Jill Sulam Monat and Jeremy Monat live in Burke, Va., with their two children. Elizabeth is 5 and going into kindergarten, and Isaac is 3 and ready for preschool. When Jill and Jeremy decided to begin homeschooling Elizabeth this fall, they joined the ranks of parents opting for an alternative to the virtual classrooms being offered by public and private schools.
In 2018 there were 27,561 children enrolled as homeschool students in Maryland and 36,984 in Virginia, according to the International Center for Home Education Research (numbers for the District were not included).
A survey for the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 1.7 million kids between the ages of 5 and 17, or 3.3 percent of all K-12 students, were homeschooled in 2016. Two-parent households where one parent was formally employed and the other was not made up the largest percentage of homeschooling families in the country.
But homeschooling was not something Sulam Monat seriously considered before the pandemic.
“My kids’ preschool experience was so positive and truly enhanced their lives. Their teachers were caring, creative and fun,” she said. “I don’t have their expertise or their patience. I always assumed that both kids would go on to attend our neighborhood elementary school.”
Burke is in Fairfax County, where all public schools are starting virtually this year. “After thinking about it a lot, we realized that computer-based learning might not work well for her or our family,” said Sulam Monat. She and Jeremy were concerned that Elizabeth would not connect with her teacher or the other kids, most of whom she wouldn’t know, and might have a hard time paying attention.
“And it would be hard for us to follow a set full-day schedule while I manage our younger child’s needs, since his preschool is closed for now and he’ll be home, too,” she added.
Jennifer Green, an adjunct psychology professor and a homeschooler for more than 10 years, differentiates between what she calls “crisis schooling” (trying to school at home because of the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic) versus homeschooling by choice.
“This has always been the best choice for us based on our children’s needs, our family’s frequent moves, and our family’s mentality,” she said.
Green leads a Jewish homeschooling umbrella group for Montgomery County families, offering guidance on how to meet their legal requirements and “get their kids what they need to succeed.”
“Connecting with local homeschooling groups, Jewish and secular, will help you get the support of experts who have been doing this for a long time,” she said. “There are many Facebook groups and email groups to join and ask questions of, and people are generally helpful and kind.”
But even experienced homeschoolers are facing the challenges of adaptation due to the pandemic. “The biggest loss is our outside classes,” said Green. “I have several extroverts who really need interaction with others, and they are missing that.”
With five kids in first grade through high school, Green makes a point of including lessons and activities multiple children can work on together. “When I’m planning, I take my need for some brain cells active at the end of the school into account,” she said.
Some of her kids prefer to read information, while others prefer to watch a video and talk about it, so their learning preference guides the medium and mode of learning. (An example of something non-negotiable: multiplication drills.) Green works with her husband on building their children’s curriculum, especially Judaics, but the day-to-day teaching and review falls to her.
Sulam Monat said she expects to do most of the teaching in her house, as well, as her husband works from home on a traditional daytime schedule. She doesn’t have an academic or professional background in education like Green, but has equipped herself with an array of tools for the year. She plans to use a secular, children’s literature-based curriculum called Moving Beyond the Page for language arts, social studies, science and math. For reading and handwriting, Elizabeth has already started using Progressive Phonics.
Isaac’s preschool will also be sending weekly STEM activity kits that they will work on as a family.
In terms of Jewish content, the family is stocked with an assortment of PJ Library and other Jewish books, “which we already read pretty often,” said Sulam Monat. “But I’ll try to make sure we read the holiday-related books at the relevant times. I’m also hoping to do crafts or other activities related to the holidays.”
Sulam Monat researched the legal requirements for homeschooling in Virginia herself using homeschooling advocacy organizations’ websites. They are readily available and fairly simple, she said.
The qualifications to homeschool and process for enrollment as a homeschool student in the Washington area varies by jurisdiction. In the District, for instance, parents or legal guardians must either have a high school diploma or request a waiver from the requirement, and submit a Notification of Intent to Homeschool to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) at least 15 business days prior to the first date of home instruction.
In Maryland, there are no minimal qualifications for a parent or guardian to homeschool, but in addition to submitting a notice of intent to the local superintendent they have to maintain a portfolio of each student’s work and allow the local superintendent to review it up to three times a year (in the District, the OSSE can request to see a portfolio up to twice a year).
Virginia generally demands end-of-year educational progress assessments, but waived it for the 2019-2020 school year, due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen what standards will be enforced as the pandemic continues into the new school year.
Even where and when not required, however, the Home School Legal Defense Association recommends documenting that a child is receiving an education in compliance with the law by hanging on to attendance records and test results, information on the textbooks and workbooks students used, samples of their schoolwork, and correspondence with any school officials for at least two years.
Sulam Monat is not making a permanent move to homeschooling. “If the next school year is slated to be normal and we feel it’s safe for Elizabeth to attend school, she’ll go to our neighborhood school for first grade,” she said.
The Greens, however, are in it for the duration of their children’s education. Said Jennifer Green: “Homeschooling has given us a smoother transition in the craziness of 2020 as well as tight family bonds, and that is a gift.”