Emergency Homeschooling: How to Survive (and Even Thrive) When Schools Close

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Salem Lutheran School in Stillwater, MN was closed due to H1N1. Image: KSAX TVSalem Lutheran School in Stillwater, MN was closed due to H1N1. Image: KSAX TV

Salem Lutheran School in Stillwater, MN was closed due to H1N1. Image: KSAX TV

Although the H1N1 flu season is just heating up, it doesn’t look like there will be the kind of long-term shut-downs of schools we were warned about when governments started planning for bird flu a few years ago. In fact, since last spring’s first outbreak of swine flu, the federal government has asked schools to close only as a last resort. Still, according to the Associated Press, at least 351 schools were closed last week, affecting 126,000 students in 19 states, and about 600 schools have temporarily shut their doors so far this school year. All of which has gotten some parents wondering what they would do if their kids were home from school for any extended amount of time.

After Hurricane Katrina kept thousands of kids out of school for weeks and months, and after talk of months-long closing of schools due to avian flu began popping up on the news, I organized a project, working with the staff and readers of Home Education Magazine, to write a guidebook for families who were unexpectedly given the job of teaching their kids at home. One immediate dilemma I noticed as I read through the pieces submitted for the book was the question of whether to try to keep up with what the school would have been teaching, or to use the time to do things better suited to the family’s own interests and needs.

This split between “school-at-home” on the one hand, and “unschooling” or “eclectic homeschooling” on the other, is a continuing debate among long-term homeschoolers as well. But for the family that is intending to homeschool for a year or less, it can be a big decision – and one that they don’t want to spend a lot of time worrying over.

Both have their pros and cons. If the school provides the materials and guidance, then continuing classwork at home might be the easiest choice (assuming the parent is up to helping the child tackle the material). But if a family is homeschooling because they’re away from home or otherwise stuck with limited resources, then keeping up with schoolwork just might not be do-able. Of course, if a child is sick, getting any traditional classroom work done is probably out of the question, at least until they’re on the mend.

But the interesting thing I learned from families who’d been through the experience of short-term homeschooling was how many took the opportunity — whether planned or not — to try new things that don’t fit into the normal school year. Some focused on a particular interest that isn’t part of that grade’s curriculum, such as ancient history or dance. Others took “field trips” they wouldn’t have been able to do if following a school calendar. And many others just looked around their daily lives and found ways to make shopping, or housework, or a building project into a learning experience.

As editor of the book we created, which is called “Suddenly Homeschooling,” I chose to emphasize the chance for families to create their own curriculum, one that suited both the parents’ abilities and children’s needs. Chances are, even if swine flu hits your school hard this year, your kids won’t miss more than a few days. But if you had to take charge of your own kids’ education for weeks or months, which would you choose to do?

Kathy Ceceri is at work getting “Suddenly Homeschooling,” a collection of how-to essays by veteran homeschoolers, into print.

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