The number of New Brunswick children being home-schooled has more than doubled during the pandemic, with 2,240 applications approved by the Department of Education this year.
Applications to attend private school have also increased 43 per cent this year, compared to pre-COVID, with 1,385 approved.
It’s unclear how many parents removed their child from public school because of COVID-19 or the lifting of protective measures, such as masks, in March.
“There is no way for the department to know why a family would choose the option of home-schooling or private school other than for the reason indicated on the form,” said department spokesperson Flavio Nienow.
The department’s home schooling application form includes six categories where families are asked to specify the main factor for choosing home schooling, he said. COVID-19 is not one of them.
“The department is not able to speculate on whether COVID-19 influenced their decision,” Nienow said in an emailed statement.
Although COVID isn’t listed, nearly a quarter of the parents (23.2 per cent) selected “health” as their main reason for home-schooling last year, up from just 6.2 per cent in 2019-20, pre-COVID. This year, health is still the second-highest reason given, at 15.8 per cent, after “personal/other,” at 61.8 per cent.
Other options listed include: tutoring/one-on-one, enrichment, discipline and religion.
Not comfortable with risks
Rachel Kaleva, a mother of two young girls in Fredericton, is among those who decided to home-school because of COVID.
“It was about a week after the return from March break … after the mandates had been lifted. I was really uncomfortable with, you know, not having those protective measures in place for the kids,” she said.
Madelyn, five, who is fully vaccinated for her age group and was in kindergarten, has some disabilities that Kaleva says put her at a higher risk of complications with COVID and of having long COVID. Alice, two, was in daycare, and is still too young to be vaccinated.
They both caught COVID in February, as did Kaleva and her husband Griffin who are both vaccinated and boosted. “Thankfully … our symptoms were all mild to moderate,” and they all recovered within about two weeks, although they had to call an ambulance for Alice because of labored breathing following her recovery.
“I don’t feel comfortable taking these risks,” said Kaleva.
In addition, she was worried about possibly exposing her parents. Her family had recently moved into a loft on their property after selling their own home in Dieppe because of hardships created by COVID.
“We were thankfully in a position to be able to keep [the girls] home right now. I know not everybody is, and I know many who would like to,” said Kaleva, who isn’t working full time yet after relocating and has a flexible schedule with her freelance work.
She describes the decision to home-school as “bittersweet.”
On the one hand, “the answer felt very clear” once the school COVID measures were lifted and cases started to spike again, she said.
On the other hand, Madelyn received special services in school, which Kaleva and her self-employed husband have no benefits to cover. Madelyn was also in the francophone system because they hope to raise her to be bilingual and Kaleva’s conversational French isn’t good enough to really foster learning a second language.
‘So far so good’
Still, Kaleva believes it was the right thing to do and said, “so far, so good.”
Madelyn is only in kindergarten so the department’s suggested curriculum isn’t overly challenging, she said, and she’s taking advantage of everyday learning opportunities, such as planting a garden.
She has also connected with a local support group, the Fredericton Secular Homeschoolers. Members meet outdoors once a week, “on a little bit of a play date.” There’s always an educational component and Madelyn gets to interact with other children, she said.
“I’m enjoying being able to spend more quality time like that with my kids.”
In 2019-20, the department approved 941 applications to home-school.
In 2020-21, that jumped 180 percent to 2,633.
This year, the number dropped about 15 per cent, but still represents a 138 per cent increase over 2019-20.
Until COVID, the number of approved home-school applications had been fairly consistent:
- 2018-19 — 833
- 2017-18 — 801
- 2016-17 — 760
“While these applications have been submitted and approved, they don’t necessarily mean students were withdrawn from school,” the Department of Education spokesperson noted.
“Families may have applied as an option and have chosen to keep students in school,” said Nienow. Students may also re-enrol at any time, he added.
Some applications denied
Twenty-nine home-schooling applications were denied during the 2021-22 school year, 18 in 2020-21, and two in 2019-20.
Families who decide to home-school their children are responsible for “providing effective instruction to prepare children for continuing education or employment,” said Nienow.
“Applications can be denied if it’s believed that the parents or guardians are not able to ensure their children will receive effective instruction.”
The department publishes a list of suggested curricula and expected outcomes. The lists for the anglophone other francophone sectors can be found online.
Home-school and private school requests are submitted to the respective school district and reviewed by district staff before being forwarded on to the department for the minister’s consideration, said Nienow.
“The minister may accept, deny or approve the application with a reservation letter, which would require the family to meet regularly with district staff.”
Parents who choose to home-school must apply on an annual basis, said Nienow. The same applies to parents who wish for their children attend private schools.
In 2019-20, the department approved 970 applications to switch to a private school.
In 2020-21, that increased 30 percent to 1,261.
This year saw applications rise again by nearly 10 per cent.
Even if the province were to implement school COVID measures again tomorrow, Kaleva “wouldn’t feel comfortable” sending Madelyn back this year, not with it taking two to four weeks for the impact of those measures to take effect and it being so close to the end of the school year.
But she would reconsider in September, she said.
“If masks were reintroduced and protective measures were in place and the cases looked reasonable again, you know, then obviously we have tradeoffs to consider and we would for sure be considering returning her to school.”