Fairfield County Families Find Reasons to Stick with Homeschooling Even After COVID Policies Lifted

Twin Rinks in Stamford during a Homeschool Skate on Jan. 9 (CT Examiner)

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Interest in homeschooling jumped during the pandemic with families opting out of remote learning and masking requirements at their local schools but the number of homeschooled students in Connecticut remains well above pre-pandemic levels even with the end of the pandemic policies.

Diane Connors, founder and Co-President of CT Homeschool Network, said their membership has tripled since the pandemic began. While no state agency is tasked with keeping data on the actual number of homeschooled children, Connors estimated at least 5 percent of Connecticut students are homeschooled, compared to 2 to 3 percent before the pandemic. 

If you ask Connors why homeschooling is still a popular option, she’ll tell you that the public schools aren’t listening to parents.

“In the past, homeschooling was a lifestyle choice,” she said. “Now parents are homeschooling because they feel schools have failed their children.”

Most families who take their kids out of schools have become disillusioned with the public school experience. For Sara Pennella, a Norwalk mother of two, it was Columbus Magnet School’s emphasis on standardized tests to the detriment of classroom instruction. 

Pennella said her son is a “horrible tester” and the school’s focus on testing hurt his confidence and “cultivated a hatred of reading.” Still, she had never considered homeschooling her children until the pandemic closed schools. “We tried virtual schooling. It was a joke. A nightmare.” 

After turning to homeschooling, Pennella said she cannot fathom ever going back to public schooling. 

At home, she said her children are less exposed to negative influences like peer pressure, violence and social media — her daughter and son belong to a homeschool co-op that prohibits social media. But in contrast to the homeschooling stereotype, Pennella said her kids have active social lives. They attend a weekly nature program called “forest school,” play organized sports, participate in their church youth groups, volunteer and interact regularly with the 60 or so children in their co-op.  

And with the individualized attention homeschooling provides and fewer distractions than a public school classroom, she said her son is now reading above grade level.

Homeschooling has also brought their family closer, Pennella said. “It’s easier to eat dinner as a family,” she said, adding that they take more family vacations since her children’s workbooks are portable.   

Samantha Bonis agrees that homeschooling has brought her closer to her 10-year-old and 8-year-old sons. “I get to know my kids on a different level,” she said.

Bonis pulled her two sons out of Naramake Elementary School in Norwalk after her youngest finished kindergarten but still couldn’t read.  

She blamed the school’s masking requirements and reliance on virtual learning for her son’s lack of academic progress.  But even with those policies lifted, Bonis said she is sticking with homeschooling her children. “I think they learn more and have more independence to explore who they are,” she said.  

Bonis said she tailors the curriculum to match her sons’ interests, currently cooking and gardening, a luxury that a public school teacher with twenty other students in the classroom doesn’t have. “It’s not the teachers, it’s the system,” she said. 

As a single and working mom, Bonis admitted that homeschooling puts more demands on her time but she believes it is worth the trade-off for her boys to “grow up the way I want them to grow up.” And she said her kids are happy with the change. 

At first they missed their friends from school, said Bonis, but now they don’t want to go back to sitting in a classroom all day. “It was exhausting for them,” she said.

Even highly-ranked school districts like Darien, which has declining enrollment since the pandemic, are losing students to the homeschooling movement.

One Darien mom, who spoke to the CT Examiner but did not want to be identified, said she started homeschooling during the pandemic, but grew to love the flexibility that in-home instruction provides, and has continued homeschooling her four children.  With a home-based education, her teenage daughter has the freedom to sleep in every morning and her middle-school-aged son can complete a day of homeschool instruction and still fit in a round of golf with his grandmother. 

And local businesses have taken notice. Twin Rinks in Stamford offers a “Homeschool Skate” every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.  The rink’s manager, Robert Rode, said the homeschooled students and families create “good flow for the building on Tuesdays” and without them, business would be a lot slower.

He said the program started eight years ago with only eight students, and now the free skate draws between 150 and 200 people each week. 

 “It’s really grown since the pandemic,” he said.

Despite the growing movement in the state, Pennella acknowledged that homeschooling still has a long way to go in winning public approval.

“We’re not Amish kids in jumpers,” she said.