San Juan Unified in Sacramento had 38 students in its home-school program in March, when the state closed school campuses because of the spread of COVID-19. Now, it has more than 700.

The home-schooling program, which offers an alternative to the distance learning instruction currently prescribed by the school district, was started five years ago after some parents expressed an interest in teaching their children from home. It serves students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.

The district was fortunate to have the program in place when the pandemic hit, said Trent Allen, San Juan Unified’s director of community relations. The program is a rarity in traditional school districts in California. While students learn at home, and parents direct instruction, the district offers curriculum and teaching guidance.

“One of the lessons learned during corona is that every situation is going to be very unique for our families, and being able to provide options is key,” Allen said. “There is a way to meet the individual needs of families.”

The district receives the same basic funding for home-school children that it gets for other district children.

Some charter schools are dedicated to exclusively offering home-school programs. Programs like these and others have seen a surge of interest since campuses closed in the spring.

Some working parents want schools that offer them more flexibility than what is often offered through distance learning at traditional schools, so that their children don’t have to be online at prescribed times. Other parents want to ensure their children don’t have to switch back and forth between in-person and virtual learning as virus rates in their communities rise and fall.

The threat of COVID-19

As of Sept. 22, 3.6 million California children were enrolled in 555 school districts that were ineligible to reopen school campuses because of high COVID-19 infection rates in their counties. These children and many more, who are in schools that have not reopened even though they are eligible, are in distance learning.

Home-school operators, in most cases charter schools, interviewed by EdSource overwhelmingly said parents are coming to them looking for flexibility and control over everything from their children’s schedules to the amount of time they spend in front of a computer.

In a home-schooling program, parents take on the primary role of teacher, determining the schedule, planning lessons and delivering instruction. Parents can also determine how much, if any, of the instruction is completed online. The school offers a curriculum and an advisory teacher for support.

In California, a parent can file a private affidavit to start their own private school to home-school their children. They can also choose a home study program through a regular or charter public school, or they can enroll in a private school that offers home-schooling options. The most popular option is enrolling in a charter school program, which offers a variety of supports, including curriculum and advising teachers.

Most home-school programs cover the cost of supplies, classes or extracurricular activities up to a specified amount. The amount varies greatly and depends on which school the child attends. Some charter schools will cover costs up to as much as $3,200 a year per student, but others pay less than $2,000.

Parents are struggling to juggle their jobs and help their children, especially younger ones, with their schoolwork, said Sandra Butorac, manager of the home-school program at San Juan Unified. They want to be able to do schoolwork on weekends, in the evenings or whenever they want, she said.

Other parents want control over when their child returns to in-person instruction.

“All it would take would be one or two kids to perhaps shut down a classroom or a wing or an entire school,” Butorac said. “And it’s that flipping and flopping back and forth that they’re worried about. They are more concerned about that disruption to their child’s year.”

Some appeal of the San Juan program may be that the district has promised that students can return to their former schools whenever they wish. To ensure a seamless transition, the curriculum used by the home-school is closely aligned with that of the district’s traditional schools, Butorac said.

Parents’ concerns

Safety is one of the concerns that drove Lauren White to pull her children out of Mill Valley School District, just north of San Francisco, in the spring and move to the town of Auburn, in the foothills of Placer County.

“Our school couldn’t even control the lice problem in the school, and you are telling me they are going to control the COVID problem,” White said. “I don’t think so. You can’t social distance kids in a classroom situation.”

Three of White’s five children, ages 7, 6 and 5, are attending Alta Vista Community Charter School in Auburn, which recently started a home-school program. She also has 2-year-old twins.

“We are so lucky we got in,” White said. She did not want to risk enrolling her children in a school that might later open for in-person instruction before she believed it was safe.

White also was disappointed by the distance learning experience she and her children had in the Mill Valley School District in the spring. White had been overwhelmed by the number of emails teachers sent her with guidance and assignments on distance learning for her children. She said she received about 25 emails every day, each with multiple links.

“I wouldn’t be able to get through that,” she said. “It is insane.”

White also had to be prepared to help her children log onto video conference calls with little notice. “You have to jump on calls whenever they (teachers) want you to,” White said. “I have five kids, I can’t do that.”

She said a charter home-school program offers her family the curriculum and support without the stress of following a strict schedule and worrying about whether schools will reopen safely.

Charter school option

Margaret Fortune, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said she has seen an increase in the number of parents moving their children to charter schools that have experience with remote instruction. Many of those are home-school programs.

Clarksville, Feather River, Winship Community and Lake View charter schools collectively have 4,000 students on their waiting lists. The home-school charter schools didn’t have waiting lists before the pandemic.

Together, the four schools, which don’t have physical campuses, have about 2,800 students who live in a widespread area — from Sacramento County to the south to Tehama County to the north, and from Mendocino County to the west to Alpine County to the east.

Recruiting students in previous years had been a challenge, said Jenell Sherman, executive director of Clarksville and Feather River charter schools. Not this year.

“Right now, it’s crazy,” she said. “Everyone wants to come because I think they feel like ‘I’m going to be home-schooling anyway. I’d rather be with people that have experienced it or offer funding for online classes and activities and things like that.’”

Even though charter schools are tuition-free, tax-funded public schools, a few parents over the last few months have offered to pay to get their children in one of the schools, Sherman said.

The schools are giving priority to siblings of students already enrolled, but can’t accommodate all of them, said Julie Haycock, executive director of Winship Community School and Lake View Charter School.

Many charter schools have had to turn new students away due to a new state law that funds school districts this year based on last year’s attendance. It was revised Sept. 1 to provide additional funds for new students enrolling in schools that are classroom-based, but not for those without physical campuses.

The law provides districts with stable funding, even if there are attendance fluctuations, as schools move in and out of distance learning. It is meant to help districts like Calaveras Unified School District, which lost 120 of its 2,600 students this school year.

The parents of some of those students enrolled them in home-school programs or in established online school programs this school year. Others enrolled in neighboring school districts that had reopened, although most of those have since shut down, said Mark Campbell, superintendent of Calaveras Unified.

The district serves several small foothill communities, a little more than an hour southeast of Sacramento.

CORE Butte Charter School had already signed up more students than they had budgeted for when they learned state lawmakers had frozen funding. The school now has 930 students, 70 more than last year, said Superintendent Mary Cox. But its funding is the same as it was last year.

The charter school has had 900 inquiries from parents interested in having their children attend the Chico-based school. The school’s K-8 home-school program, which has never had a wait list, now has 440 children waiting to enroll. The high school, which has a home-school program and a site-based program, has 120 students waiting.

The parents say they want more control over how their children are educated, including the time they spend on a computer, Cox said.

“A big fear for parents is to have kids in front of screens most of the day,” Cox said.

Other families live in places with insufficient internet access to support distance learning. Parents are begging school officials to enroll their children, Cox said.

“It’s sad,” she said. “We can’t even recommend they go elsewhere. All the schools like mine are packed.”

Story originally published by EdSource.