Hello!  If you are reading this, you are probably considering homeschooling this year, specifically because of Covid-19.  You might be someone who has been considering homeschooling for a while, and the uncertainty of the 2020-2021 school year has pushed you over the line.  Or you might be someone who has a high risk family member living with you (elderly, immune-compromised, asthmatic, what have you) and you just can’t risk sending your kid to school until there is a widely available vaccine. Or perhaps you have read the best-guess scenarios of what school will look like next year and just thought ‘there is no way my kid will be able to hack that’.  Perhaps you have a special-needs child and the socially distant bussing requirements are just NOT going to work for your family

Whatever the reason, a lot of people who were NOT planning to homeschool next fall now ARE planning to homeschool, and that brings with it a lot of feelings.  Getting into homeschooling is a little bit like becoming a parent – you can be excited, thrilled, worried, even panicked – sometimes all at the same time.  It can seem overwhelming.

So here is a little breakdown of what to think about as you contemplate the upcoming year.  I know it is long, but I promise, when you are done you will have a good idea of what your choices are, and whether homeschooling will work for you. 

First, Last and Always: Don’t Panic!

You may be feeling the march of time and think that you must decide what you are doing RIGHT NOW.  That is not true. The final deadline to make up your mind is actually September 30th: that is the date when school boards have to submit their final numbers and the funding for your child locks in.  If you decide to change your child’s school or schooling type after that, you will be doing so on your own dime, and there will almost certainly be less support available for what you want to do. That said, you should probably narrow things down a little bit before then, as most programs have a cap and the one you want may be unavailable if you jump ship at the last minute.   

That September 30th date is firm, however, and you should be aware that recent suggestions that you register your child as an in-person student at your local school, and then homeschool later, are likely to be very frustrating and expensive for parents who do it: once that funding period is past, you are considered a ‘rescue’, and with the sheer volume of inexperienced homeschoolers that may switch ‘late’ this year – it is not very likely that homeschooling boards will be able to meet demand at their usual low-or-no fee level: you will likely have to pay out of pocket (perhaps even a LOT out of pocket) for even the most cursory support.  So if you are pretty sure that you will be homeschooling in the fall, I would strongly suggest that you register ASAP with the board you would prefer.  To be blunt, although homeschool boards do not have to ‘rescue’ you if you decide to homeschool after the cutoff date, the reverse IS true: your local school must take your child if you choose to sent them, whether or not they have the funding. 

A quick plug –because of this push and pull that is making schools desperate, I strongly urge you to contact your MP (now, when it’s fresh in your mind) and insist that this (2020-21) school year NOT be included in the 3-year-average for school boards, under the new model.  It will be a statistical nightmare that will take years (perhaps even decades) to resolve itself otherwise.

Choices, Choices

There are four major ways to educate your children in Alberta:

  1. In-person classes

    This is the ‘default’.  By law, your catchment school (usually the nearest school to you) MUST educate your child if that is the choice you make.  They can’t turn you away.  There are variations on this theme – if you are Catholic, and want a Catholic-based education for your child, there is a Catholic school that MUST take your child.  If you are Francophone, and want your child educated in French, there is a Francophone school that MUST take your child.  This is the basis for public education in our country. 

    Of particular interest to the parents of students who have special needs, this is the only way to receive funds for a ‘coded’ child: I know of no from-home programs that have special needs funding, even if you are following the Alberta Curriculum.  The flip side of this is that many special needs families are concerned about how well their child is going to handle changes like new bussing protocols and the realities of the socially distanced classroom, and social distancing protocols are going to make many OT and PT options quite impossible. It’s going to be a tough year for special needs students and their families.

    In Alberta, we also have publicly-funded private and charter schools that serve specific populations (e.g. arts, science, or sports-focused schools, schools for special needs students, schools for getting your international baccalaureate, schools for boys only, schools for girls only, etc.). These schools tend to be very selective and are not required to take any particular child.

    Having said that, how exactly that guaranteed education will be imparted next year is very much up in the air, and it’s pretty clear that compromises are going to be required, as we just don’t have the facilities to keep our current student body 6 feet apart and out of the elements. Nor does anyone think that Kindergarten students – or even Elementary students in general – are going to be capable of socially distant…anything.  This uncertainty is driving the current interest in Homeschooling, but as noted above August 1st should start making things clearer.

  2. Distance Learning or school directed home learning.

    This is what most parents experienced this past spring, and what many people think of when they think of ‘homeschooling’.  Sometimes called school-at-home, this is the program where the Alberta curriculum is taught by a teacher, either remotely by video conferencing, remotely by distance learning software, or by hand, delivered via the parent who is using materials developed by a teacher, which will be marked by that teacher.

    This option is available through several school boards, and you have to register with a school board to access it.  In the past, most families choosing this option registered with their local public school board (in major city centres), or through ADLC (elsewhere).  This is the last year that ADLC will be widely available, however, as this type of program is being rolled out by many of the boards that used to do only ‘traditional’ homeschooling.  It is fully funded (meaning that the full student funds are available for that child), but usually, there is little or no disbursement of funds to the family – if you buy pencils, you will not be reimbursed for them.  Some school boards do distribute boxes of supplies at the beginning of the school year or at several points over the school year, but not all.

