The Panicked Parents Guide To Online and Homeschooling

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As schools begin to post their protocols for the coming year and cases of covid-19 are rising, many parents are looking for alternatives to sending their kids to school.

I’m one of those parents.

As a stay-at-home Mom to a would-be kindergartner, I never thought I’d be faced with the choice of whether or not to send my kid to school. 

But here we are.
 
I’m privileged to be a stay-at-home parent and our household has vulnerable people, so the choice was clear cut for us–my kid is not physically going to school. We decided to do cyber charter school. It took me awhile to fully accept this because I’ve spent five years preparing for my child’s first day of school, and online schooling was not part of my vision. In order to make my decision I researched and discovered there are A LOT of options for online schooling and homeschooling. 
 
I was very overwhelmed by all the information I had to digest in my quest to find the best online school for our situation. It was stressful and anxiety-provoking trying to make sense of it all as a person who had zero prior knowledge of alternative schooling. I’m sure a lot of you are currently struggling the same way I did. So I’ve composed a quick tutorial on three methods of alternative schooling with the goal of helping parents understand their options and make the best possible decision for their families. 
 
The three options I explored are:
 
1. Cyber charter school 
 
2. Online school through the school district 
 
3. Homeschool
 
Each have their pro’s and con’s, some similarities and some distinct differences. As I see it, the biggest “pro” for all three is that (theoretically) your child’s programming will not change or start/stop due to school closures. I can’t speak for everyone, but for many parents the biggest “con” is that we have to be our child’s teacher, and that is a HARD job. 
 
I. Cyber Charter Schools
Cyber charter schools are an attractive option for many reasons. They focus specifically on online learning and because they don’t have to devote any resources to things like school buildings, cafeterias, desks, playgrounds, etc. they are able to funnel their resources and offer what I would consider a “concierge” service to students and families. The ones I looked at loan every student a laptop and printer/scanner, free of charge. So if you are a parent who is not able to provide these items for your child, then cyber charter school might be exactly what you need right now. The schools I spoke with also give families a $35 per month stipend to pay for internet service. Any text books or software needed will be provided by the school. Other materials are also often provided, such as art supplies used for projects. 
 
Beyond the physical resources, cyber charter schools usually offer classes two ways: 
 
1. Synchronous–where your child logs on and actively participates with their class at set times (more like traditional school). Or…
 
2. Asynchronous–where your child is required to be logged in for a certain number of hours per day but is not required to participate in classes at set times. 
 
With either option, students and parents have direct access to teachers and other support staff. Most schools assign “guides” or “coaches” (a concierge of sorts) that check in with students and family at least once per week. The expectation is that families should have all the support they need for the student to be successful; cyber charter schools’ success and merit are entirely dependent on their ability to quickly and effectively address the needs of their students remotely. 
 
From what I observed, most online charter schools have low-to-moderate student/teacher ratios, some are 13:1 while others might be 20:1. Mind you, with parents flocking to enroll students during covid, I wouldn’t be surprised if classes are bigger than they have been in the past. But you can imagine how much easier it would be for an online school to place a few more students in a virtual class vs. a teacher having to physically make space for and  wrangle several more students in-person.
 
If your child has special needs, cyber schools should be able to address them. For example: if your child has an existing IEP for speech therapy, then their cyber charter should be able to offer virtual speech therapy. Of course you will need to contact the individual schools to see what their capabilities are and assess if they are able to meet your child’s needs. 
 
In addition to online learning, cyber charter schools offer students opportunities for social interaction through field trips and various other activities, however, this may be a moot point during quarantine. Something to look at is whether or not a cyber charter school has a base of operations in your area–a charter school where 75% of the student population is on the opposite side of the state will likely not have as many in-person opportunities for you. For the record, cyber charter schools DO require vaccinations and school physicals in order to enroll. 
 
I was surprised and delighted to learn that students who attend cyber charter school are able to participate in their school district’s extracurricular activities. Meaning that your kids can still play soccer, sing in the choir, or be on the debate team of your home district. 
 
Personally, I chose cyber charter school for all of the above reasons and in my case, cyber charter school provides a full day of kindergarten programming whereas kindergarten in my district is only half-day. Obviously fall will be our first foray into cyber charter school, but I’m at peace with my decision and very optimistic about the school year ahead. 
 
