Homeschooling and the Pandemic

By Mukta Dharmapurikar, Johanna Eichler, and Aaron Ming Meyer

While her neigh­bors rush down the street to catch the school bus, 14-year-old Lilah Had­den starts her school day at home. After spend­ing the morn­ing on math and cre­ative writ­ing with her moth­er, she takes a vio­lin class online, fin­ish­ing her day with inde­pen­dent read­ing. For two years now, home­school­ing has worked well for her. “I’m get­ting to … learn more of what I actu­al­ly want to learn about,” Lilah says, not­ing that she’s par­tic­u­lar­ly pas­sion­ate about music. But if it weren’t for the pan­dem­ic, the idea to school at home would nev­er have crossed her mind.

Covid-19 forced stu­dents around the globe to learn with­out phys­i­cal­ly going to school, as entire states and coun­tries went through long peri­ods of lock­down. It’s sparked new inter­est in home­school­ing alter­na­tives in places rang­ing from Des Moines, Iowa, to Ham­burg, Ger­many, where home­school­ing has been banned for over a cen­tu­ry. Stu­dents have dis­cov­ered that alter­na­tive school arrange­ments can offer more flex­i­bil­i­ty to man­age dif­fer­ences, pan­dem­ic stress, and distractions.

Home­school­ing — Gustoff fam­i­ly in Des Moines

Home­school­ing increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic in the Unit­ed States, ris­ing from 5.4% of house­holds in April 2020 to 11.1% by Sep­tem­ber of that year. Stu­dents like Lilah have found the flex­i­bil­i­ty of learn­ing sur­pris­ing­ly appeal­ing. How­ev­er, that same option doesn’t exist in many oth­er coun­tries. In the Euro­pean Union, it’s ille­gal to home­school in Ger­many, the Nether­lands, and Spain. Sweden’s reg­u­la­tions are so strict that it amounts to a ban there, too. But just as in the U.S., many stu­dents in these coun­tries have become inter­est­ed in such alter­na­tives. Part­ly as a result of the pan­dem­ic, groups are now join­ing forces to fight for few­er restrictions.

In Ger­many, home­school­ing has been ille­gal since 1919, enforced through hefty fines and even police raids. As a result, it’s esti­mat­ed that few­er than 1,000 Ger­man fam­i­lies choose to teach their kids at home in a nor­mal year. Ali­na, a 16-year-old Ger­man stu­dent, real­ly enjoyed online learn­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, which cre­at­ed an envi­ron­ment sim­i­lar to that of home­school­ing. “I could con­cen­trate much bet­ter than in class,” she said. “I could work much more efficiently.”

As a result, she believes that home­school­ing comes with a lot of ben­e­fits, many of which can­not be pro­vid­ed in a reg­u­lar school set­ting. Study­ing at home is more flex­i­ble and can pro­mote inde­pen­dence, orga­ni­za­tion, and self-moti­va­tion. Par­ents have an eas­i­er time account­ing for stu­dents’ pref­er­ences and capa­bil­i­ties, adapt­ing the teach­ing meth­ods, and pri­or­i­tiz­ing strengths and weaknesses.

From want­i­ng to trav­el the world to being dis­sat­is­fied with neg­a­tive envi­ron­ments at schools to pri­or­i­tiz­ing reli­gious beliefs, an increas­ing num­ber of par­ents in the U.S. are opt­ing to teach their kids at home. Home­school­ing can also ben­e­fit stu­dents with spe­cial needs, who make up 38% of the home­schooled pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. accord­ing to the Nation­al Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion Advo­ca­cy Group. “If you’re send­ing a kid with dyslex­ia and dys­graphia and dyscal­cu­lia to school, [they might] get real­ly frus­trat­ed,” Lilah not­ed. “If they can be in home­school, that’s going to help a lot more because they’re get­ting the help they need, and they can learn at their own pace.”

So why is home­school­ing in Ger­many ille­gal in the first place? The respon­si­ble author­i­ties say they focus on the well-being of the chil­dren and want to give every child equal edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. When the home­school­ing ban went into effect, the Ger­man econ­o­my was still depen­dent on farm­ing, and many fam­i­lies relied on their chil­dren for addi­tion­al labor. Farm chil­dren would, there­fore, often be kept at home and could not vis­it school, pre­vent­ing them from get­ting an edu­ca­tion like the chil­dren of rich fam­i­lies. A ban on home school­ing also allowed stu­dents with dif­fer­ent social back­grounds to mix in classes.

Anoth­er point against the legal­iza­tion of home­school­ing is the increase of domes­tic vio­lence in Ger­many dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Some teach­ers in Ger­many even gave stu­dents spe­cial codes to alert them in case of domes­tic vio­lence. Accord­ing to an arti­cle in the Freisin­nige Zeitung, chil­dren should not be sole­ly edu­cat­ed by their par­ents because it would allow par­ents to indoc­tri­nate their chil­dren with their own beliefs and ide­olo­gies, iso­lat­ing them from society.

While the pan­dem­ic brought chaos to edu­ca­tion sys­tems world­wide, it has also enabled new per­spec­tives on home­school­ing. As a result, momen­tum is shift­ing away from Germany’s strict poli­cies. To put this devel­op­ment into action, orga­ni­za­tions such as Carpe Diem, a pri­vate, state-accred­it­ed school found­ed in 2003, are offer­ing online class­es for Ger­man stu­dents, argu­ing that fac­tors like social anx­i­ety or excep­tion­al tal­ent in sports or music could pre­vent them from attend­ing pub­lic schools. Oth­ers, such as par­ent-lob­by­ing group Eltern­lob­by, have start­ed peti­tions since the onset of the pan­dem­ic to legal­ize home­school­ing. And some fam­i­lies are fight­ing back against the gov­ern­ment. The case of the Wun­der­lich fam­i­ly from the state of Hesse, which claimed that the Ger­man law vio­lat­ed their basic human rights, went all the way to the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights, but the court ruled in favor of Germany.

As schools have returned to in-per­son instruc­tion in the U.S., mean­while, the deci­sion to learn from home will be left to indi­vid­u­als. Stu­dents like Lilah face a dif­fi­cult deci­sion on whether or not to return to school. While the U.S. and Ger­many have gone their sep­a­rate ways on home­school­ing, one thing rings true for both coun­tries: edu­ca­tion as we know it will nev­er quite look the same again.

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Johan­na Eich­ler is a 16-year-old teen jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Ham­burg, Ger­many. Besides jour­nal­ism, she also enjoys singing in a choir and act­ing. She is pas­sion­ate about his­to­ry and hopes to com­bine it with jour­nal­ism in the future.

Muk­ta Dharma­purikar is a 12th grad­er from Durham, North Car­oli­na. She is a nation­al com­peti­tor in Speech and Debate, cap­tain of her var­si­ty ten­nis team, and founder of the STEM edu­ca­tion non­prof­it Ever Curi­ous. She’s inter­est­ed in glob­al health, neu­ro­science, eco­nom­ics, and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and is pas­sion­ate about education.

Aaron Ming Mey­er is a teen jour­nal­ist from Ham­burg. He enjoys writ­ing occa­sion­al­ly, but his great pas­sion is for sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics. He par­tic­i­pat­ed in the BEST jour­nal­ism pro­gram, which gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with like-mind­ed teens and get a taste for being a journalist.