- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2020

Kellie Bocanegra and her husband decided more than two years ago to start teaching their daughter themselves in their suburban Houston home to ensure the girl maintains a gluten-free diet to manage her celiac disease.

“I had no clue on how to home-school,” Ms. Bocanegra said. “I went out and bought a bunch of books and [tried to] figure it all out on my own.”

Today, she finds herself a home-schooling authority as parents across the country try to turn their kitchens and living rooms into makeshift classrooms amid school closures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“I was thrust into this just like the rest of the public,” Ms. Bocanegra said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1.7 million children are home-schooled, accounting for 3% of the nation’s 56 million primary and secondary schoolchildren. Suddenly, those home-schoolers are not alone in the educational endeavors, with hundreds of schools from Maine to California closing to prevent infections of the new coronavirus. Education Week estimates that 41 million students are affected by the school closures.

Parents, grandparents and legal guardians are scrambling to teach their children, and home-schooling parents are offering insights, including chalkboard construction, keeping a schedule and using math curricula.

“To all of you parents that have become first time home schoolers: Take a deep breath! Your kids are resilient but it will take some time to adjust to their new reality. We have done it for 2 years now. It will get easier,” Ms. Bocanegra’s husband, Diego, said in a Facebook post that “blew up” this week.

The Bocanegras home-school their 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, and their first-grade son, Luca, using videos produced by Christian education supplier Abeka Academy, which offers curricula on many general subjects. For a few subjects, such as a state-required course in Texas history, Mr. Bocanegra takes the reins. At day’s end, the children sit as Mom or Dad grade exams and quizzes.

It’s not perfect, they say, but they feel comfortable with the routine.

Home-schooling has often been associated with religious reactions to the secularization of public education and the banning of prayer in public schools during the 1960s. But the National Home Education Research Institute lists a variety of reasons for home-schooling, including individualized instruction and safer environments.

With video streaming, apps and social media, home-schooling today looks nothing like that of yesteryear. Innovative lessons abound, such as videos from the Smithsonian Institution featuring 3D models of shipwrecks, young adult authors speaking with students about creative writing and video logs featuring the Field Museum in Chicago’s chief curiosity correspondent.

Meanwhile, many school districts have been exercising contingency plans as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and are requiring that students keep up with classwork through online learning management systems, such as Schoology, Moodle and Google Classroom.

At Henrico County Public Schools just outside Richmond, Virginia, officials announced that for the remainder of the month, “instruction continues using virtual learning approaches.” Elementary students received distance learning packets designed to last for a two-week closure, the school district’s website says. Middle school and high school students will use school-issued laptops to connect to Schoology, a virtual learning environment.

Henrico County schools spokesman Andy Jenks said these activities aren’t required, but “we encourage parents, guardians and care providers to use these options to offer students regular opportunities to learn and grow, even outside of school.”

In many ways, learning during the pandemic will not resemble traditional home-schooling environments, said Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and author of “Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.”

“But homeschooling can be a useful lens in helping parents to realize that children can learn effectively without school, especially when they are given the freedom to pursue passions that they may not have been able to do when tied to a conventional classroom and curriculum,” Ms. McDonald wrote in an email.

What home-schooling parents offer is intangible advice on a range of topics from routines to breaks to navigating a whole day’s worth of instruction.

Writer and editor Erin Kissane, who home-schools her child with her partner at their home in Oregon, warns parents in a blog post to anticipate a little chaos, load up on “lots of books” and supplies, including circuit kits, and develop rhythms more than rigid, timed schedules. She also encourages avoiding the urge to be “Captain Homeschool” on the first day.

“Especially if you’ve never been home with kids before or if your kids are used to school schedules, just spend the first week or two of your kid shifts playing and hanging out and making things together,” writes Ms. Kissane.

It’s advice even seasoned teachers are finding helpful. In Texas, Ms. Bocanegra said a friend who is a third-grade teacher reached out for assistance on how to teach her own children while remotely managing her classroom.

“She asked me if I had a written-out schedule,” said Ms. Bocanegra. “I don’t have a written-out schedule. My schedule is not going to work for you. It’ll depend on your personal needs.”

But one thing they’re both happy to share is making certain to get outside — while practicing social distancing — to allow for exercise and play.

“It’s something that they have to do in school [recess],” Mr. Bocanegra said. “Therefore, we implement it here, too.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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