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Why some N.H. parents are homeschooling their kids for a second year

Soucy family.jpg
Sarah Gibson
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Kyle Soucy (left) wanted to send her kids back to public school this year, but when the school board made masks optional, she opted to homeschool again.

Homeschooling wasn’t ever in Kyle Soucy’s plans.

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But last year, to protect her family from getting COVID-19, Soucy cut back her work hours and started homeschooling her kids in Kingston.

“It was just about getting through the year,” she recalls.

Then came the delta variant and local battles over whether to require masks in schools. Soucy’s kids are too young to get the COVID vaccine. She and her husband lobbied the school board to follow public health guidance and issue a mask mandate, but the board left masking decisions up to parents. The Soucy’s decided it wasn’t safe to send their kids back.

So it’s homeschool, year two.

“I have a hard time accepting that I have to do this, but you get to a point where you gotta do what you have to do,” says Soucy.

The Soucy’s are part of a wave of families who unexpectedly find themselves homeschooling during the pandemic. In the United States and in New Hampshire, the number of children homeschooling nearly doubled last year.

Many assumed this would be a temporary shift, but interest this year remains high. And as the homeschool community expands, the state is now giving it more support than ever before.

“I think this has been the perfect storm of sorts for people giving it a try,” says Michelle Levell, director of Granite State Home Educators, a clearinghouse for homeschool resources that runs multiple Facebook groups.

The state won’t have a final tally of this year’s homeschoolers until November. But Levell says homeschooling might be entering a golden era, based on high activity on her group’s social media pages and feedback she's received from homeschool groups.

She says some families preferred homeschooling last year and are sticking with it; others sent their kids back to school and realized in-person learning wasn’t a good fit after all. And many others are dissatisfied with their schools’ varied responses to COVID-19.

Some parents — like Soucy — advocated for mask mandates and didn’t get them. Others fought against mandates and lost.

“They’re frustrated for different reasons - kind of polar opposite reasons,” Levell says.

But no matter how caregivers are coming to homeschooling, the state is offering more resources to them than ever before.

New this year, families are getting public funds to pay for either private school or home education programs through the state’s new Education Freedom Accounts. So far, about 1,500 families are participating, though it’s not clear yet how many are using these for home education programs.

The state is also working with Prenda, a private company based in Arizona, to set up multi-aged learning pods of 5-10 kids, mostly homeschoolers. The initiative is part of the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Recovering Bright Futures Program and is paid for with federal COVID relief funds aimed at tackling learning loss.

New Hampshire’s partnership with Prenda is unusual; the no-bid contract is worth up to $6 million, depending on how many students participate. The rate the state is paying Prenda — $5,000 per student — is more than it sends to public school districts in average per-pupil adequacy aid. After it began working here, Prenda hired a lobbyist in Manchester.

But some parents say the program is providing structure and community, especially for those new to homeschooling.

Prenda.jpg
Sarah Gibson
Prenda employees Melanie Neily (left) and Gabrielle Fisk (right) are travelling New Hampshire to talk to parents about setting up Prenda learning pods. The program is free to families and paid for by the state.

Jace Martin found her way to Prenda after spending the summer advocating against a mask mandate at her seven-year old daughter’s school in Londonderry. Frustrated, Martin pulled her daughter out this fall.

Her daughter is now in a learning pod, led by another mom who received training from Prenda to act as the official guide. Martin’s daughter does a mix of group activities and online work at her own pace.

Martin says the first few weeks have gone well.

“For the first time ever, she opened up her laptop and got on her program herself and announced to me: ‘Mom, I love doing homework,’” she says.

“I just feel like this may have been a blessing in disguise — that regardless of what happens with the masks, this may be where she needed to be all along,” she continues.

The recent departure of families from public schools — because of schools’ approach to COVID or concerns about learning loss — raises a big question for New Hampshire’s public school system: will families who started homeschooling during the pandemic return?

The answer affects funding for schools, which receive state and federal funding in part based on their enrollment. And it could affect the social fabric of the community itself.

Kyle Soucy, the mother in Kingston, says the bitter local battle over COVID is making her rethink what it means to share a public school in a divided community.

“I’m really questioning: Do we even want to go back to this community that is so — almost nasty about masks, no mask?” she asks. “Everything is political.”

Soucy wants to see her kids back in school, but she and her husband have begun looking into private school for next year. She says she never imagined that, but then again, she never imagined homeschooling either.