The vast majority of Canada’s 5.7 million school-aged children and teens attend in public schools, but the number of students enrolled in home-schooling more than doubled after COVID-19 hit.
The 2020-2021 school year saw enrolment jump to nearly 84,000 students from about 41,000 the previous academic year, according to Statistics Canada’s latest Elementary-Secondary Education Survey.
That period marked a rocky, unpredictable time for in-person schooling, with officials and students alike grappling with evolving protocols and procedures, new learning timetables, few or no extracurricular activities and waves of disruption.
Uncertainty was a key reason many have cited for choosing home-schooling during the pandemic. Three parents who took up the practice two years ago explain why they’re sticking with it.
‘A gift’ of family time
Lori Kent recalls her son’s reaction to the prospect of school back in fall 2020: no sports, no music, no field trips, no options.
“He said to me, ‘They’re taking away everything I like about school’… And I thought ‘It does sound horrible,'” said Kent, who subsequently dove into the world of home-schooling her son Cameron, who is now almost 14.
And it’s not just happening in the family’s home in Chestermere, Alta., anymore. As the intensity of the pandemic has lifted, Cameron’s family is mixing his studies with travel. Learning is taking place in Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Scotland and the United States, just a few of the countries the Kents have travelled to this past year.
Swimming in a cenote in Mexico, for instance, sparked a lesson for the nearly 14-year-old on how such sinkholes form. The family watches documentaries and researches historical sites before visits, as they did prior to touring the Acropolis. Converting foreign currencies to Canadian dollars is an ongoing practical math lesson. A long train ride provides time to catch up on textbook-based work.
“[Home-schooling is] challenging. It can certainly be frustrating, but it’s very much worth it,” Kent said from a motor home near Edinburgh last week.
“When he was going to school, we didn’t see him that much, and when we did it was rushing to get to school, from school, to some sort of extracurricular activity…. To have this time together, that’s a gift.”
Kent retired last year and her husband Bruce followed in early 2022. They feel supported by friends, family and an Alberta school board facilitator they connect with periodically. She covers language arts, social sciences, health and cooking with Cameron, for instance, while Bruce takes care of math, science, business and economics.
While the home-school process has been a learning experience for them all, their family has most enjoyed the flexibility. During a lull last year when Cameron felt weary of workbooks, they shifted gears to an independent study — for a couple of weeks, he researched how artificial intelligence is used in medicine today and where the industry is headed. Then, he presented it to his parents.
Adhering strictly to the standard way of doing things “doesn’t work for everybody and there was a lot of it that wasn’t working for him,” Kent said.
“So now we can do what works for him and tailor it.”
A self-described “crunchy mom,” Amanda Lajko always had an interest in home-schooling, but the Toronto parent didn’t attempt it for her son Ryker until COVID-19 hit, when the shuttering of in-person schools early on was followed by a series of setbacks, including losing her job, falling ill and multiple moves.
“One less thing to worry about was putting him in a different school board and signing him up for school,” said the single parent.
After she found Ryker getting frustrated with workbooks tied to the Ontario curriculum, Lajko shifted to an “unschooling” model directed by his interests. While she’s looked at curriculum expectations as “a little bit of a guide in the background,” she lets the now eight-year-old take the lead.
She describes her son as an avid reader, helped by regular library visits and playing fun, text-heavy video games. Other interests right now include learning Japanese and about anime.
“The less I’ve tried to force and instil in him to learn, learn, learn, he learned on his own,” Lajko said. “Sometimes he will tell me something and I believe him, but my brain is like ‘Are you sure? Let’s just double-check.’ And every time I double-check, he’s right.”
Reading, cooking together, daily nature walks, going to the food bank or heading out to do laundry are elements of their weekdays, while Ryker enjoys play dates with friends on the weekend. According to Lajko, he also values quiet time on his own: He doesn’t like loud noises nor crowded places.
While not opposed to her son returning to in-person schooling, Lajko seeks a more alternative approach that values “out-of-the-classroom learning,” she said.
“A school that takes all kids’ differences into consideration is what we need to strive for moving forward, because school right now? The system is very cookie cutter.”
Flexibility for life on the farm
After the emergency learning at the pandemic’s start, Martina Page wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of a roller-coaster school year ahead, nor an unpredictable bus schedule for the hour-long trip each morning and afternoon for her young son. So, she and husband David Page, who are raising their four kids on a farm in rural Alberta, made the switch to home-schooling.
Based on her success teaching James, her eldest, from their home near Sunnyslope, Alta., their second child — Madeline, now six — followed suit this fall.
“I never ever thought I would home-school in my life. I was like, ‘Home-schooled kids are weird. We don’t want weird kids,'” Page recalled. “And here we are.”
Taking loose guidance from Alberta Education’s learning expectations, she follows a parent-led approach and covers subjects like reading, spelling and math, along with history and geography for James, now eight and in Grade 3. They spend their mornings learning, with occasional breaks for Page to tend to toddler Millicent or baby Merida.
Schoolwork is usually done by midday, when the kids get to enjoy lunch with dad, who takes a break from farm work so they can eat together. Afternoons are often spent at the library or at different activities (piano lessons, gymnastics or hockey) in a nearby town. During the busy farming months of May and September, home-school might slide a bit, Page said, but she also continues with the kids’ math and reading lessons over the summer.
“We get a lot of comments [like] ‘Don’t your kids need to be socialized? Don’t they need to be with other kids their age?’ But we do lots of activities,” Page pointed out. “We have meet-ups [in neighbouring town Three Hills]… You can do pretty much anything that kids in public school do.”
While her current juggling is tough, Page’s biggest concern is eventually home-schooling all four kids. “As they get older and their interests start to diverge, it will be hard to cater to everyone,” she said.
Returning to regular school remains a possibility, but will depend on a more predictable experience. High school, for instance, might be a good time.
“They can still have graduation, get their Alberta diploma — which you can still get through home-schooling, but it’s a little bit more simple to do it through an actual school,” Page said. “[We] are waiting, I think, for everything to settle down.”