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Technology, pandemic give rise to new era of home schooling

By Christine Simmonds | Jan 14, 2021
Photo by: Molly Staples Sam Staples (middle) supervises twin sons Finn and Murphey as they practice writing their names.

The number of home-schooled students in Maine increased by 40% in 2020, not including students engaged in virtual learning. Both methods of teaching have transformed the school experience as students and parents struggle to adapt to changing times.

Parents and education authorities cited negative experiences with remote learning as well as health concerns about the spread of COVID-19 as reasons for the increase in home schooling.

During the summer 2020, thousands of Maine families made the decision to begin home-schooling. “Our phone was ringing off the hook,” Kathy Green said. “It was one right after another.” Green co-founded Homeschoolers of Maine with her husband Ed.

The non-profit organization, located in Camden, works with families across Maine to begin the home school process and maintain success. The families were calling for help to begin home schooling.

“Their concerns were COVID-19 and the fact that remote learning wasn’t working,” Green said. Many parents were worried about the amount of time their children spent on the computer during remote learning, and the effectiveness of virtual learning.

Kelli Deveaux of the Maine Department of Education said more than 10,000 students are being home-schooled in 2020. During the 2019 school year, that number was only 6,887.

One of these thousands who made the switch in 2020 was Molly Staples of Rockland. “I watched my kids struggle through remote learning… I realized this wasn’t going to work,” Staples said.

Now, Adelaide learns at home alongside her twin brothers Finn and Murphy, who are four. Though it has been a challenge, Staples said it was the best choice for her family.

“Is my kid going to pass any standardized tests?” Staples asked. “No, but she is engaged in her learning.”

The pandemic has made learning a challenge for all students. “No one is getting ahead this year,” Staples said. Her main priority was making sure her children were happy and healthy.

While home-schooling can feel awkward when parents are just starting out, Green said there is no right or wrong way to do it. “Learning happens as long as a child is awake,” she said.

Home schooling is different from distance learning, also called virtual learning. Students who are home-schooled are taught by their parents. Green said they must complete 175 days of learning, just like students in public school. Parents can choose how that learning looks.

Distance learning can involve attending virtual classes, often through Zoom or Google Meet, and completing work independently.

The instruction comes from a classroom teacher in another location, sometimes even in another state. For older students, virtual learning can involve between four to six hours each day on the computer.

Rebecca Waddell has described her virtual learning experience as a nightmare.

Her son Thane has been attending school virtually all year, because he has an immune disorder. Waddell and her husband were concerned about the possibility of him catching COVID-19. “We don’t know what kind of complications he might have over another 16-year-old,” she said.

Thane attends his classes through the computer and has many courses through online programs. Waddell said the process has been difficult and stressful. “I hit roadblock after roadblock,” she said.

While some of Thane’s classes are connected to a teacher at MVHS, those teachers are not the ones creating the material or leading the courses. Waddell said often the teacher at the high school was not able to answer her questions about the virtual course material.

Some of Thane’s classes also have teachers who are in other locations. “There’s a teacher somewhere in the world,” Waddell said of one class, but she isn’t sure where he is, and he can be hard to get answers from.

For one online class, Waddell said it took Thane six and a half hours to complete the first lesson.

Thane’s experience with distance learning has improved since MVHS went fully remote, though.

Thane has had more contact with teachers at the high school, and his time at the computer has also decreased. While he initially was spending about seven hours each day on his school work, now it only takes four.

Waddell said Thane is currently doing well academically, but most of his success is because he has adults at home who can help him understand the lessons and assignments. “Some students are likely home alone without any of that support,” she noted.

All students at Medomak Valley High School have been attending school remotely since Oct. 26, following an outbreak of COVID-19 at the high school. District administrators have said the decision to go fully remote was because of the large number of students and staff who were in quarantine at the time.

RSU 40 Assistant Superintendent Christina Wotton said there were 369 students in the district engaged in virtual learning for the entire school year. That number does not include the high school students who hope to return to in-person learning in February. More than 100 students at Medomak Valley High School will continue to learn from home even then.

MVHS principal Linda Pease has said at school board meetings that more than 80 students at the high school were struggling with distance learning, whether it was from poor internet connection or other issues. The school has taken steps to address these truant and failing students, including bringing students to the school to work in-person on assignments.

Many parents in a November RSU 40 survey about distance learning indicated they were concerned about the quality of the education students were receiving through virtual learning. Some family members said students completed work too quickly. Others said their children struggled to understand and complete work.

Survey responses indicated virtual learning was particularly difficult for students with parents who worked full-time. They were not available to help with technical problems or make sure their children were accessing the lessons as they were supposed to.

Teachers who responded to the survey said they worried about students with poor or no internet connection. Many student respondents also cited technical problems, like connecting to Google Meet for a class.

Sally Ladd’s daughter Ivy is a junior at Medomak Valley High School. Ivy is doing distance-learning from their Warren home this year.

Ladd said her family made the choice to learn at home because Ivy is immune-compromised.

Ladd is a stay-at-home mom and is really able to focus on Ivy’s education. If she were not at home currently, Ladd said it would absolutely change the success Ivy is having.

Ivy attends classes each day with her teachers and other students virtually through Google Classroom.

Before MVHS went fully remote, this involved Ivy attending the full six-hour school day at the computer. Now that all students at the high school are doing distance learning, the school has switched to a four-hour daily schedule.

Ladd said they have had some problems like technical issues and a faulty printer, but the teachers have all worked with them when this happened.

Adelaide Staples colors in a map of the United States electoral college. (Photo by: Molly Staples)
Ivy Ladd practices piano after her virtual school day. (Photo by: Sally Ladd)
Ivy Ladd's desk at home. (Photo by: Sally Ladd)
Thane Waddell completes his lessons at home. (Photo by: Jessica Waddell)
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Comments (1)
Posted by: Bradley Ketcher | Jan 14, 2021 17:09

Great family pics

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