it.”
Sarah Toenders-Hornblower, who administers home-schooling Facebook groups in Sarnia Lambton and London, says the London group, whose membership numbers more than 2,000, now fields 10 requests a day to join. (Toenders-Hornblower is Faria’s sister.)
One of the most divisive topics in the community, Toenders-Hornblower says, is whether the province should fund home-schooling: “The more funding you have, the more you’re regulated — we want to be able to do what we want.” A recent online petition asks the province to help parents with the cost of home-schooling by providing $700 per month per child, but, as of September 1, it had fewer than 300 signatures. The province did issue parents a one-time payment in April ($200 to $250 per child, depending on need) to help with the cost of schooling at home. An education-ministry spokesperson told TVO.org via email that “there are no plans to fund home schooling or provide further regulations at this time.”
Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, says her main concern is whether educators are paying enough attention to home-schooling demographics. “Our worry,” she explains, “is that divisions are going to be created along socioeconomic — even racial — lines in terms of the families keeping their children at home.” Home-schooling isn’t a practical solution for everyone, she notes.
There are also worries about a lack of oversight. Charles Pascal, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says parents who home-school are usually very diligent: "They want their kids to succeed.” However, in Ontario, he says, “there’s zero accountability” in terms of measuring learning progress. He thinks the province should take a “modest” approach to monitoring, perhaps introducing short surveys at the beginning and end of the academic year that would produce guidance for parents about which areas to focus on.
Creating social opportunities can be another challenge, says Pascal, a former Ontario deputy education minister — but, according to Ricci, socializing is a “big advantage” to home-schooling: “People are not locked in their home. Learning happens everywhere.”
Yet even veteran home-schoolers acknowledge that arranging social activities will be difficult this year. To prepare for the Sarnia-Lambton home-schoolers’ regular group get-together in September (now two pared-down information meetings), Toenders-Hornblower says, she emailed 40 local contacts to find a willing venue. “There is still, this year, very limited opportunities for any sort of a field trip, and that is going to be a challenge going forward,” she says.
Home-schooling is now a thing of the past for Maynard: Becky, her youngest, has just started Grade 8 at the local school. Despite COVID-19, all four of her children have now moved over to the public-school system.
“She’s not afraid; I’m not afraid,” Maynard says. “We’re in Guelph. [COVID-19] cases are pretty good. They’re going to wear their masks. They’re going to social distance. They’re going to wash their hands.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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