Parents explore alternative school options
- Published: August 26, 2020
Public schools in and outside the Yellow Springs district, private and parochial schools, virtual charter schools, boarding school, homeschooling — all are options as the COVID-19 pandemic upends normal school routines.
The choices narrow, however, when cost, time, location, family resources and other personal circumstances are factored in, making some options unrealistic or undesirable for individual families. The final choice for most students during a typical year — usually around 80% of Yellow Springs district children — remains the local public school.
But the approaching new school year is decidedly not typical.
The continuing pandemic has prompted area schools to restructure their methods and approaches, often drastically, with some adopting an online instructional plan, at least to start the year; some orchestrating a full return to the classroom with a variety of safety precautions in place; and others offering a combination of in-person and online learning.
The details of varying plans have added additional layers of consideration, if not concern, for families weighing their educational options as they assess issues of instructional quality as well as student health and well-being amid the ever-changing academic landscape.
Local mother Rita Shires told the News last week that she was still trying to decide what to do in the wake of the local district’s decision to begin the new year next Thursday, Aug. 27, with all instruction to be delivered online by district teachers through the first quarter, which ends Oct. 31.
She had been among several parents posting comments on a recent online thread that expressed concern about being able to oversee and monitor their children’s daily online schedule. For Shires, the decision was coming down to either withdrawing from the district in favor of homeschooling, or pursuing the district’s SCOL, or Safe Centers for Online Learning, option, which has limited availability.
The SCOL plan allows students to meet together in small groups in a Yellow Springs school building, where they’ll follow their individual teachers’ online instruction under the supervision of a school aide. Priority will be given to children whose parents are essential workers or can’t support their children’s education at home, as well as to younger students, according to district administrators.
Enrollment in the option is “near capacity,” with 80-some students having signed up as of last week, Superintendent Terri Holden announced during the most recent regularly scheduled school board meeting Thursday, Aug. 13. The superintendent had previously said that the program had room for up to 120 students.
“We’ve been able to meet all requests” for participation, Holden said during the board meeting, which was conducted online and livestreamed on the district’s YouTube page, where it is also archived. She explained that each student group will include seven to nine children, with four groups meeting at the middle/high school campus and six meeting at Mills Lawn Elementary School. Siblings who attend the same school will be grouped together, and families will be asked to conduct daily health and temperature checks at home, she said, adding that checks will be done at the school buildings as well. She also noted that the supervisory adults will not offer instruction or be expected to help students understand their work.
“They can support students, can answer questions, but that is not their primary purpose,” Holden said. What’s more, the program is not designed for supporting students with special needs as described in their Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.
Alternative educational paths
Last school year, Yellow Springs Schools had an enrollment of about 700 students, including close to 185 K–12th graders attending from other districts through open enrollment. At the same time, more than 90 students living in the district pursued their learning in other academic settings. In addition, while still considered Yellow Springs students, about 20 local juniors and seniors attended the Greene County Career Center. All told, just under 20% of local school age children received their education outside the district setting last year, before the pandemic prompted the Ohio governor to close all schools in the state for the remainder of the academic year.
With the governor and the Ohio Department of Education leaving the decision to individual districts and independent schools to decide when and how to reopen, the way is paved for schools to determine their own plans and protocols, likely leading more families to seek out settings that best match their circumstances and assessments of risk.
The exact number of families pursuing alternative educational paths for their children this year is still unknown — those figures are compiled by the district through the month of September and are reported in early October. But informal local discussions, including social media posts, indicate that more families are considering different tracks.
“It’s very complicated,” local parent Dorothée Bouquet said in a recent phone interview.
Bouquet said she and her husband, Sammy Saber, support Yellow Springs Schools, but weighing the most effective educational setting for her children against concerns about COVID risks, made more pressing by daily involvement with elder relatives, has led them to consider homeschooling this year for both their 6-year-old daughter, a rising first grader, and their 3-year-old son, whom they had hoped to enroll in the Yellow Springs Children’s Center’s preschool program.
Both children will be learning from home for now, Bouquet said, but her daughter will go ahead and participate in online instruction provided by her as-yet-to-be-identified Mills Lawn teacher, while her son will take part in homeschool activities. Bouquet doesn’t know yet what her daughter will do should in-person classes begin after the first quarter, as the superintendent has indicated is her preference.
“We still think it’s unwise to go into a face-to-face environment,” the mother said.
She also doesn’t know whether they will have their daughter continue online, should the district decide not to reopen the schools after Oct. 31. Bouquet said their family’s decision will depend on the quality of the instruction this fall and whether it meets her daughter’s educational needs.
She and her husband are both able to work from home — she is teaching for Purdue University and he is working for Dayton-based CareSource — and they’ve developed a plan where she will oversee the children’s care in the mornings and he will take over in the afternoons. They are also exploring partnering with a neighbor family to bring their children together while they do their school work.
She feels lucky to have more flexibility than many families, but contemplating alternative paths isn’t easy.
“We wouldn’t be thinking any of this if it weren’t for COVID,” she said.
Her family isn’t alone.
An article published last spring by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, speculated that Ohio’s school shutdown at the end of the academic year would likely prompt more families to consider homeschooling as they took on additional responsibilities for their children’s academics while learning from home.
Flexibility of time and instructional methods are some of the main homeschooling benefits cited by local families who already were homeschooling their children before the pandemic hit.
According to district records last fall, 22 local students were being homeschooled during the 2019–20 school year. That number has stayed fairly consistent over recent time.
“The biggest, most essential reason we homeschool our children — if there was one word — it would be time,” said Sarah Husk, the mother of two boys, one 7 years old and one nearly 3.
