Although more students than ever are learning at their kitchen tables because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of formally home-schooled pupils in the province has decreased this school year for the first time in almost a decade.
Home-schooling has been on the rise in Manitoba and across the country in recent years. Department of Education’s statistics show the number of home-schooled children in the province has nearly quadrupled since 2000.
The province’s newly released enrolment report, an annual document that records student populations across the province as of Sept. 30 of a given year, shows 3,689 home-school students were registered last fall.
That’s a decrease of 0.5 per cent, or 19 pupils, compared to 2018-19 figures. A a provincial spokesperson explained the lower number by pointing to two new non-funded independent school openings. Notably, the number of home-school families has remained stagnant.
"I don’t think the growth has stopped. I think we’re seeing continued growth. We saw a big jump several years ago, and I think we’ll continue to see that," said Gerald Huebner, a longtime board member of the Manitoba Association of Christian Home Schools.
"It’s always important to look at things over time."
Families sometimes choose home-schooling and then decide to enrol their children in traditional facilities, Huebner said, adding reasons for home-schooling can range from a peanut allergy to religious beliefs to the ability to individualize a child’s academic experience.
The reasons for moving a student into the public or independent school system are just as diverse, said John Wiens, dean emeritus at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education.
They include a student’s desire to get "the high-school experience," and the financial burden for for some families, as the province doesn’t provide funding.
"It’s so situational that it’s really hard to pin it down," Wiens, an open critic of home-schooling, said about latest enrolment statistics.
He said the province’s record of home-schooled students is likely incomplete; minimal oversight is one of his chief concerns about the practice.
Crystal Gibb is one example. The mother of three young children in the Anola area has been educating her six-year-old for several years, but she hasn’t registered him as a Manitoba student because kindergarten is optional.
Both she and her husband are trained high school teachers, but she opted to leave her job to teach her children full time and, occasionally, offer tutoring services.
"You always have a broad spectrum of learners in every classroom and as a teacher, when you have 30 kids and they are all over the map and you’re expected to teach to each individual child, it’s impossible," Gibb said. "Especially in math, it’s so easy for kids to get behind and not to speak up for themselves."
She said her family also decided to home-school their children so they aren’t exposed to bullying and negative social interactions at an early age.
Jennifer Gehman, a member of the Manitoba Association for Schooling at Home, said she’s interested to see if the extended class suspensions across the province result in more Manitoba families gaining interest.
"Our world is going to be very different when this settles down and it’s hard for any of us to predict what’s going to happen," said Gehman, who has graduated four of her five children at home. Her fifth is currently a Grade 9 home-schooler.
She said she thinks the freedom and family time involved in home-schooling has resulted in the overall surge since 2000.
Home-school parents insist social isolation schooling is far different than what they do, since parents are still being provided with instruction materials, but Gehman said all families can learn from her informal practices. Rather than worrying about paperwork, she said it’s critical families create environments where children feel safe and can nurture their curiosity, "especially at a time when the world doesn’t feel safe."
"We need to think more outside the box about what education can be and what it can look like," she said, adding that something as simple as doubling a cookie recipe can serve as a math lesson.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Friday, March 27, 2020 at 5:21 PM CDT: Updates main image