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Microschooling is on the rise

Microschooling is on the rise (but parents are burning out)

The family wakes up around 6:30 or so—basically whenever the toddler gets up—and Jones starts his day by taking the dog for a walk. They make breakfast and get the kids ready for the day, which begins at 8:20 when their oldest son, who is in the sixth grade, must log onto his laptop to report for school remotely. Once he’s settled, the adults log in to complete their own work.

But they can’t get too comfortable working, someone has to take their son outside for a recess break at 10:30 and again for his lunch break. School ends at 1:30, at which point Jones says they usually let the kids do whatever they want until family time at 5:00. That gives the adults a block of time to focus on professional tasks. After dinner, which wraps up around 8:30, he and his wife are back at work again, trying to make up for time lost throughout the day. They may not log off until midnight, Jones says.

“It wears on you,” he says. “You end up losing so many work hours in the day because you’re trying to do this parenting thing, so you end up doing a lot of your work at night. You end up with very little sleep.”

Overall Jones’ family has adapted reasonably well to the circumstances imposed by a global pandemic― online school and remote work― but still Jones worries about the economy and job stability. He worries about being passed up for work opportunities, should his irregular schedule come across as a lack of dedication. And he worries about his son falling behind on his schoolwork.

Parents across the nation have found themselves in the same boat this fall. Although school is back in session, physical school buildings are still closed in many communities. Parents—many of whom are still working full-time from home—have felt a need to step in and monitor their children’s remote education, fearing the online format will result in educational delays that could erode their ability to compete in future work environments. 

At the same time, some say they’ve found that their employers’ dedication to “flexible” work schedules has, as Jones described it, amounted to the expectation that professionals work 12-hour days, and many feel as though they can’t handle the increased stress and workload much longer.

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported staggering statistics about the rapid degradation of American’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey reported a 31 percent increase in overall symptoms of anxiety and depression and an 11 percent increase in the number of Americans considering suicide. Parents, those caring for elderly or disabled adults, and young adults reported the greatest increases in symptoms, with a full quarter of young adults ages 18-24 reporting they had seriously considered ending their lives.

The custom schooling solutions available

The circumstances parents, educators, and students faced this fall are, in a word, unprecedented. Not in the sense that the situation is severe, but in the sense that the education system has never experienced anything like it. Consequently, there is no set of pre-established protocols or best practices for parents or teachers to follow.

Some parents—especially those still working outside the home—have turned to educational alternatives such as cooperative homeschooling, private schools, and even personal tutors to help bridge the gap between expectations and current realities. But those options aren’t available to everybody, and, even for the parents who do have access to extra educational resources, they haven’t prevented parents or students from feeling as though their future success is at stake. Even parents with access to such resources say they don’t believe their current situation is emotionally sustainable, causing many parents and even experts to question whether it’s time to reconsider the way we think about education.

To veteran educator Susan Goers, one thing that became quickly apparent as the pandemic began was that one-size solutions would not fit all, and that parents needed to have access to a wider pool of options than was readily apparent. That realization led her to begin offering consulting services to help parents learn about choices available to them, and eventually to start a small business called Education Transformed that matches families to private microschools, homeschool co-ops, or tutors according to individual needs.

“For the most part,” Goers says, she has found herself “custom-designing the education that parents are looking for to continue a rigorous education. Too many parents are feeling like there was a huge loss of time.” 

There is some truth to their concern, she says. As part of her work, Goers offers benchmark testing to evaluate students’ academic progress. Several have shown significant losses, with some currently testing a half-year behind their chronological age. 

Other parents, she says, contact her after burning out trying to manage work and their children’s online school, saying they simply can’t keep up. About half of her customers live in school districts with online learning and find that format does not work for their child or family. The other half, Goers says, live in districts doing face-to-face classes, but worry that the in-person format is unsafe. The diversity of needs has necessitated diverse solutions.

North Ogden resident Barb Delarosa found a solution for her family in a homeschool co-op Goers had a hand in organizing. Delarosa lost her job as an administrator at a charter school, which closed early in the pandemic and left her looking for an alternative for her middle-school-age twins, who had attended the school. Because of the job loss, she had time to help facilitate the co-op, where she also teaches writing classes to some of the 31 middle- and high school-age students who have enrolled.

The co-op meets in a local church and has set up a schedule and curriculum that mirrors the closed charter school. “For us it feels seamless,” Delarosa says. “Some of our kids are still trying to get back into the swing of things, but my kids have done great.”

For other parents, work schedules or other extenuating circumstances preclude participation in group learning. West Valley resident Laurieann Thorpe doesn’t consider in-person schooling an option with COVID still spreading, on account of her husband’s recent liver transplant. Two of her three children thrived attending school remotely, but her second-grade son struggled. “[He] could do it for about two weeks and then he was just done,” Thorpe says. “We couldn’t get him to do a worksheet to save his life.”

This quickly became problematic for Thorpe and her husband, both of whom are also working full-time online. Thorpe briefly considered quitting her job to stay home with the children, but decided the idea was too risky given her husband’s tenuous position. Fortunately, her mother and the family’s nanny stepped in to help. Today, Thorpe sends her children to their grandmother’s house most days. The nanny meets the children there, and the pair tag-teams to guide the children through their homework.