You might be wondering where cyber charter schools get their funding. The caveat is that they get their funding from your school district–they take your tax dollars away from your neighborhood school. I would consider this fair, but a negative for people who expect to send their kids back to traditional school after covid blows over. 
 
Cyber schooling through your school district keeps your tax dollars in the district, which is a concern for parents who want to see their neighborhood schools survive and thrive post-covid. 
 
 
II. Cyber schooling through your school district
 
From what I observed and gleaned from conversations with parents who have done virtual school within their districts, there is a lot less support. The school provides curriculum that is the same as what the student would learn in-person, but they don’t offer much (if anything) in the way of tech support and trouble shooting. They may or may not be able to loan equipment such as laptops to students. It may take awhile to get a response from a teacher via email or phone call, because teacher/student ratios tend to be higher and most of the schools’ resources are invested in in-person instruction. For most school districts virtual learning is a “side gig” and it shows. I wish I could be more positive about virtual school through your neighborhood school, but my take on it is that generally anything a school district can do (online), a cyber charter school can do better. I’m sure this is not always the case though. 
 
III. Homeschooling
 
Homeschooling is a whole different ballgame. You really need to have it together to homeschool successfully because there is no one looking over your shoulder. If you’re just trying to muddle through covid then homeschooling is definitely not for you. However, if you are up to the task of finding and/or creating developmentally appropriate curriculum for your kids, then you might be able to pull this off. There are a lot of resources for homeschooling–local groups, national organizations, established teaching styles and curriculum that you can follow, etc. Homeschool gives parents the freedom (nay the responsibility) to create lessons tailored to your kids’ individual style of learning on a schedule that works for your family. 
 
When a friend told me she intends to homeschool during covid, I balked and asked why in the world she would choose homeschooling over cyber charter school or online in-district. She brought up a VERY valid point and a huge “pro” of choosing homeschool over other options.
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She has two young children in different grades–with homeschooling she can teach them the same subject with developmentally appropriate school work tailored to each child. For example, she can teach a unit on amphibians to both kids instead of trying to clone herself to help each of them through completely different classes. Way simpler if you are a parent of multiple school-aged children. 
 
However, there are costs associated with homeschooling. Parents are responsible for finding curriculum, textbooks, and any supplies they need to run their classroom. You can find some free stuff online, but most of it costs money. You might reasonably expect to spend hundreds of dollars or more per kid. I was under the impression that families received a tax credit for homeschooling. This is FALSE. There are no federal tax credits for homeschooling and only three states offer any form of state tax credit.  You will most definitely have to pay out-of-pocket if you choose to homeschool, so be prepared. 
 
How do you find out what cyber charter schools are operating in your state? How do you know which online schools are high performing? Where do you find parent reviews? All good questions. Beyond googling “online schools (your state)” or “cyber charter schools (your state)” my best advice is to visit www.niche.com  and use the drop-down to select your state, then select “filters”, scroll down and select “online”. 
 
To find more information about online schooling options in your district, you’ll need to visit your district’s website.
 

If you want to explore homeschooling, I highly recommend that you check out this article at parents.com. It offers a wealth of information and resources.

I recognize there are many moms out there with years of cyber school and homeschool experience under their belts. I admittedly have a lot to learn, but I wanted to share as much as possible in hopes of helping other parents in the trenches. Veteran moms please comment and share any resources, information and insight you have about cyber schooling and homeschooling. We all need ALL the help we can get!
 
 
 
 
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Amanda Kirkman
Amanda is a "mom on the move" as the mommy of two littles and spouse of an engineer whose projects have taken the family all over the continental US. Amanda's roots are in Columbia, Missouri where she was born and raised, but at age 21 she spread her wings and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where she earned her Bachelors in Public Relations and Journalism from Hawaii Pacific University. Life has been ridiculously amazing for Amanda, but she's had to fight for it. In the past 10 years she has survived Crohn's disease, losing both her parents, pregnancy loss and infertility, losing her dream home to a fire, nearly losing her spouse to a sudden cardiac arrest and simultaneously she lost her colon and became an ostomate. The silver lining is Amanda has not only survived--she has thrived--continuing to manifest a life she loves and is proud of. She is transparent, raw and real with others, prizing authenticity over perfection. As a Mom Amanda is an accidental attachment parent who bought a crib and stroller but discovered she loves babywearing and bedsharing. She is not shy about breastfeeding in public. She's a stay-at-home-mom by choice and she loves kids, especially hers.

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