Despite past hassles of attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jessica Clements and Kalyn Macchia said they never seriously considered pulling their kids out of public education before this year.
But the two McHenry County mothers of school-aged children decided to take the leap, they said, in part because of the statewide school mask mandate Gov. JB Pritzker imposed as mitigation effort to curb the spread of the deadly disease.
So far, with the first day of school in their respective local school districts having come and past, they said they have no regrets. Their kids are on board, too, Clements and Macchia said.
“With home schooling, socialization looks a lot more normal right now than it does at schools,” said Macchia, an alumna of Crystal Lake’s public education systems, whose second-grader and third-grader had attended Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 up until this month.
She said she felt the required mask use and social distancing protocols to prevent COVID-19 transmission in place at schools last year and for the upcoming year have been – and would continue to be – sources of consternation for her kids.
As COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant have mounted in the state and across the country this summer, the idea of whether students, faculty and staff should be required to wear masks in school has been a source of intense controversy in Illinois and elsewhere. Parents on both sides of the issue packed school boards and held rallies throughout the state as local education leaders were deciding whether to require masks in school buildings this academic year.
Faced with the mounting cases and varying local coronavirus mitigation policies, Pritzker announced in early August that he was imposing a school mask requirement when students returned to school because ”far too few school districts” had imposed such requirements. Pritzker’s decision has been met with continued controversy as some parents throughout the state protested and have sued him over the policy.
Macchia said she was convinced to transition them into a home-schooling curriculum partially by hearing from Leslee Dirnbirger, the founder and president of Aspire Educational Consultants based in Barrington Hills, at a meeting Dirnberger held with other local families in recent weeks to inform them of academic options outside public schools.
Dirnbirger’s consultancy, according to its website, helps families get started with home-schooling routines and explore educational paths without using traditional school systems.
Dirnberger said she has held meetings and webinars attended by hundreds of McHenry County families over the past month who now are considering home schooling.
“They’re fed up with the mask mandates,” Dirnberger said. “What’s happening is and what I’m seeing is that parents are wanting to know what are my options. They feel trapped. In this country, that should not happen. Parents should never feel trapped.”
A new Axios/Ipsos poll conducted between Aug. 13 and 16 found that almost 70% of those surveyed favor local school districts requiring masks in schools.
The poll also found a partisan split when it comes to support for in-school masking requirements: Among Democrats, 92% favored a school masking requirement, compared with 44% among Republicans.
The poll was conducted online by Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel and had a margin of error of “+/- 3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level,” according to Axios.
Clements, a resident of McHenry Elementary School District 15 with three school-aged boys – 10-year-old Myles, 7-year-old Gavin and 4-year-old Dayne who will start pre-kindergarten learning at home this year – said the mask requirement was not the only reason she and her husband, Jon Clements, felt the urge to try home schooling, she said.
When Pritzker announced his executive order on masks earlier this month, Clements felt she the mandate “was just affirming everything inside.”
“We’re a one-income family, and we’re blessed to have that ability,” said Jon Clements, who works as a demolition contractor. They also have a 1-year-old son, Clayton. Jon Clements said he did not push his wife too hard into the idea to home-school, but they said they both felt it was the right choice for their family.
Dirnberger said she has helped families who rely on two incomes or otherwise may not have a parent to stay home and teach children from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. find ways to make home schooling work, in part because of Illinois’ regulations around home schooling.
The Clements family said their fifth-grader, Myles, started falling behind academically last year when remote learning was the main educational delivery method. Both she and her husband felt home schooling would offer a more consistent academic experience than last year’s multiple transitions between remote, hybrid and in-person learning schedules.
Myles said he initially was uneasy about home schooling because he was worried he might not see his friends as much. But he got past that when his mom told him school will look and run differently than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that he would not have to wear a mask all day. His parents also said they plan on getting him into recreational basketball this year with other children and other extracurricular and social activities.
Jessica Clements said she had to be hands-on during the e-learning phases of last year’s schooling and was convinced by an acquaintance that “I was already doing it,” when she was still unsure whether she wanted to home-school.
“I had to undo a lot of my thinking. We have this tainted view of what home-school is,” Jessica Clements said.
Both the Clements family and Macchia said they would be unlikely to send their kids back to school this year if the mask mandate gets lifted, as they want to give a full year of home schooling a try.
But they may send their kids back to public schools if the masks are not required for the 2022-23 school year, they said, if their children want.
The number of students who are learning in a home-school environment each year is not tracked by state or local education officials, so it is difficult to gain a comprehensive picture of the number of newly home-schooled students this year.
But Tim Dempsey, the truancy officer for the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, estimates fewer students are in home schools this year than last year. He gets notified by school districts at the start of each year if a student who was enrolled last year does not show up to the first day of school, and when he inquires with the families, he is sometimes told they have started home-schooling and haven’t yet notified their school district.
He already has experienced a few of those instances this school year.
Additionally, Dempsey has received about 20 calls from families in the past two weeks inquiring about home-schooling, he said.
While he has heard from some parents who wish remote learning could be extended to their students again this year or are concerned for their child’s health with full school buildings with the ongoing pandemic, most people interested in home schooling now have issues with the mask requirements, he said.
Dempsey said he always encourages parents who begin home schooling to find and use online material and programming that has been recognized by education experts.
“Most students want to be in school with their peers and their teachers. I don’t think a lot of this home-schooling momentum is coming from the students. It’s coming from the parents,” McHenry County Regional Office of Education Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn said. “The schools are doing a great job emphasizing the importance of being there in school. There is much more optimism than last year.”
Dirnberger said she believes it should be difficult for the state to know the total number of home-school students and opposes registration requirements for home-schoolers, which exist in other states. She also disagreed with the belief of local school district officials and Dempsey that relatively few families, and perhaps less than last year, are opting to home-school for the first time this year.
Part of the reason districts may not attribute some withdrawals or absences to students starting home schooling this year is because some parents who intend on home schooling tell the districts that they are enrolling their students into private school when they de-register from a public school district, said Dirnberger, who formerly worked as a litigator. In Illinois, home schooling is considered a private school, she said.
Cindee Nootbaar, assistant to the superintendent of McHenry Elementary School District 15, said the district has heard of a few families starting home-schooling this year, but the number is “nothing outrageous.”
“We are not seeing many students unenroll from the district. We are actually anticipating a potential increase in enrollment for next year,” Johnsburg School District 12 Superintendent Dan Johnson said.
Woodstock School District 200 also is expecting an increase in overall enrollment, spokesman Kevin Lyons said, but like other public school systems, it has no data on home-schoolers within its district.
Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In the northern part of the county, the Nippersink Elementary School District 2 and its associated high school district, Richmond-Burton High School District 157, have fielded more questions about home schooling from families recently.
“Like many districts, we have had calls to inquire into home schooling based on the mask mandate. However, at this time I am unaware of any additional increase in home schooling within our district based on a parent refusing to mask their child,” District 2 and District 157 Superintendent Tom Lind said.