She said that she and her husband, Brad, knew they wanted to homeschool their children before starting their family.
“We often spent our days in school longing to be outside,” she said, adding that between the travel to and from school, the hours spent in class and evenings spent on homework, a child’s time is consumed by traditional schooling, with limited room for free play and creativity.
Homeschooling allows their children to be more flexible with their time, to explore personal interests more deeply and be more experiential in their learning, Husk said.
“One of our biggest goals in homeschooling is that we want them to love learning,” she said.
She added that another factor in choosing to educate their children at home is the desire to keep them safe. Husk noted that she and her husband were in high school when the deadly mass shooting occurred in Columbine, and that event affected them profoundly.
“There is a very visceral fear of that potential,” she said.
While local homeschooling families have at times formed support networks to share instruction and activities, the only such group currently in place, of which Husk is aware, is for an open play time that she organizes. Currently on hiatus because of the pandemic, the group typically gathers at John Bryan Community Center gym once a week in the fall and spring and twice a week from January through March. She said participants’ ages range from toddler to teens, and the size of the group typically falls between four to eight kids, with families coming from Fairborn and Springfield as well as Yellow Springs. Sometimes it’s just her two kids, while the largest gathering numbered 22, after another parent posted the event on Facebook.
Husk noted that area libraries provide a variety of resources and activities for homeschooling families as do other community groups, including Community Solutions’ Agraria.
Virtual, charter schools
With the local district opting for an online approach to begin the new school year, some families are looking into the state’s online charter schools already in existence with established curriculums in place. Like homeschooling, the virtual schools, popularly called “e-schools,” also offer an element of flexibility regarding when students spend their time engaged in instructional content.
Last school year, eight local students enrolled in online charter schools, with four attending Ohio Connections and four learning through the Ohio Virtual Academy. Local social media posts suggest that other Yellow Springs families are considering the option as well for the new school year.
According to a late July report by Cleveland 19 News, statewide online enrollment for the 2020–21 school year is indeed surging, particularly among younger students. While Ohio Virtual Academy was then reporting a 20% increase in both inquiries and enrollment from last year, Ohio Connections told the Cleveland news outlet that its enrollment of kindergarten through second graders was up about 50% from 2019–20.
Representatives of the online schools told the news outlet that they offer consistency in environment and learning, with a curriculum specific to online instruction.
Other area schools that local students have chosen to attend in recent years are, like Yellow Springs, planning online restarts for the time being.
The Dayton Regional STEM School, a science/technology/engineering/math-focused charter school in Montgomery County, is linking its reopening to the Ohio Public Health Alert System, which assigns colors of yellow, orange, red and purple to the state’s counties depending on local COVID incidence and risk factors. As long as Montgomery County has a red designation, as it does now, the Dayton-area charter school for sixth through 12th grades will conduct classes online for all students, except those with special needs or hardships. The school’s plan is to return to campus part time should the rating change to orange, and full time with a yellow designation. A purple rating would lead to a campus shut down for all students. Last year, six Yellow Springs youth were enrolled there.
Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield, which had three local students enrolled last year, is also planning an online restart, beginning with half-day in-person orientations Aug. 26 and 27 and an online orientation Aug. 28. Online classes will be conducted through September, with administrators of the seventh through 12th grade charter school hoping for a half-time return to campus in October.
A handful of local students are typically enrolled at Stivers School for the Arts, part of the Dayton Public Schools system. Four Yellow Springs students attended last year, according to local records. After announcing earlier this summer that Dayton schools would have an in-person start this week, district leaders recently revised the plan to all online instruction for nine weeks beginning Sept. 8.
While a majority of local students will be starting the school year from home — working online through the local district, their chosen school or an e-school; or as homeschoolers — at least several dozen will be entering area classrooms for in-person instruction.
Several of the area’s private schools attended by local students intend to reopen their doors for the restart of classes, some sooner than others.
• St. Brigid Catholic School, a parochial K through eighth grade school in Xenia, is set to begin with in-person classes Thursday, Aug. 27. With an enrollment of 214 students last year, six came from Yellow Springs, including a kindergartener attending through the state’s voucher program.
• The local Antioch School, which serves pre-K through sixth grade-aged children, plans to open Sept. 2 with a number of safety protocols in place. A recent News article outlined many of the school’s plans for reopening. At least one former Mills Lawn first grader is transferring to take part in the in-person classes that school leaders say will feature a generous amount of time outdoors. Typically, 20–25 local students make up the 50-some student body.
• The Miami Valley School, a private college-preparatory school that serves about 460 students in pre-K through 12th grades, consistently sees a handful of Yellow Springs students enrolled each year. Last year, nine local students attended the school located south of Dayton in Montgomery County’s Washington Township. The school had planned to reopen on schedule this week, having implemented such safety measures as installing UV-light air filtering units in all classrooms and establishing distancing procedures that include one-way hallways. However, Montgomery County’s continuing rise in coronavirus cases, the July 31 recommendation by that county’s health department calling for a delay in schools’ reopening, and corroborating advice from independent medical experts, prompted MVS to change its plan this month and begin the year online while anticipating a return to campus in four weeks.
Another educational setting that draws Yellow Springs students each year is the Greene County Career Center, which has a newly constructed campus in Xenia ready to open its doors. About 20 local juniors and seniors, who retain their Yellow Springs district enrollment, have attended the career center in recent years.
According to the most recent information from the school, which serves students from all seven of the county’s school districts, classes will begin for juniors on Tuesday, Aug. 25, and seniors on Aug. 26. Academic classes will be conducted online, while labs will be held in person, unless Greene County’s alert status, which has shifted between yellow and orange, changes to purple, in which case all content will move online.