Future of home-school support up in the air

·3 min read

Home-school enrolment in Manitoba more than doubled this year, owing to parents pulling their children out of public schools over COVID-19 concerns.

Now, the province is contemplating whether to continue supporting home-schoolers in the future.

The annual enrolment report has yet to be released, but education department briefing notes obtained by the Free Press show home-school numbers have spiked by 118 per cent over 2019-20 figures.

There were 3,689 home-school students in fall 2019. That figure jumped to 8,027 — approximately four per cent of the K-12 student population — this school year.

“There are parents who are just so thankful in many ways that COVID (learning disruptions) happened, because it’s a little bit like being forced to jump into the deep end and realize you like the water,” said Jennifer Gehman, a longtime home-schooler and Manitoba Association for Schooling at Home board member.

At the same time, many families are eager to partake in the public school system again once they feel it’s safe to do so, Gehman said, adding she’s curious how enrolment will look next year.

Home-schoolers are not typically eligible for provincial funding or other resources from Manitoba Education, but the province invited them to participate in its $10-million remote-learning support hub this year.

“The increase in home-schooling was largely due to parent concerns about COVID-19… (These parents) generally lack knowledge of the home-schooling process,” states a transition briefing note provided to Education Minister Cliff Cullen when he took over the file in January.

The remote learning support centre, which launched in January, is staffed by full-time distance learning teachers and home-school connectors, certified teachers who provide learning packages and check-ins with families.

As of last week, 221 home-school students were accessing remote teachers and an additional 96 home-school students had a home-school connector.

Jeanine Thomlinson said she reluctantly started home-schooling her two children with little idea of what to expect in autumn, after a challenging remote-learning period in the spring and amid uncertainty around COVID-19.

“We’re planning on continuing next year, regardless of what happens, which is something I didn’t expect I’d ever say. The kids are just absolutely thriving,” said Thomlinson, citing a flexible schedule and the ability for her grades 3 and 5 students to learn at their own pace.

Thomlinson said she has relied on the curriculum she purchased rather than the support centre, given it launched halfway through the school year.

“It would be nice if there was a line on the income tax returns to get some money back even for being a stay-at-home parent or educator, because they offer nothing to home-schoolers,” she added.

A provincial spokesperson said Thursday no decisions have been made about whether Manitoba will continue to provide support to home-schoolers, or if the support centre will be staffed with full-time teachers next year.

John Wiens, dean emeritus of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education, took issue with the province providing support to home-schoolers this year — let alone the prospect of future support, citing inadequate funding for public education.

“It’s a huge problem if you’re shortchanging public schools, as you’re actually funding individuals with public money,” Wiens said.

The province recently put out a survey to new home-schooling families to collect input on resource needs for alternative schooling.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press