'There is no way back'

Will COVID-19 usher in a new era of homeschooling?

The pandemic compelled parents to see their kids educated at home. As schools gradually reopen, some educators hope the changes wrought by this enforced experiment are here to stay

An Israeli chilld during a remote learning class at her home in Moshav Haniel, on March 18, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
An Israeli chilld during a remote learning class at her home in Moshav Haniel, on March 18, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Homeschooling does not necessarily mean schooling at home, or at least it didn’t use to.

“People think that homeschoolers stay at home all the time, so the coronavirus did not change our lives. This is not true,” says Efrat Campagnano, mother of three and an active member of a Jerusalem homeschoolers’ group. “Actually, the girls and I did not stay at home much before the virus. We visited museums, socialized with friends, walked in parks. Members of our group of Jerusalem homeschoolers used to meet several times a week for all kinds of activities. So, coronavirus has changed our lives dramatically. But maybe we were just better prepared for spending much time – most of the day – with our kids.”

With families kept at home under the COVID-19 restrictions, and parents suddenly finding themselves responsible for the schooling — or unschooling — of their kids, the pandemic has caused turmoil and hassle in many households, in Israel and abroad. However, the giant social experiment of homeschooling on a national scale — now possibly drawing to an end as schools begin to reopen — has allowed for some insights, too.

Why do we send children to school at all? How does a child learn? What is the role of a parent and a teacher in this process? Homeschoolers tend to ask themselves questions like this, so they may be a good place to look for some answers.

Efrat Campagnano (Courtesy)

“I chose to homeschool my girls because this is how I take my role as a mom —  to be responsible for what my children learn and how they do it,” says Campagnano. “What we do is unschooling rather than homeschooling. The kids do not have classes at home. They are exposed to the world and learn out of curiosity, because they are designed to learn.”

“Homeschooling is not distance learning, nor is it school at home,” says Valeria Gumush, mother of two homeschooling kids from Kiryat Tivon near Haifa. “It is an encounter of natural curiosity with the world of opportunities. You cannot teach anyone; you can only help pave the way.”

With bedrooms turned into classrooms because of the pandemic, the border between school and home has blurred. In the new reality, many of the educators who urged reform of the school system found that the pandemic is changing it —  without asking anyone.

Reut Naor (Courtesy)

“We have long been talking about the advantages of an individual approach to students. Some kids learn easily in the morning, for example, while others learn better in the evening. In a regular classroom, the teacher needs to synchronize them all. The coronavirus has allowed for de-synchronization of learning,” says Reut Naor, who is responsible for educational innovations in the AMIT network of 107 schools countrywide.

“We have been urging a change in perception of the teacher’s role — from teaching to tutoring, from being a source of knowledge to being a person who guides a student in his self-learning. The learning process can be very different from how it looks now in a regular school. The coronavirus has let us see it happen,” she continues. “It has been an experiment that has propelled many things we looked forward to. We were taken directly into the future — the future of education, among other things — and needed to face it.”

An Israeli teacher teaches her students from her home due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Mevaseret Zion, outside Jerusalem, April 19, 2020. (Flash90)

Tsuriel Robbins, head of AMIT Wasserman junior and senior high school in Beersheba, maintains, too, that some of the challenges the coronavirus educational experiment has brought about are here to stay.

“The fact that schools started to use technology to deliver knowledge is the less interesting part,” he says. “The big story is that the coronavirus time has broken the concept of the traditional class with its 30 pupils listening to the teacher and its 45-minute long lessons. We have seen that a lesson can last as long as a pupil wants; some get tired after 15 minutes, while others prefer to study for two hours without a break. Some will prefer to study at 10 p.m., or even at midnight.

“One of the reasons why educational gaps exist is that the school treats all pupils as if they are the same, while they are all different.”

There is one positive effect the coronavirus has had on the school system that even very tired parents can attest to: They have been given a glimpse of what their kids do at school.

“When we realized the children would need to learn from home, we pondered on how they can take advantage of their new learning environment,” says Yulia Biran, head of the young, experimental Hillel school in Jerusalem.

“With this in mind, we tried to give them tasks that could be interesting for the whole family — like interviewing grandparents or doing a project involving family pictures. We have got very good feedback from the parents who said they always wanted to know more about their kids’ activities at school, and now they had a chance. And for us teachers it was insightful to see how important relationship with parents is. I’m excited about the idea of creating a community where children and grownups could learn together.”

Students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus. May 3, 2020. (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)

Tsuriel Robbins from Beersheba is optimistic about recent changes being retained as schools reopen: “A lot depends on the Education Ministry, on its willingness to give schools more autonomy. I talk to people there, and they seem to understand. There is no way back.

Tsuriel Robbins (Courtesy)

“Take final exams, for example. Before the coronavirus, we spent so much effort and recourse to make sure students do not use textbooks and do not copy answers from one another. Now you can’t check it–– the exams will be held from home, so we need to change the exam materials. Instead of testing the students’ memory, they will test their ability to think and to find the information they need. Is it bad?”

Homeschoolers are optimistic about the changes, too.

“If we were a political party,” says Efrat Campagnano, “it would be time for us to advertise ourselves aggressively, because due to the coronavirus so many parents got a taste of what life with children can be when you are not in the office for most of the day. Many of them start asking themselves questions about their role as a parent, and about whether they need school. I am not saying all of them will choose to homeschool, and this is not the point! The point is to start thinking. Now that you had a taste of an alternative, the choice will be more conscious.”

Valeria Gumush (Courtesy)

“I would not call what’s happening now homeschooling,” says Valeria Gumush. “Homeschooling is something that comes as a result of free choice. The experiment that we have been witnessing was forced upon parents.”

She says, however, that a few of her friends said they were glad to try it, hard as it was to combine work from home with trying to educate the kids.

“You can find out that it is easier to spend a whole day with a kid than to spend an hour in the evening with him. Or that kids are quieter and happier at home. It does not mean these parents will turn into homeschoolers immediately. But maybe they’ll decide to cancel a few of their children’s afternoon classes. There are so many opportunities for learning now, and we want to use them all.”

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