Let me start with this: I never intended to homeschool.
Homeschooling was definitely not on my parenting to-do list. It was not the plan. And I suppose that is probably true for most people.
I grew up very happy in a school environment. My mom (now, “Oma Rita” to my son) taught public school kindergarten for 30+ years. After attending local public schools through the third grade, my parents enrolled me in a nearby private school with rigorous curriculum, small classroom sizes and fewer mandates than found in the public school system. I grew to love learning in the school environment — so much so that I just kept attending school for many years after high school graduation. (My husband was raised in public schools, though his mother, who was also a licensed teacher, did homeschool him and his brother for a year or two during their primary years.)
Simply put, I have a world of respect for educators — especially classroom teachers in public schools that are often severely underfunded, understaffed and under pressure from external sources and policymakers who have little to no experience or understanding of what it means to actually teach. Our family loves teachers. We support our local schools and will always throw our votes behind ballot measures to better fund our local school district.
Public schools also provide essential support for students with disabilities, unique learning challenges and those who require additional support for medical conditions and/or environmental accommodations (e.g. accessibility in the school building and classroom). Students with disabilities have a right to access a public education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) that directs the development and implementation of Individualized Learning Programs (IEPs) for students who meet the criteria for eligibility. (There are also “504 Plans” that support students with disabilities who need accommodations to access their education.)
Undoubtedly, for most students with disabilities, public schools offer the best avenue for success — however it is that “success” is defined and determined by that individual student and their family. Public schools are mandated by law to provide special education services in the “least restrictive environment,” which, in theory, means services and supports brought to the student in an inclusive, general education classroom. Public schools receive funds specifically earmarked to support students with special education needs. And public schools are often where families will find the most highly skilled teachers with experience supporting students with disabilities. These are all generalizations, of course, but this is most often the case.
And yet, in some circumstances, and for any number of reasons, students with disabilities can be, and are, better supported and more effectively educated in the home environment. This may occur through a “Home-Bound” program through a local school district, a public online school, or traditional homeschooling, or any such combination of home education options.
Our decision to homeschool came about slowly. Like I said, we had no intention of becoming a homeschooling family. We were two working parents, and we wanted whatever kids we had to experience education and the school years in a way that was similar to our own experience.
Finding out our son would have a disability also cemented in our minds the need to establish ourselves in a school district that could best provide for his needs.
At least, that was our thinking….
Then, when I was pregnant, with a diagnosis in hand and a general idea of our son's future needs, my husband and I began researching and touring local daycares. We soon realized that there were no daycares that could meet those needs. They were honest about it, and some said that they would learn what they could and that they would do their best… but, in a nursery classroom with other infants and toddlers who also have needs of their own, no regular daycare facility was going to cut it.
So, Malachi stayed home with us. He qualified for home nursing hours, of which we took advantage, and soon, I shifted my work schedule to remain at home with him. (Shortly thereafter, the pandemic shifted everything and allowed his dad to also remain at home.)
When Malachi aged out of his Early Intervention/Birth-to-Three program, he was enrolled in the developmental preschool program through our local school district. He was on an IEP and guaranteed special education services to meet his educational needs. This was, of course, at the height of the pandemic, so all of his schooling and therapies were delivered in a virtual capacity.
Were there disadvantages to Zoom School?
Without a doubt. As a freshly minted three-year-old, and like many of his peers, Malachi did not immediately take to Zoom. It took practice and a lot of continuous involvement from us as parents. Every morning, one of us sat beside Malachi for preschool. Rather than dropping him off at a school building for the day, preschool became a collaborative experience. It was exceedingly difficult from a work standpoint to manage a full-time work schedule and preschool/childcare needs, but we did it. Luckily, we both had the privilege of working from home.
Virtual therapy is also challenging for a preschool age child, and, while we liked his school therapists and found them knowledgeable and helpful, the delivery of services via Zoom was, and still is, difficult. That is all true, and yet…
There were also benefits to Zoom School.
