Amid the COVID-19 chaos, more parents turn to homeschooling

Oak Meadow, a Brattleboro-based distance-learning nonprofit, reports a sharp increase in demand for its educational program and home-school resources

BRATTLEBORO — Amidst a pandemic in which social distancing is key, attending in-person school might not be the top choice for families, especially considering the Brattleboro Little League playoffs were canceled because a family contracted the coronavirus.

Children learn and discover with their hands, and likely don't wash them enough. Plus, it's hard to stay focused on a screen for hours on end.

Many families have been looking into homeschooling since mid-March, according to Wendy Richardson, the director of admissions at Oak Meadow, a Brattleboro-based yet global homeschooling curriculum and one-on-one teaching school. Parents who had often considered it in the past jumped on board quickly, she said.

“People realized that the homeschool companies have a model that works with people at home with individual instruction,” Richardson said. “[Families learned what] schools couldn't offer and saw some students did really well at home without the group setting.”

Oak Meadow has more than doubled its sales of books - usually 500 copies - and increased its enrollment from 600 to its capacity of roughly 1,000 students.

Noting the hundreds of email inquiries coming from the school's website, Richardson said she has heard stories of worry about safety and disliking of an online experience.

“We did a full year's worth of selling curriculum in July, and our school has been full from mid-July,” Richardson said. “We will be taking applications for 2021-22 in January and are already getting lots of questions about that.”

The print-based company was one of the first distance learning schools in the nation and offers services for kindergarten to 12th grade while using technology sparingly.

Oak Meadow used to primarily service Waldorf schools, expatriates or traveling parents, and families who could not attend traditional school due to skiing aspirations.

After 45 years of business, Executive Director and School Liaison Steve Lorenz said Oak Meadow has already performed well in the marketplace, which is dominated by online-first offerings.

“We had to hire seven or eight new teachers and five to seven new part-time staff members just to handle this influx,” Lorenz said. “It used to be that we had to really go looking for people, but the resumes we received have filled folders.”

“Teachers are really thinking, 'Do I want to be with people in one building?'” he said.

Growing pains

The growth has been welcomed, but Oak Meadow is having trouble keeping up with distribution, as the organization relies on third-party publishers. Staffers write 120 publications but also use large textbook suppliers as well.

This has posed a problem for serving high school-aged students, Lorenz said.

“We are trying to do things creatively in 65 different countries and all 50 states,” he said. “If you called last year, we would have the curriculum to you in three to five business days, but now it's taking five to seven weeks. We have 3,000 orders to be filled, and everyone is working around the clock.”

Oak Meadow is proud to be print-first and build relationships among teachers and students. The entire industry is doing well, but there are two groups with different thinking: one which wants print and another which wants online (Khan Academy, for example).

“A lot of our competitors are all online; they don't have the print. This is what separates us out,” Richardson said. “We have work that you submit to a teacher, and they read the work and evaluate it. Our numbers are lower because it's print and one-on-one.”

“We are project-based learning and require [the student] to do something with the concept to show that they are really learning. A lot of parents are learning that some thrive with online, but not all.”

Students in kindergarten through fourth grade struggle “because of a short attention span, and talking to a teacher through the screen can be intimidating and scary,” Richardson continued.

Lorenz and Richardson said the general thinking is that the uptick in homeschooling will not let up soon, because either people are going to start going back to school and not liking the experience or they are studying online at home and not liking the experience, either.

“We are thinking this wave is going to continue through the fall. [COVID-19 is] going to change education, and parents are getting more involved,” Richardson said.

“They are seeing what their kids are learning and not learning,” he said. “Parents may not be teachers, but they are home because of the pandemic and don't want their child sitting at a computer for six hours each day.”

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