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BARGERSVILLE — As school boards continue to map out their back to school plans with students and staff safety at top of mind, parents are also left to decide how their child will learn this coming semester.
For a number of different reasons, many families across the state are turning to homeschooling for this school year.
"So I think what's good for parents is simply to know there are options," said Zach Duke, a Center Grove-area parent.
Zach and his wife Megan are the parents of three children: Malia, Natalie and Judah. Zach is a missionary and Megan is a stay-at-home mom and also a music artist.
Just as faith is a common theme in Megan's music, the Dukes are relying on their faith to make decisions in these uncertain times.
"We're just trusting that God is in control, that He is going to lead us and guide us," Megan said.
Zach added, "Faith just helps us to stay undisturbed in seasons of disturbance."
They are taking a leap of faith, making the choice to homeschool their children, starting with Malia who will be in the first grade this semester.
The Dukes did a lot of research and say homeschooling will best fit with their family and lifestyle which typically includes a lot of travel for Zach's work. During the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty with safety in schools, many parents may choose homeschooling as an option.
Tara Bentley is the executive director of the Indiana Association of Home Educators, an organization that has been helping homeschooled families with resources and community since 1983.
She said in Indiana, homeschool has a very specific, legal definition. It is non-public and non-accredited.
With all the verbiage being thrown around online with traditional school, e-learning, virtual schools, learning from home and more, it can be confusing to parents trying to make these tough decisions for their families.
"A lot of people mistakenly refer to (e-learning) as homeschooling, but legally we have legal requirements that are based on our definition and how we are classified so its really important that people do understand the differences," Bentley said.
Homeschooling is private education and it does not matter what school district you live in. There are different legal requirements from public options.
State-operated virtual schools are public and students typically sign up for the entire year. Children in those programs are students of that particular school, and even though they do the work at home, it is still considered public education.
Those legal differences give home-schooled families more legal freedoms when it comes to educating their child.
More families are looking for resources to home school this year and Bentley says they've seen a huge wave of new families looking for information from IAHE.
"Maybe now they feel empowered or some of them maybe feel pushed but when you bring your child home to educate them you are able to focus on the individual needs of the child," Bentley said. "We have seen such a huge spike, that I don't even know that we've had time to collect all the numbers."
IAHE is a volunteer-driven organization and they are working quickly to overhaul their site and Facebook page that has more than 10,000 followers to providing details and information to help explain to new families how home schooling can work for them.
She says some common challenges for homeschooling is that parents can feel overwhelmed trying to mimic a public school. She said you do not need to follow the public school curriculum, but use it as a guide and cater the educational experience to the child.
Bentley says homeschooled families just need to take attendance and agree to providing an "equivalent" education, but the state cannot dictate what that looks like. She also suggests homeschooling for at least a year and not just this semester because it can take a little while to get in the swing of things.
Many parents also worry about socialization.
"One of the other challenges is finding your community locally," Bentley said. "Even our homeschool community is overwhelmed with how will they meet in a way that they used to."
Typically, IAHE has a number of resources for cohorts and communities who meet regularly during the school year, but COVID-19 is challenging these communities as well.
The Duke family has lived in the Bargersville area since right after the Revolutionary War, and Zach said his family has had deep roots in the Center Grove School Corporation since its beginning, so this decision was not reached easily by his family.
"All those who go to the Center Grove school system, I know they are trying to figure it out as well," Zach said. "They are working really, really hard and we want the absolute best for all the families and staff that are a part of that."
Zach said his family will continue to be big supporters of the Trojans, even though they will be schooling their children from the home.
"We are giving grace to ourselves and to just all the other families while we are just trying to figure this thing out," Zach said.
The Dukes said they researched homeschooling and decided to use the Charlotte Mason curriculum. They found a creative solution to provide social interaction for Malia while helping other like-minded families this school year.
"We also just believe in being open-handed with what we have," Megan said. "So just creating a learning environment where she can have some peers as well."
The Dukes plan to hire a tutor and offer to host a small group of students who are Malia's age to take part in homeschooling at their family farm for social distancing. This plan will hopefully give Malia some classmates and peers, but they can easily create a safe learning environment with the amount of space.
"So essentially its creating a network where you are finding like-minded parents who are going to be the prime educators of their children, so homeschooling in the home, yet creating a network where there's a tutor where we can have that same curriculum that can help all of these families within this network," Zach said.
This idea for a group setting is nothing new to the homeschooling community, however, it is becoming more challenging to find a place to meet due to COVID-19. That is why the Duke's say their family farm is the perfect setting for this type of community in the age of COVID-19.
"It's small, you can distance easy. And you can also communicate with all the parents easily," Zach said. "And then this will be out on the farm so they can go out in nature and play outside. There's just a lot of really cool things you can do while making safety and families and communication inside that process very simple."
Bentley says for young children like Malia, homeschooling and curriculum is very flexible thanks to state laws. But parents of high school students or parents who may only choose to home school for a short period of time due to the pandemic, need to be in close talks with their local district if they want their child to re-enroll or graduate with their particular class.
"For families who have high school students, however, and do want to keep graduation with their school district as an option, they should be working as close as possible with their local school on what their child should be learning," Bentley said.
But most importantly, Bentley said to give yourself some grace this school year, especially if your family is trying a new arrangement due to the pandemic.
"It's going to be a tough school year no matter what you choose, We all hate the term the new normal," Bentley said. "I would say it's not normal in any circumstance and so you have to give yourself grace no matter what choice you make."
Families considering homeschooling this year can find free resources and information from the Indiana Association of Home Educations, including a webinar, on their website.