“Luckily we had that support,” Thorpe says, “but it feels almost accidental, like we just lucked into this. It’s so hard if you don’t have the luxury of quitting, because to me that’s always the first option that comes to mind. I need to prioritize my kids and their education, and if you don’t have the ability to do that, it puts you in a difficult position.”

The rise of microschooling 

Among those with access to alternatives such as private tutors and homeschool pods, there is an intense fear among parents that their children will miss out on having the ideal middle school or senior year experience, potentially jeopardizing their shot at college admission and future success. “That creates a lot of pressure for young people living through a global pandemic, and all the attendant anxiety and fear that is happening,” says Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children.

Kelly Smith, the founder of an online microschooling platform called Prenda, believes some of that fear is rooted in the way many Americans have come to think of school—as a physical place where children are dropped off to ride an escalator that carries them to success so long as they stay on board. “What happened with COVID is the escalator jammed,” Smith says.

In some cases, this has led to parents witnessing “the passive receiving of education” firsthand and questioning if this is what they truly want for their children. Indeed, for some parents such as Delarosa, COVID has introduced them to a more student-driven educational model they feel works far better than conventional settings ever did.

“I think we have a better education available to us,” in her homeschool co-op, Delarosa says, “because I think our education has really failed greatly in what they are teaching.”

Naturally, Smith’s business is booming, with hundreds of parents clamoring to sign up for Prenda’s software. But Smith says he’s turned many of these parents away, hoping to stay true to the company’s original mission of partnering with parents to make education a more active, student-driven activity. “We wanted to show a different model,” Smith says, “not become the only school that was open.”

Smith started Prenda after years of volunteering in libraries, where he worked with children. Many, he discovered, considered themselves “dumb” because the traditional school model wasn’t working for them, when what they were really lacking was engagement. Given greater choice and more opportunity to be creative, these kids thrived.

“We want these children to look at themselves as someone who is capable of learning,” he says. “That includes academic skills, music, and sports and hobbies.”

Over the course of a few years, Smith developed a piece of software that enables students to choose the subjects they will study, and set goals for how they will attain mastery. But the software alone isn’t sufficient—parents are expected to provide guidance in a homeschool or microschool environment. “It’s not a purely technology-based experience,” he says.

Goers puts similar emphasis on the notion of choice within her business, where she helps parents begin homeschooling, set up microschools, or helps to pair them with professional tutors and private teachers as desired. She also helps parents navigate their choices for online schools, and offers options for advanced or accelerated study, including online college for high school students.

“We had a student in ninth grade make a comment about I wish I could get my BA, and I said you can do that,” she says. “Her mom came in and did a few hours’ consult with us, and we put together a plan to test out of her BA while she’s in high school.”

Goers has also worked with lower-income families to find financial resources to support their child’s education, and has families within the co-ops she’s organized whose children attend school for free thanks to work-trade agreements where the parents provide services like running a carpool for the other students.

The need for businesses to be able to accommodate teaching

Within any of these models, execution matters. Thomas worries the push to prevent their children from “losing any ground” has triggered immense stress for students, parents, and even teachers—regardless of whether they have access to alternatives.

Despite having a private nanny and assistance from her own mother, Thorpe said she has felt her mental and physical health decline in recent months. “Before there was a cultural demand on moms to be all things to all people at all times,” she says. “But this—before, when there were places to do the things, you could block out other demands. Now it just feels like all the demands are all together all the time.”

“Families feel like they are doing it wrong, and like they should be able to make this work,” Thomas says. In reality, “the vast majority of families feel the same way. It’s not an individual family failing; it is a systemic failing.”

Slowing down and keeping expectations in check may help alleviate some of this stress, Thomas says. Still, it may not be enough. To maintain their own mental health, Jones says, his family takes care to disconnect entirely from work, school, and devices on the weekends. But expectations at work, he says, have made maintaining these rituals difficult.

“The biggest thing is, you know how lately companies have all been talking about how they value family time and work-life balance. All of that rhetoric is being put to the test, and I think a lot of companies are failing at it,” Jones says. “We keep hearing that it’s business as usual, and it’s not.”

He estimated the family could make it through the end of the year with their current situation. But if the pandemic continues into 2021, Jones is unsure how his family will cope. “The hardest part is seeing all these people around us and realizing we’re never going to get out of this,” he says. “We see all the parties and it’s like, will you please stop so we can send our kids back to school?”

Business leaders can help model “an approach that says let’s be okay with doing a little bit less and prioritize the health and wellbeing of all students, and not just the affluent white kids having a good senior year,” Thomas says. 

Rather than espousing balance and flexibility in word only, business leaders could use the pandemic as an opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, says Thomas. They could offer generous paid leave packages, or even offer subsidies for child care—policies Thomas believes should extend beyond employees with children, because so many families are currently relying on relatives without children to pick up the slack.

“Set the tone that this going to be happening for a while now,” Thomas says. “We are going to have to adjust. We are going to have to slow down, and worry less about doing things the exact way we did before. Just slow down and pay more attention to who’s struggling and what can we do to help.”

Emma Penrod is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health. She writes a weekly water politics newsletter at pactio.us/host/emma-penrod and Tweets about the latest science and industry news @EmaPen. When she's not writing, reading or researching, she's hunting sagebrush-scented air fresheners.