FAIRMONT — When the format of the 2020-2021 school year was still in question this summer, many parents opted to sign up to homeschool their children, rather than have them attend school in-person.
During this period, Tricia Maxwell, attendance director for Marion County Schools, received an unprecedented number of letters of intent to homeschool, in part because of uncertainty.
“Last year throughout the whole school year, I had about 82 to 84 new homeschool intents, on top of the continuing homeschoolers,” Maxwell said. “This year so far just since July 1, I have processed about 220 new homeschool requests.”
According to Maxwell, the wave of letters of intent has dwindled since the county announced different options students could opt into this year, from distance learning to blended learning. Maxwell also said Marion County’s number of homeschool requests was lower than that of other counties, due to offering multiple learning models.
“We have several options that have helped keep our numbers down,” Maxwell said. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job with maintaining those numbers or keeping them smaller because of the options we have provided for families.”
Parents always have the option to homeschool their kids at any time during the school year, but Maxwell said she believes many believed it would be a viable change this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, she said the option provides its own set of challenges, because it completely separates a student from the public school system.
“The biggest difference that separates homeschool from all the other options, is homeschool, you are signing out of public education,” Maxwell said. “You are un-enrolling from public ed, and as a parent or guardian, you are taking on the responsibility of your child’s education. That’s the biggest difference.”
Despite this high number of letters of intent to homeschool, Maxwell said many parents have since re-enrolled their children back into the Marion County Schools system, because of the option for distance learning.
“We have several that have gone back into the blended learning or distance learning option once they realized what the plans were going to be,” Maxwell said. “I had some families that submitted early on in the summer not knowing what the options were going to be, then they contacted me later.”
Another learning option offered throughout the state is West Virginia Virtual School, which saw a spike in Marion County this year, potentially because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sherry Copley, curriculum coordinator for Marion County Schools, handles West Virginia Virtual School in the county, and said many parents had tried to sign their kids up for the program in light of the uncertainty of the school year.
“We have less than 40 right now,” Copley said. “We had about 300 sign up initially, and once they found out that Marion County was offering the distance option, most of them wanted one of our local teachers and they switched to that.”
This option has existed for Marion County students for years, but Copley said the system expanded to accept students in grades K-5, because it used to only allow students in grades 6-12 to enroll. She said West Virginia Virtual School is an option for students who want to take on a more rigorous, challenging curriculum compared to the public school system.
“It is very rigorous, very challenging, really good for kids who are wanting to have structure and high standards,” Copley said. “They have vetted different virtual school programs with our standards. What they do is take that curriculum and they have trained virtual school teachers in West Virginia all over the state that are facilitators for that curriculum.”
Additionally, students are only able to enroll in West Virginia Virtual School at certain times, so they are up to date with its curriculum.
“We do have cut-off times,” Copley said. “I think what [School Superintendent] Mr. Farley is having everyone do is stay locked-in to this semester to whatever they chose. But typically, we have a cut-off of a month after the semester starts to enroll, and then you wait until the next semester if you miss that, otherwise you are too far behind.”
In contrast to the homeschool option, students enrolled in West Virginia Virtual School are still part of the Marion County Schools system, and can take part in extracurricular activities offered by the county.Still, though, Copley said this option is mainly for students who have excelled in different subjects, and she tries to make sure parents understand the challenges of this program.
“We have an orientation process that we take them through, because we want to make sure they understand that it is a structured, rigorous program,” Copley said. “We explain the policy to them, we don’t want them to sign up blindly not knowing what they are getting into.”
Maxwell also said she converses with parents who want to try homeschooling, so they know what they are committing to along with their child. Throughout these conversations, Maxwell said she found that many parents who have signed their kids into homeschool want this to only be a temporary educational choice.
“I feel like a lot of what is going on right now is temporary,” Maxwell said. “I hear it from a lot of the families, that this is just temporary, ‘We’re planning on bringing them back when things go back to normal.’”
And while 220 letters of intent to homeschool is unusual for one school year, Maxwell said many that she receives in a normal year could be coming from other sources, including children of parents who already homeschool their older children.
“It’s not all due to COVID, it’s not all due to all of this confusion, but it has definitely increased,” Maxwell said. “The 220 that I’m referring to can be transfers from other counties that have always homeschooled, and they have just changed residency. Some of them are kindergarten who have previous siblings in the family that homeschool, so they’re just adding another family member.”
Maxwell said she does not believe the homeschool numbers will ever be this high again, barring some other unexpected circumstance.
“I do expect some of them to come back in January if some of the health restrictions are lifted,” Maxwell said. “And then I look for our numbers to go down next year as far as new intents coming in, I don’t think that it will be as high as it is right now.”