For some parents of school-aged kids, the new normal is the best normal

Joel Oliphint
Hillary Bates with her kids, Graham and Jill, in their Grandview home.

Since Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed school buildings in March, Central Ohio students and their parents have been forced to adapt to a new kind of learning — one that takes place at home. Amid a sea of Google Classroom assignments, i-Ready and Study Island logins and countless Zoom chats, the transition hasn’t been easy for a lot of families.

Online, parents vent about becoming their child’s personal assistant. In one open letter making the rounds on social media, a “Mama Who Has Had Enough of Coronacation and Trying to Homeschool These Heathens” begs teachers to take her kids back next year.

But while the loudest voices have come from the flummoxed and frustrated, other voices are beginning to emerge during this pandemic. For Hillary Bates, a Grandview mother of two, the time away from traditional school has her considering whether she'll end up keeping her kids at home in the fall.

“What I'm noticing — getting to see this strange, unasked-for experiment that we're in — is that [my kids] are happier, more engaged students. They have more time to pursue their own interests and are less anxious, and just generally flourishing in a lot of ways that make it hard for me to imagine that I will make a decision to send them back to school next year,” Bates said. “They’re very articulate about what they appreciate about this experience, and they both tell me they're happier and that they don't want to go back to school.”

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Bates’ son, Graham, is in sixth grade, and her daughter, Jill, is in third grade, and both kids are enjoying the time at home for different reasons. “My son has tremendous social anxiety, and he told me that it was like a cloud that surrounded him being lifted so he can focus and see everything. I see his executive function skills, which have always been an issue, just flourishing. ... He's writing reports on stuff he's interested in that no one assigned him to do. He’s really curious, but it's so hard for him to be in these large, noisy social environments. He just shuts down,” Bates said. “I'm not blaming school. There's no way for school to accommodate a kid like that and create a special bubble for him in which he feels safe and that he can pace himself. But now I'm seeing, ‘Oh, we can do that.’”

Jill, meanwhile, has embraced the freedom to work at her own speed on things that interest her. “She describes school as a lot of waiting around for the next thing to happen, and that doesn't interest her. She's really creative. After she gets her math done, she's crafting all day. She's creating some giant diorama, or she'll go in her room for six hours straight and come out with some art project,” Bates said.

Clintonville resident Megan Garbe, who has two permanent kids and two children through foster care, has had a similar experience with her school-aged kids, both of whom attend Columbus City Schools.

“I thought that they were going to miss the environment more, and they really don't,” said Garbe, who has initiated her own projects and hands-on experiments with Hudson, 10, and Nadia, 8. “The other day, I had them reading about spiders, and then they had to draw a web specific to a kind of spider and write a paragraph on their own about what they learned about the spider and why this spider has that kind of web. Nadia was very interested in having the web be exactly how it's supposed to be, as far as the artistic part of it. [Hudson] was much more about the science-y part of the spider — what the spider activity was, and how the stickiness of the web made it more attractive for the bugs that specific spider eats. So they both did the same project, but they both did it in very different ways, and that's perfectly fine.”

The experience has been so positive that Garbe and her husband recently began having discussions about homeschooling their kids. “Moving to homeschooling isn't really an issue with the school or the social environment or anything that they were getting at CCS,” Garbe said. “It's more, ‘Wow, this is working well for us.’”

The thought had occurred to Bates previously that her kids could be well-suited to a homeschool environment, but she never had the opportunity to test the theory, and she also had some lingering hangups about the idea of homeschooling. “I didn't know anybody who homeschooled growing up. I don't really know anyone who does it now, and I probably have some associations with it that might not be accurate. I'm not sure I saw us as a family that would do that type of thing,” she said. “I guess I had this idea that it was people fleeing something that they didn't approve of, and that's never been my headspace. I think that public education is awesome, and I think we should invest in it more. And I’ll think that no matter where my kids are. This is less about what you're running away from and more about recognizing the child that you have in front of you.”

Garbe said her husband also had initial concerns about shifting to homeschool, especially in regards to the social aspect of going to school with lots of other kids, not just siblings. “I said, ‘Well, I think that's kind of an antiquated view of homeschooling.’ I know people who homeschool, and they're very active as far as doing co-ops and going to programs at the zoo and programs at COSI. There's lots of connectivity with homeschooling now,” said Garbe, who also noted that schools may reopen in the fall with new policies limiting social interactions. “If the social element was your reason for holding back, and if they're not socializing at school because of restrictions, it seems silly to do that.”

“‘Socialization’ is kind of a blanket statement. Not all socialization is good socialization,” said Lauren Mays, who homeschools her seven kids (kindergarten through high school) and is an administrator of the Columbus Area Homeschoolers Facebook group. “When I was in school, if you were in fourth grade, you only talked to the fourth-graders. You were so much cooler than third-graders, and you wouldn't dare talk to the fifth-graders. It was very segregated by age. I feel like homeschoolers are really good at talking with adults and playing with kids of all ages. I'm not really sure where the whole socialization thing came from, but I definitely don't think it's true anymore.”

During this pandemic, Mays has also seen homeschool parents in dialogue with friends who are trying to figure out what remote learning can or should look like, and educating them on the “grace and freedom” of schooling from home. “There is maybe a perception that [kids] have to be in a workbook or in a textbook to be doing work that counts. … But it's not going to look like a normal day. You can get so much more done in a short amount of time, so they really don't have to be glued to their desks for six hours,” Mays said.

Homeschool parents also tend to be “masters of resources,” Mays said, a descriptor that fits Garbe to a T. “I've always been a supplementer,” Garbe said. “On the last day of school every year, I always made a bucket that has projects in it, and then when their time is up on [digital] devices in the summer, they can pull something from the bucket. We've done that since they've been in school. … You can do all kinds of stuff that's learning and using your brain that isn't sitting in front of i-Ready or a workbook.”

Of course, not everyone has the ability or option to homeschool, even when their kids seem to be doing well with remote learning. It’s not practical or financially feasible for some families, particularly single parents. Bates and her husband both work full-time, and she’s not sure if they would be able to make homeschooling work for their family in the fall.

“I try to not think too far into the future right now. That's just a survival tactic I have during this whole thing we're all going through. Part of me tries not to even assume that we'll all be alive at the end of the summer,” Bates said, only half-joking.

But Bates is nevertheless grateful for this surprise education experiment and what it has taught her. “I recognize the experience we're having is not the experience of most people in this moment,” she said. “But now I have another piece of information to make decisions about our lives with, and a really important piece of information that I didn't have before this, of what it looks like to see my kids learning in a way that they like better.”