How to start home schooling during COVID-19: Requirements, curriculum and tips

As many schools make plans to reopen in the fall, more parents are exploring home schooling and online education options.

Alison DeNisco Rayome Managing Editor
Managing Editor Alison DeNisco Rayome joined CNET in 2019, and is a member of the Home team. She is a co-lead of the CNET Tips and We Do the Math series, and manages the Home Tips series, testing out new hacks for cooking, cleaning and tinkering with all of the gadgets and appliances in your house. Alison was previously an editor at TechRepublic.
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Alison DeNisco Rayome
5 min read

Back-to-school season is upon us, and districts in many states have unveiled plans for trying to safely reopen schools this fall amid coronavirus spikes. While some studies suggest that younger children are less susceptible to COVID-19, it's still possible that they could infect teachers or relatives. That fear is leading many parents to explore home schooling for the first time. 

About 3% of US students were home-schooled in the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But a poll taken in May of more than 2,100 parents found that 40% said they were more likely to home-school or virtual school after lockdowns. And states are reporting increases as well. Home school filings with the Nebraska Department of Education are up 21% over this time last year. So many North Carolina parents accessed the state portal for registering new home schools the first day it was open this month that it crashed. 

Read more: Best back-to-school gear under $100 for 2020

The nonprofit Home School Legal Defense Association has seen inquiries about home schooling increase at least 20% over the same time last year, said spokesperson Sandra Kim. 

"States are now releasing what they're going to do for the fall, and I think many parents have decided that they're not happy about what is being offered," Kim said. 

Home schooling is not the same as public school moving online, as many did in March due to the pandemic. Home schooling means that you've turned in a notice of intent to your child's school district, which states that you're no longer a part of the public school system and are taking charge of your child's education on your own. 

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Even parents who work full time can find ways to home-school, said Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. That might mean connecting with local support groups and cooperatives, or getting a relative involved to help. 

Whether you've already decided to home-school your child this academic year or if you're still exploring your options, here are the six tips for getting started with home schooling. 

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1. Find out your state home school requirements

Home schooling is legal in all 50 states. However, every state has different home schooling laws and requirements, which you can find on your state department of education's website. You can also find a list of laws by state on the site A2Z Homeschooling. These might include hours, subjects and testing.

2. Search for home school groups

You'll find both national and local groups on Facebook -- just search for "home schooling" and your town or county. If you already know someone in your area who home-schools, ask them for help, too. Many areas have home school pods or co-ops where you can pair up with other families for lessons. This might look different due ot COVID-19, but may still exist in some form -- perhaps outdoor, socially distanced classes.  

Finding a home school community in your area can help you with just about everything -- navigating curriculum options, setting up a schedule and just figuring out what you're doing. It also potentially gives you the opportunity to share the teaching burden with others, and give your kids some social time. 

3. Choose a school space and a schedule

Decide where your home school space will be -- ideally, somewhere where everyone can sit comfortably and concentrate. This might mean using the kitchen table, or putting desks in the basement, Kim said. 

One of the perks of home schooling is that your schedule can be far more flexible than in a traditional school. If your kids are early risers, start the day earlier. Depending on their learning style, you may also be able to move more quickly through some lessons and free up time for afternoon activities, like visiting a park. 

Read more: Our favorite back to school picks for 2020

4. Look for curriculum options

Searching for lessons online can be overwhelming -- there are hundreds of options available. You can find boxes that provide books and curriculum materials for a whole year of a given subject, or fully online programs. What you choose should depend on your child's learning style, and what you feel comfortable with as a parent teacher. 

Many people take a hybrid approach, Kim said: A parent might teach reading and writing, and have their child take a math course online, along with "electives" like coding or a language. 

Whatever blend you choose, you don't have to spend much money on curriculum. On average, parents spend around $600 per year per child for materials. But there's a very wide range: Some spend under $100, and others spend thousands, Ray said. You can definitely get by for relatively little cost: A lot of home school groups sell or trade used curriculum boxes, so you might get something that originally cost a couple of thousand dollars for just a couple of hundred. 

You can find free or low-cost online courses on sites like Khan Academy, Varsity Tutors and Outschool.

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 5. Be flexible about home schooling

Home schooling offers you a great opportunity to take advantage of the world around you, Ray said. Say you notice a bird's nest built in your backyard -- you can throw out the science lesson you were planning for that day and instead pull out the Field Guide to North American Birds and pivot to learning about that together. 

This might seem strange at first, but remember, "you do not need to recreate an institutional school in your home," Ray said. "If you do, you're going to miss out on many of the benefits of home-based education." 

6. Realize that it's not going to be perfect

Keep your expectations in check, Kim said: Your child probably won't master a new language or move up two levels of math in their first year of home schooling. Reading, writing and math are still the most important areas to focus on, she added. Plus, there will be a learning curve for both parents becoming comfortable as teachers, and kids getting used to their parents as teachers. 

"Next year is going to be very strange for everyone, whatever you choose to do," Kim said. 

For more on coronavirus and education, check out these free or low-cost K-12 online classes and activities, classes to learn to code and how to help parents and students navigate education during COVID-19

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