Kent ISD — With the uncertainty of what school would be like in the fall, Grand Rapids Public Schools parent Alita Kelly gave serious consideration to home-schooling her child.
“I had even gone as far as to start pulling together a curriculum during the summer, calling it the ‘Summer of Dreams,’” Kelly said. “But the reality of being a business owner (of the South East Market) and having to take care of my own household, I knew I would not have the time to teach.”
Kent ISD Attendance and Truancy Officer Mark Larson, from Kent ISD’s Office of School Participation, said this was a common dilemma for many parents as they struggled with making decisions on whether to send their children to school or not.
“With the COVID-19 situation taking place, I have seen a 10-fold increase of calls about home schooling,” Larson said. “Most people, especially over the summer with schools being closed, would look online, see Kent ISD and eventually come to our office.” Parents would tell him that “due to the situation I do not feel safe sending my students to school and I want to home-school.”
The Kent ISD Office of Participation, as of Oct. 13, had received 214 new home-school forms compared to 57 for the entire 2019-2020 school year. Some districts that lost enrollment this fall reported more students opting for home schools. In East Grand Rapids, the number choosing home schooling is “unprecedented,” said Anthony Morey, assistant superintendent of finance.
As Larson talked to families he discovered that “most people don’t understand the difference between distance learning and home schooling,” and did not know their local public school districts would be offering a distance learning (which means a virtual, online) option.
Children ages six to 18 required to attend school
Michigan has a compulsory school attendance statute which requires a parent or legal guardian of a child age six to 18 to send the child to school during the entire school year. This means a student cannot be dropped or withdrawn from a school, Larson said, but must transfer to another school including a non-public school or home schooling.
Michigan does have one of the most liberal policies when it comes to home schools, but there are still rules that people have to follow when home schooling, Larson said. Parents are required to have a certified teaching certificate or a bachelor’s degree unless there is a religious exemption. Parents must deliver all school content to the student.
A home school does not receive any state aid, with the parents agreeing to assume the cost. As a non-public school, home schools are not required to register with the state, unless the school needs a state-provided special education or therapy program.
Distance learning is an online school, such as Kent ISD’s online school, MySchool@Kent. Also called cyber schools, they are required to meet state requirements for each grade level and receive state funding for educating the child. Other distance learning programs are all the online/virtual programming being offered by local school districts and the many private companies offering cyber schools.
Students’ need for social interaction
A drawback to any home school or distance learning program is the lack of socialization, something Kelly recognized as her daughter attended virtual classes through Grand Rapids’ C.A. Frost Elementary School.
Her solution was to create an after-school program, the MLK Freedom School, developed through her South East Market in partnership with the Grand Rapids’ NAACP. The program, which received a $10,000 community grant from the City of Grand Rapids, is designed to discuss social justice issues with children in a safe environment. The program also provides activities and a lunch.
“I saw my daughter starting to withdraw,” Kelly said as they started virtual learning in March. “What I found was the social aspect was missing. What she needed was that one piece, that chance to have some type of group activities.”
Kelly quickly discovered that other parents were facing the same challenge, while also missing the opportunity to engage with the school through volunteering. The interest in the MLK Freedom School was overwhelming with the program quickly filling up. Kelly is maintaining a Google doc list to gauge interest and perhaps expand the Freedom School in the future.
Parents serve as teacher in a home school
Larson said he has heard of families creating social and educational groups and when doing so, they should be careful they are following the protocol for their school program.
In the case of distance, or online learning, students could come together to take a virtual class since the school is providing the curriculum, Larson said. In home schooling, the parent must provide the curriculum to the student themselves, which means group schooling is not allowed.
“So a parent can not declare they are home schooling and then hire the retired teacher next door to teach the students,” he said. “They have to provide the curriculum directly to the student.”
Larson said most parents report they are home schooling before school starts in the fall. Parents are not required to report they are home schooling but it is recommended, as a student could get marked by their previous school for chronic absenteeism, (missing more than 10 percent of the scheduled school days) or truancy (having 10 or more unexcused absences). Both of those can get reported to Larson’s office for official follow-up.
“If we know that that is what they want to do, we send them the packet with the forms. The parent sends the form back and then we ignore them as it is up to the parent to provide the education.”
Larson pointed out that for most who choose home schooling, they are doing it for the philosophical reason that their child would be best served by staying home to do school. He said these parents take education very seriously, and their children often do quite well academically.
COVID Did Not Change the Rules
COVID did not change the rules about the compulsory school attendance, he said. “Students still need to be in school.” School attendance is important whether the program is home school, online learning or in-person. Parents can choose online or in-person school in most districts. Guidelines are in place for students who must be in isolation or quarantine.
School provides more than just education, Larson said. School staff monitor students’ emotional, mental, and physical well-being and connect students to the support they need. In challenging times such as COVID, this may be some of the most important work educators are doing, he said.