November 5, 2020 - Westwind alternate school principal, Mike Devuyst, has seen a significant increase in Cardston and area student registration this fall. Student registrants cover a wide geographical area across the division and include students in the Parent directed Home Education Program, the Personalized education programs on campuses, and the outreach students. The risk of increased COVID-19 exposure to vulnerable family members has encouraged many to consider one of these as at least a temporary option. Enough new students registered in the different home based options during August that the division increased teaching staff by one and a half. But by the end of September, administration soon realized this would not be enough for the extreme increase in numbers and have since approved a total of 4.5 new positions. Devuyst, says “these temporary positions are for the first semester only as we are aware some families may choose to go back to public school as the year plays out, however all teachers are currently teaching at capacity or above”.
So far, families do not seem to be changing their minds about the move to home learning- Westwind has seen a 127% increase in new student registration this year. A typical year may see 10 new student registrations at the alternate school, but this year 275 new students have registered in the various alternate learning environments. New student intake began to seriously increase in the first couple weeks of August and Principal Devuyst found himself busy every workday at the office in a month he would usually have been at home. The registrations kept coming in September and there have even been new students registered as recently as this week. Westwind runs various home based learning campuses and satellite schools across the area to meet the needs of families interested in alternatives to public school.
Westwind boasts two main campuses, one building in Cardston and another in Raymond, as well as smaller classrooms in Magrath and Stirling for high school students interested in unique schooling options. Westwind Alternate offers two options for families looking for a substitute from traditional public school- one is Home education, where there is more parent led learning and less teacher contact, and the other being Personalized Education Programs, where there is regular contact with teachers with parents contributing to learning also.
The Personalized Education Programs at the school building follow the directions of the education minister, the school division, and chief medical officer of health in the province and have changed their health protocols along with mainstream public schools. Students need to have masks when they come, and may need to wear them, depending on student numbers and types of activity. There are also hand sanitizer stations and signs reminding everyone to wash up. Physical distancing is attempted as much as possible, the best that can be done in the classroom setting. Devusyt believes that, masks or not, “kids are happy to enjoy some of the normalcy in ‘going back to school’ after the huge changes in March”.
In March, homeschoolers who usually got together with other families daily for a combined science class or other focus group had to stay home just like the kids in public school. Homeschool parent Lindy Mckay’s kids had been attending community classes for robotics, hip hop, dance, gymnastics and more that were all closed down when the pandemic hit Alberta. She says “We weren’t ever able to get together with each other or go to community classes, and the library was shut down which made it difficult to find information for projects”. Families are happy to see these groups reopen this fall and have been able to keep attending many field trips as they don’t have to rely on division bus transportation. Devuyst says “our days are looking pretty normal, besides kids with masks.”
Mckay noticed an increased interest in homeschooling on social media and in her close friend groups. She says “its interesting because even women who work full time are considering homeschooling now”. She recognizes that homeschooling is not just luxurious for stay at home moms, but many parents are afraid of the unknown and want an education that is stable and unchangeable when the pandemic is changing everything. Mckay has advised over a hundred people internationally who are interested in making the change this year, and locally 4 or 5 of her friends have also asked for advice on switching over. When asked for home education advice Mckay tells families interested in changing over that homeschool does not have to look like public school at home. Many homeschoolers in the area use natural opportunities to learn in a more simplified and flexible way. She says “Honestly I’ve felt like my kids were always getting an excellent social life even though they don’t go to a brick and mortar school. With homeschool in Cardston, entire families are friends regardless of gender or age and parents are able to take direct action when teaching their kids how to resolve conflict”.
COVID 19 has given families and individuals a lot to think about as each group recreates what normal and best looks like for themselves. Education change is one of the many ways the novel pandemic is changing lives. Whether your family have chosen to send kids to public school, private school, traditional homeschool, or a home based learning program, it is clear that many people are making sacrifices in order to make the best choice for their kids during uncertain times.
Elizabeth Thompson-Christensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star