First and foremost, the flexibility of remote education enhances overall accessibility. For kids with disabilities and, especially, for kids with medical needs that require frequent doctor’s appointments and hospital admissions, remote schooling allows for more adaptation and continuity in attendance.
There was a period during the pandemic when Malachi was in the hospital for nearly six weeks. During that time, he only missed a handful of school days — total. (And those absences were only due to scheduled procedures that created a timing conflict.) We brought his little school table into his hospital room, and he Zoomed into preschool class every morning. Without that option, he would have simply missed out on a month-and-a-half of school and therapies.
There were also many days when Malachi attended Zoom School in the car as we drove to and from doctor’s appointments. Without remote schooling, those also would have been counted as absences.
From a parenting standpoint, and especially as two work-from-home parents, we appreciated the flexibility of Zoom School as it provided our family a higher level of mobility and travel options. We love to be outdoors. We love to explore new places, and we believe that education is enhanced by those type of experiences. Zoom School offered us the best of both worlds. Malachi could benefit from classroom instruction and school services, but not in a way that restricted our freedom of movement through the dictates of an annual school schedule.
Then the world began opening back up...
At that point, the thought of forfeiting the accessibility of remote schooling, after 2.5 years of pandemic experience, left us feeling like we were forced to choose between traditional education and the type of real-life, hands-on, experienced-based learning that we had been, to that point, largely self-directing to meet Malachi’s individual needs. The choice didn’t feel right, but that was exactly what we were being asked to do….
In addition to it all, of course, were the medical considerations…. Malachi requires a high level of support, and his medical diagnoses are such that he must have someone with skilled nursing level training with him at all times. He must be within eyesight of that skilled provider. There can be no breaks or period of time during the day when a provider is not available within arm’s reach.
There are also frequent emergencies, mostly in the form of acute pain episodes triggering tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures that cause Malachi to stop breathing. He has a very specific seizure response plan that must be followed. If his needs during those moments go unmet, he could die. It is truly that serious. These are life-and-death serious types of considerations.
Despite the fact that federal law guarantees Malachi access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (a right to education known as FAPE) with services and supports outlined in an IEP, it is a lot to expect of a school district to fully meet the medical and educational needs of a student that requires such a high level of support. The reality is that special education services in this country are chronically underfunded at every level. There is a scary shortage of licensed teachers in many districts, as well as a shortage of other classroom providers and school staff members. There are never enough nurses. Many schools in this country do not even have a single full-time nurse on campus at all, and students like Malachi require their own dedicated nurse.
Regardless of any funding or staffing challenges that occur within the school district, does Malachi still have the right to attend his neighborhood school with the supports and services he needs to thrive?
Yes. Absolutely. 100% without question.
Federal law mandates it.
Would his needs be met, and would those services be provided without constant involvement, conflict and (probably) attorney participation on our part?
Mostly likely, no.
It would be a constant fight. There would be constant stress and micromanaging of the school to ensure that Malachi’s needs were being met in the classroom and within the building. And all of that on top of the constant fear over whether the school could effectively respond to his health emergencies to the high degree that we expect. (And don’t even get me started on planning around active shooter and crisis response for students with disabilities who are unable to flee on their own accord during a life-threatening situation.)
Could I fight the good fight? Sure.
Could I be the relentless advocate that wakes up every morning ready for that fight? Also yes.
Could I navigate all the planning and policy discussions and possible involvement of attorneys, etc.? Yup. I sure could…
But do I want to?
Is that really the best option for our family? Is that really what is best for Malachi?
Do I want to constantly interject that level of stress and fear into our lives?
Do I want to use up our precious daylight hours on the phone, on emails, in meetings, in argumentative conversations, reviewing documents, researching laws, etc., etc., etc.?
Do I want to sacrifice my time with Malachi for the time it would take to fight school systems on his behalf?
Is that really the life I want to create for our family when we have the ability to do it differently?
That is not how we are going to live our lives. We are choosing to do it differently.
And that — all of that — cumulatively — is how we made the decision to homeschool.