Chris White and Rachel Horton White with their children, Alice, 5, and Arran, 8, at their home Tuesday in Richmond. The couple are home-schooling the children this year while both are self-employed working full-time. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

RICHMOND — Rachel Horton White and her husband, Chris, always thought about homeschooling their two young children, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that it became a possibility for the family.

Previously enrolled in Falmouth Public Schools, their children found it difficult to look at a screen all day for remote learning. And, Horton White didn’t like the amount of screen time her children were having.

“(My son) was in public school and it was fine and good in many ways and there were great teachers,” she said. “But I always knew that my son Arran was a better hands-on learner.”

But with a move to Richmond and the help of her husband, Horton White said the transition felt like a natural one for her family to make. Together, she said, they were able to establish a learning plan that worked for their children — third grader Arran and kindergartener Alice.

Their family is not the only one in central Maine to make a switch to learning at home this year and Superintendent James Hodgkin of the Winthrop Public Schools said that he “100% believes the uptick is from the coronavirus.”

Hodgkin urged families who didn’t want their children in classrooms to choose their district’s full-remote learning option, because school funding is based on the number of students that are enrolled. The full-remote option keeps the student enrolled in the district, while homeschooling does not.

To determine funding levels for the following academic year, the Maine Department of Education looks at the enrollment in school districts from October to April.

Central Maine districts have seen significant increases in families choosing to homeschool this year. These include:

Augusta Public Schools: The largest district in Kennebec County reported at the Sept. 2 school board meeting that a total of 122 students are being homeschooled for 2020-2021 school year, 44 more than last year. That is an increase of 50% from the 88 that were during the 2019-2020 school year.

Maine School Administrative District 11: Initially 150 students were slated to homeschool, but Superintendent Patricia Hopkins reported at the Oct. 1 school board meeting that 170 students are being homeschooled for the 2020-2021 school year — 77 more than last year. That is an increase of 82.8% from the 93 that were homeschooled during the 2019-2020 school year.

Winthop Public Schools: A total of 70 students are being homeschooled for the 2020-2021 school year, 38 more than last year. That is an increase of 118.8% from the 32 that were homeschooled during the 2019-2020 school year.

Regional School Unit 2: Superintendent Tonya Arnold said she had received 20 automated voice messages from the Maine Department of Education’s registration service, indicating students that would be homeschooling during the 2020-2021 school year.

Fayette Central School — Superintendent Tara Morin said one student switched to homeschooling for the 2020-2021 school year.

Information about the total number of students that are homeschooling this year in RSU 2 and Fayette, compared to information for the 2019-2020 school year was not available by press time.

Chris White and his spouse, Rachel Horton White, study leaves with their children, Alice, 5, and Arran, 8, Tuesday at their Richmond home. The children are being home-schooled this year by their parents. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

MAKING THE HOMESCHOOL CHOICE

“I think a lot of parents are worried about their kids getting sick,” Horton White said. “I know a lot of people that have always been interested in it and (there were) things that they didn’t love about the public schools.

“For me, I didn’t want my kids to wear masks all day,” she added, “and that was our choice.”

Horton White teaches her children three days a week, with the help of her mother and her husband, who each take a day. The family also hired an ed tech for the afternoon two days a week to help the children read and write. Doing that means Horton White is still able to run her business as a life coach.

She said if she and her husband, a carpenter, didn’t work remotely from home, they likely would not have been able to home-school their children.

Initially they considered a combined home-schooling approach, with other families, to ensure a social engagement aspect to it. But since it was their first experience with home schooling, they opted to start slowly and keep it to just their family.

On one day, however, Horton White has a friend who drops off her children while she goes to work.

“We thought about having a home school co-op and teach other people’s kids, too, but we decided not too because it felt too overwhelming,” Horton White said. “I wanted to get to know my kids and their learning styles.”

They are connected with a home-schooling group that includes 20 other children, allowing them to create social interactions for Arran and Alice. The parents of that group are considering collective “classes” that could be taught to the children; Horton White said she is thinking about teaching Spanish.

Chris White studies a leaf that his children, Alice, 5, and Arran, 8, collected Tuesday during a lesson at their Richmond home. The children are being home-schooled this year. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

She has chosen a Waldorf educational model of teaching for Arran and Alice, which focuses on a “spiritual and practical approach” to learning and focuses on factors of the environment to help children learn.

Horton White’s children spend most of their time outside, away from screens, and learn through the experiences that they have within nature.

In a typical home-schooling day, math may be taught through cooking or baking, to put it into perspective for children. Or, the day that Arran was only interested in the red hawks that were flying above their house, math may be taught through problems involving the bird of prey’s babies.

“I asked him, ‘If one hawk has three babies in one nest, and two in the next one, how many babies are there total?'” Horton White said.

Through these approaches, she has the ability to guide the learning to her children’s needs, pointing out that it is not something that is always available when a child is in a classroom of 20.

At first Horton White was nervous to be her children’s teacher and make sure they were learning what they needed. She said those thoughts originally held her back from home-schooling Arran and Alice.

“It’s like being a parent — it can be hard, and exhausting,” Horton White said. “It takes learning, and it can be overwhelming at times, but it’s a wonderful way to bond with the kids.

“I’m happy that they are able to learn this way,” she added, “and I can watch them learn and grow.”

Horton White joked that Alice is asking to go back to kindergarten, but she reminds her daughter she never went to public school before.

She did say she will listen to the needs of her children, and if they want to go back to public school, she would be willing to consider it after some discussion.

“Children are naturally curious and want to learn,” Horton White said, “and it’s our job to gather the way and foster it and give them the tools that they need to learn.”

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