    There are also some programs that provide in-person classes two days per week, with the rest of the work sent home for completion. It is unknown at this time if they will be able to function this year: if so, it is likely that they will have fewer spots available then other years, to accommodate social distancing.

    This is a tough row to how, particularly in the early elementary years when much of learning is hands-on and the ability to learn through video conferencing is low or non-existent.   On the plus side, most of the time in bricks-and-mortar schools is spent doing what I call ‘keeping the animals quiet’: moving from one activity to another, settling into an activity, and so forth. Actual time spent learning in a day is around 1 hour for elementary, 2 hours for middle school, and 3 hours for high school students.  This remains true at home, and so you shouldn’t expect that your child will put in 6 hours of sitting and working per day.  On the minus side, they still need something to do the rest of the time, so some planning is required to keep your own animals quiet. 

    Also, it is worth mentioning that many children with developmental delays and other special needs will take longer to absorb the same information, and may need to have it presented in different ways from the norm. The good news: experienced distance education teachers will have a lot of strategies for this.  The bad news: experienced distance education teachers are going to be spread VERY thin this coming year, and the chances that your child will get one just by the luck of the draw are low.  Also note that there is no special-needs funding in distance education, so you will be working within the ‘normal’ funding allocation which does not allow for aides or other accommodations.  Distance learning teachers try very hard to be accommodating, but try to remember that they are making bricks without straw – many are not trained at all in special needs accommodation and are making it work as best they can.  If this is your child and you choose the Distance Education option, you will need to advocate for them, work closely with their teacher, and always remember that you know your child best: if you think an activity will be more frustrating than educational, you are probably right and should advocate accordingly.  

  3. Home Education (aka ‘traditional’ homeschooling or parent-directed learning)

    This is what most families who are already learning at home mean when they talk about ‘homeschooling’ or ‘homelearning’.  It does NOT require that you follow the Alberta Curriculum (although you can if you want to).  Families who choose this option are required to register with a school board, and the school board is required to assign them a facilitator.  It is NOT fully funded – these students are allocated 25% of a school-directed student.  This is given to the registered school board, who will then reimburse families for education-related expenses up to half of that amount – or $850 per year (about $85 per school-month).

    Instead of a year-by-year list of ‘things to teach’, this method is based in a 22-point list of outcomes, designed to ensure that students end their ‘school’ career with all the basic skills required to be a functional member of society.  (Here’s the list).  All expenses need to be traceable back to one of those 22 goals, but it’s a pretty broad list so if you think of it as educational…it’s probably covered.

    The board-appointed facilitator meets with the family (virtually or in person) a minimum of twice: once at the beginning of the year and once at the end of the year.  Many facilitators also check-in mid-year, but it is not required.  Families are required to file a plan with the facilitator at the beginning of the year, outlining planned activities, how learning will be assessed, what expenses will be required to fulfill the plan, and how that ties in to the 22 goals.  It is important to note that the plan is NOT set in stone, and can be adjusted as the year unfolds.

    The facilitator is meant to be a resource, to help families find what they need to teach the students what they want or need to learn.  A good facilitator is a great person to ask about free or cheap materials (math, science, language arts, social studies are the typical concerns), online classes in esoteric subjects, or just how to teach a concept that your kid is NOT getting. The facilitator is also the person who approves the funding disbursement, and different boards can have slightly different approaches to what is and is not reimbursed – if you have a particular expense in mind, you should probably ask about it before registering with a board.

  4. No-Funding, No-reporting

    This is a brand-new option, which is in theory going to be rolled out in the 2020-21 year. Essentially the same as #3 above, this is an option that has no funding, no associated board, and no facilitator. Families who choose this option will register through the Ministry directly, and press releases indicate that they will still be expected to provide a plan at the beginning of the year and show that they have followed it by the end of the year.  This plan will have to tie back into that 22-point list. 

    How exactly this will work is still uncertain – we shall see when the new year begins.

  5. Blended

    Wait a minute – I said there were only four choices.  Why are there five items on this list???

    Relax – this is not evidence that homeschoolers can’t count.  There is also an option to combine item 2 (school-directed) and item 3 (parent directed) learning in the home.  For example, you could have a school-directed program for art and social studies, and parent-directed for all other subjects.

    Although this has always been an option in theory, over the past decade or so it has become impractical for the school boards, due to how the funding for the two streams was allocated.  A few weeks ago, the current government revealed their new budget, which changed that funding formula, making it once again possible to offer blended programs.  Boards are now scrambling to put this kind of program together, and if you are interested, check with your preferred board to see if they are one of the boards providing this type of program, and in particular in the subjects you want to have school-directed.  I would expect this to have some growing pains this year, but it’s wonderful to see it available again.

First, Last and Always: Don’t Panic!

Once again, remember that the wonderful thing about Homeschooling is that it is flexible.  You always have the option to go to a parent-led program, if whatever you chose (going to the old school, school-led, or blended) did not work for your child.  You might not have funding, but honestly, $85/month is not a game-changing amount of money for most people.  Remember that a parent-led program can be pretty much anything at all, as long as learning is happening.