Former third-grade teacher Kristen Bristow helps her daughter Andie, 6, with a book report while her other daughters Kat, 12, left, and Ellie, 11, do homework at the kitchen table in a home schooling session during the coronavirus pandemic on April 16, 2020, in Riverside, California. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

For Laila Barakat's children, school will be home, like other students in their district. But they won't participate in distance learning. Their teachers will be mom and dad.

Barakat has decided to do home schooling for her three school-aged children – one in first grade, one in transitional kindergarten, and one in pre-kindergarten – instead of connecting them to an online classroom.

"We just decided to take the leap," said Barakat, a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer in Elk Grove. "At first it seemed like a radical thing, and now more and more people are doing it."

As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes schools in Sacramento County and elsewhere into a distance-learning-only fall and families deal with uncertainty about when in-person learning will resume, parents have begun to seek alternatives to Zoom classrooms.

Home schooling is at the top of the list for many.

J. Allen Weston, the executive director of the National Homeschool Association, said that the association has seen an "explosive increase" in interest over the past few weeks, as parents look toward home schooling as an alternative.

The association increased the size of its inbox to accommodate the new inquiries.

"We used to get 40 or 50 emails a day," Weston said. "Now we're getting thousands."

About 3% of the students in the U.S. were home-schooled in the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But recent surveys have shown that 10% of parents are now strongly considering home schooling their children, said James Mason, vice president of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Facebook groups for home schooling support have grown significantly, some by 200 members per day, said Marwa Swelam, a former substitute teacher from Elk Grove. She is planning to teach her three children in the fall. She said one group told her that its membership has doubled throughout the pandemic, from 12,000 to 24,000 members.

"My Facebook wall is flooding with people," Swelam said. "I think parents are just scared to send their kids to school. It's scary."

Parents have expressed a variety of reasons for seeking home schooling, from fears around COVID-19 exposure to worries about what a socially-distanced classroom environment will be like.

"Fifty percent of them are saying that they won't send their kids to school if they're forced to wear masks and the other 50% are saying they won't if they aren't," said Weston.

Barakat said one reason she decided to switch to home schooling was that one of her children's grandparents lives with her family. Even with smaller class sizes, she felt the risk of exposure was too high.

"You know how flu season is, one kid gets sick and then the whole house gets sick," she said. "We have a responsibility; it's our duty to protect our loved ones and our elders."

In addition, full-time online learning isn't sustainable for many children, Barakat said. She and her husband began to consider home schooling after they saw their first-grade son struggling to engage in distance learning.

"This kid used to love school, and then when we said he had a Zoom class his smile would turn upside down," Barakat said. "I just thought, if this is how it is in the fall, there has to be another way."

After doing extensive research and taking an online "Homeschool 101" class, Barakat and her husband are planning to file an affidavit with the state that says they will educate their children privately from home.

Home schooling is more than just school at home, said Diana Hilton, the owner of A Brighter Child, a home-schooling and educational supplies store in Fair Oaks. It is a way to bring a love of learning into a child's everyday environment.

"When you homeschool your children, it becomes a lifestyle. It kind of has to," she said.

Finding the balance between the structure of school and the flexibility of home schooling can be daunting for some families, and activities that are rites of passage in regular school environments may not be options for home-schooling parents.

"None of these people want to dissect a fetal pig on their kitchen table, and I get that," Hilton said.

Still, home schooling can instill a love of learning in children who previously struggled to get excited about school.

"Even if they don't choose it as a permanent solution, it's a really excellent temporary solution," Hilton said.

Parents interested in home schooling in California can go about it in three main ways. They can become an independent home-schooler like Barakat. They can hire a private tutor with a California teaching credential, meaning that they wouldn't have to file an affidavit with the state. Or they can work with an "umbrella school," a public charter school or an existing private school with a satellite program. These programs often provide record-keeping, some parts of a curriculum, financial assistance, on-site classes and accountability for home-schooled students.

Personalized learning public charter schools, which help students create individualized learning plans that include a combination of home-based learning, online learning, classroom learning, and community-based learning, have seen a significant increase in interested families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jeff Rice, the founder of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools & Services (APLUS+), a statewide network association that represents 75 personalized education programs in California.

South Sutter charter school has seen a large increase in interest, said Shana Fisk, a representative from Innovative Education Management, which manages South Sutter.

The list of prospective South Sutter students, which includes the wait-list for the school as well as students who are waiting to receive a teacher, has more than 870 students as of June 30, Fisk said. That's a large increase from last October, when the school had 29 students on the prospective students list.

Parents have sought South Sutter and other charter schools that run personalized learning programs because of their long track record of experience in distance learning, Fisk said. South Sutter has been providing distance learning and education in alternative settings since 2005.

"We've had a lot of time to practice this and get good at it," Fisk said.

Personalized learning schools such as South Sutter were able to adapt quickly to the needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic because flexibility and adaptability are foundational to personalized learning, Rice said.

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