As vaccine rollouts continue and public schools reopen their doors to children for in-person learning, some parents are making a surprising choice: To say goodbye to the public school system, likely for good.
Ali, a mom of four from Los Angeles County, is one of them. When the pandemic and ensuing pressure from teachers’ unions forced California public schools to close indefinitely, she took it upon herself to form a “pandemic pod” with neighboring families. After trying remote learning through the public school system for her kindergartener and third-grader, Ali knew that, come fall, she’d have to find an alternative option.
Ali had previously wondered about alternative learning models, so the shutdown provided a unique opportunity to try a new format. And after experiencing that format, neither her kids nor Ali wanted to return to the traditional education model at the local public school.
Forming a ‘Pandemic Pod’
Over the summer, Ali and a few neighboring families hired a teacher who had just moved from Texas to California as a private tutor. The families pulled out of the local public school, signed up to homeschool, and Ali and the teacher partnered to choose the curriculum they would use. The cost, she says, is no more than tuition at most private schools, and the ratio is four students to one teacher. The teacher instructs the first graders in the mornings and the fourth graders in the afternoon for around three and a half hours per grade level. During instruction hours, they focus on core subjects—reading, writing, math, history, and science.
“We absolutely love this format. My kids seem to be learning more in half the amount of time given the efficiency and personal attention the kids receive, and we have more margin to invest time in other activities and be together as a family,” she says.
When Ali started her pandemic pod, she had an advantage that most parents do not: her parents live in Texas but own a house in California down the street. “They allowed us to turn the ground floor into a mini school. We put up a big whiteboard, we have desks and tables and a big couch, and it opens to a little yard,” Ali says.
For her four-year-old, she created a preschool in her garage and took it upon herself to teach him and four others, using a homeschooling bootcamp for guidance along with curriculum suggestions from other educators and online homeschool groups. Though she hasn’t formally taught, she did receive a teaching credential, which has proved to be an asset. She also has a nanny to help care for her one-year-old and share some of the teaching responsibilities.
“We’re so blessed because we really have had a lot of resources,” Ali says. In addition to the ability to pay an instructor and hold classes at her parent’s house, the setup also requires Ali to invest her own time.
Since the kids are only learning in a half-day setting, she plans optional activities according to student interest such as surfing, gymnastics, soccer, art, and hands-on science and outdoor adventures that complement what they are learning in the classroom.
At night, she reads historical fiction to her kids and preps for preschool in her garage after they go to bed. “I’m definitely getting the kids down late and still working on preschool. So it feels super full, but also purposeful and fulfilling, because I recognize these years with my young kids at home are short, and I am grateful to have this time to invest in them now,” she says.
Prior to homeschooling, Ali says her daughter hardly read outside of school. Since homeschooling, however, “she’s read maybe 100 books.” All of her kids were making such progress, soon she questioned whether it would make sense to ever return to the public school system.
While Ali had questioned whether the traditional model was the best fit for some of her learners before the pandemic hit, the cultural and curricular changes furthered the incentive to continue to pursue this alternative model next year. “I feel like it’s becoming increasingly difficult to partner with the public school system to raise my kids with the worldview that I would want to pass on,” she says.
The final straw came after seeing the district’s recommended reading lists following the summer protests that included highly politicized material calling for defunding police and forming white caucus groups to discuss whiteness and more, along with her district’s newly adopted social justice standards that teach children their identities come from the groups to which they belong, which counters how Ali wants to teach her children about their identities. After a call with her local principal to address concerns, she recognized that the doors were opened to allow politicized curriculum into the classroom. Then in March, the State Board of Education adopted a new, 900-page ethnic studies curriculum for all K-12 students that seeks to address “institutionalized systems of advantage,” along with “the causes of racism and other forms of bigotry including, but not limited to, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, xenophobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia within our culture and governmental policies.”
The stated goal of the curriculum is not only to promote knowledge, but to “equip students with the tools to promote understanding as community members.” Critics say the curriculum is full of anti-Christian, far-left political ideology. While the curriculum currently is voluntary, a bill is in the state legislature now that would make ethnic studies mandatory for every graduating senior in California.
“I sent my kids to school before without really questioning what the standards are and why and how they are chosen, and this year has given me the gift of really taking the time to consider what our family values in education and whether or not that is best achieved in the public school setting as it functions today,” she says. “It’s becoming increasingly apparent to us for a variety of reasons, that this year has been a blessing in disguise, and we have learned more about each of our little learners and what works best for them where they are at in their development.”
While she hopes to continue her current model for the foreseeable future, Ali isn’t sure how it will work when all four of her kids are of school age.
“Do I teach two grade levels?” she asks. “I don’t know. And our teacher teaches two? Or do we combine ages more and adjust the model?”
Based on current data, it’s safe to assume that Ali is not the only parent asking these questions about alternative education plans. Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 3.3 percent of families homeschooled their children. In fall 2020, that number surged to 11 percent.
Ali says she plans to take each year as it comes, and that this year has allowed their family to give thought to education, their unique kids with their varying learning styles, and to open their eyes to the variety of ways that education can be structured.