CHICAGO — Laura Reber, founder and CEO of Chicago Home Tutors, has been fielding calls from nervous parents around the clock in recent weeks, as uncertainty over fall schooling sent many searching for alternative options.
Reber, whose firm of 100 tutors has served Chicago-area students for eight years, said she understands parents’ frustrations. Her reassurances to them focus on the fact that, while it might not be an ideal year for education, their students — and their peers across the country — will get through it.
“The whole nation is going to be in the same boat,” she said. “Not that that’s a huge comfort, but if you move to a private school or another district, there’s really no guarantee that they’re not going to change their plan.”
With Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing Wednesday that the new school year will begin with remote learning instead of a hybrid plan in Chicago, parents are figuring out how to move forward with the option that best fits their individual, and incredibly varied, needs.
Reber’s tutoring business isn’t alone in experiencing a spike of interest. Amid a turbulent time in their students’ education, parents across the country are pondering a variety of alternative schooling options, including:
— Switching students from public school to a private institution. The Archdiocese of Chicago announced reopening plans for its school system in July, calling for a full return to in-person classes, paired with safety measures that include face coverings and daily temperature checks. Still, some remain on the fence about the plan.
— Moving, renting or relocating to another district. It’s not as if that hasn’t happened before. Parents with newborns often plan where they want to set up base for educational purposes, and parents with older children seek out schools that meet their child’s changing life goals, and transition them to a school better equipped to meet those needs.
— In higher education, taking a gap year. Given the uncertainty over whether resuming normal school year activities (assuming there are any) may result in another spike of cases — and subsequent lockdown of campuses — some college students are taking the school year off.
— Securing a full-time tutor. Some parents are hiring retired teachers or other professionals to teach their kids while the parents work from home. Then there are micro-schools, for parents who want to supplement or oversee their child’s remote learning, rather than replace it altogether.
— Home schooling. Parents are considering home schooling as an option, with an array of online programs and resources enabling them to teach their children on their own. (It was also an option parents utilized before COVID-19.)
Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of Printers Row-based tutorial firm WorldWise Tutoring, said she has been coming to work to read a full inbox of emails over the summer. While the quarantine had many families and parents in survival mode in the early months of 2020, now everyone is “trying to get a better plan of action,” she said.
“In Chicago, parents are preparing not for Plan B, but Plan 1.2,” she said. “Parents are reaching out to me saying, ‘I need a coach; not just a tutor, but a coach’ to help them through.”
Older students with learning difficulties, such as attention deficit disorder, processing disorders or executive functioning issues, are falling behind with e-learning, while younger students might have been able to tread water in the spring, but will need additional support as a new school year gets underway, Wander said.
“Parents are concerned about what that is going to look for them in the fall,” she said.
If the “will they/won’t they” scenario is too stressful, parents might want to consider an alternative to get them through the year, Reber said.
“If you cannot handle the turbulence, your only option is home schooling,” Reber said. “That way you can just take control of the situation.”
Chicago Heights resident Susan Alessandrini has been home-schooling her four children for the past 13 years. What started out as a financial decision, spurred by a parochial school’s $5,000 tuition, proved to be the right call for her family, she said. Alessandrini, a certified English teacher, had moments where she doubted her decision, but now has parents calling for advice on starting the home schooling process during the pandemic.
“As much as we want a perfect choice, e-learning, a hybrid (model) — none of them are going to be perfect,” she said. “You’re trying to make good choices and do the right thing, but nobody knows for sure. You put your heart into it and try to make the best, and support and encourage your kids. Every choice is the right choice.”
And parents, she said, are resilient.
“We know how to be tough for our kids, and I think if people gave themselves more credit, that they could do it,” she said. “For your kids to see that you made a sacrifice for them, that you found them so important to try to make that choice. … Every choice is a sacrifice, whether it’s home schooling, private or public.”
Nationally, the Home School Legal Defense Association is having its busiest season in its 37-year history, said James Madison, vice president of litigation for the Virginia-based home schooling advocacy organization.
Most parents are asking how to get started, he said, and the association provides resources and curriculum for families new to home schooling. Connecting with other nearby home-schoolers can also be a way to get help, he said.
“Every family and situation is different, but this is a valid option that I suggest people take a strong look at,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of information out there. Your kids will be fine — your kids are basically learning machines. You don’t have to try to re-create the public school classroom in your home. You can focus in on each child’s interests, needs. If you just relax, it can be a real joyful thing.”
Wander’s advice for parents: Ask for help during this time.
“This isn’t a contest of who’s the better parent or who’s the smarter child,” she said. “This is a time when we all should be asking for help. We have our specialties and things we’re good at, and if teaching phonics to your first grader is not your thing, that’s OK. Ask for help, whether that’s a mom group, a neighbor, or bringing in an instructor — or whatever it might be.”
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