Originally published on Bakersfield.com - Sept. 4, 2021
It didn't take long for Maria Naba to realize that this school year wasn't going to go as planned.
Last fall, her family moved from Los Angeles County into a house near Norris Elementary School, hoping her two sons would soon walk to school. Naba was interviewing for jobs and looking forward to returning to work again this month. Home-schooling her kids wasn't part of the plan.
"I was the parent that couldn’t wait until they were in school," she said.
But the first day of school approached, and COVID-19 rates in Kern County were rising. School would begin Aug. 18, but what was happening in schools that were open didn't seem to bode well.
The pandemic has prompted a surge of interest in alternatives to traditional public school, such as home schooling and virtual charter schools. Interest hasn't dimmed in a school year that is young yet has already brought many new challenges: rising COVID rates in children and quarantine protocols that interrupt education and tax school staff.
"It’s just a really bad time for the schools," Naba said.
Naba and her husband have health conditions, and the thought of her boys getting sick or spreading it at home troubled her. Even if they were spared, she didn't like the idea of them falling behind academically while they bounced in and out of quarantine.
"I told my husband, 'I don’t want them going to school, getting exposed. It’s too disruptive,'" she said. "That’s when I started looking for an online school."
That's how Naba came to enroll her sons, a first-grader and a fourth-grader, in California Virtual Academies, a state network of online public charter schools affiliated with K12 Inc.
Many families who signed up are concerned about health but also stability in their children's education this year, according to Angie Covil, California Virtual Academies' head of high schools. Enrollment numbers reached a high point across the state, but the growth is especially pronounced in elementary grades.
"It's been exponential," Covil said.
Younger students are not eligible for a vaccine, which has a few effects. This has worried parents of students those age. Few agencies are releasing data about cases in schools, but anecdotally, COVID infections — and therefore disruptive quarantines — seem to be hitting elementary schools harder.
Amanda Gauthier-Parker, an administrator of a Facebook group called the Bakersfield Homeschooling Network, said the group's numbers have doubled in the last two years. But even since school started, she's been getting five to 10 requests to join the group each day.
"There’s been so much uncertainty," said Gauthier-Parker.
Some worry about COVID, while others bristle at a state mandate that children continue to wear masks indoors in schools, she said.
Many parents gained confidence in their ability to take a greater role in their student's education through distance learning last year, but they need help with the first steps.
Typically, the group exists only as an online community, but there have been so many newcomers lately that Gauthier-Parker is planning a rare in-person get-together to answer their questions this week.
Right now, many are making last-minute decisions, and they're overwhelmed with the different options. Structured online charters bear a resemblance to last year's distance learning model. They're staffed with credentialed teachers and blend live virtual instruction with asynchronous time.
Gauthier-Parker also likes to point out that traditional home schooling with a parent taking on the role of the teacher is still an option.
Porscha Profitt decided to take this route. With current COVID rates, she didn't feel comfortable sending her 3½-year-old daughter to a Head Start program or day care. So she purchased a curriculum called Mother Goose Time that has ready-made lessons.
"I just pull it out and we go through it," she said. "So far, so good."
One-on-one home schooling has one important advantage this year: It doesn't require enrollment or waiting lists.
Last year, the state decided to fund schools at their 2019-20 enrollment numbers. For traditional public schools, this kept the lights on while enrollment dipped. Online charter schools were seeing surges of interest while their funding was frozen.
"If we wouldn’t have had a waitlist, our doors would have been busted wide open," said Richard Savage, the executive directive of California Connections Academy, another popular virtual charter school option for Kern County parents.
Last year, parents with concerns about in-person instruction were able to keep their children in distance learning all year without having to sign up or get on a waitlist. This year wasn't as easy.
In-person instruction is the default option for California students this year. The sole alternative to the state's grand push for in-person instruction was a bill passed in July by the California Legislature, which mandated that school districts offer a more rigorous version of independent study.
School districts scrambled. Many parents reported feeling left in the dark about what their school's independent study plan would be as the clock ran out and the first day of school approached.
Elida Rincon hedged her bets. As summer went by, she got nervous. She wasn't sure what Bakersfield City School District's program would look like.
Rincon signed up her daughter Liliana Rodriguez for the California Connections Academy. When the BCSD announced its independent study program, she signed her up for their program, too. But California Connections Academy reached out first, and offered her clarity about what Rodriguez's sixth-grade year would look like.
Rincon had a long list of reasons she worried about sending her daughter to campus. Before the pandemic, her daughter dealt with bullying at school. Her grades shot up in distance learning. But health concerns were a major factor. Rincon has avoided gatherings, even with close family, because of her weak immune system. She worried about her daughter's asthma. And even in summer, she said California's reopening seemed ill-advised to her.
"I was dumbfounded with how the government was just going to open everything up," she said.
The recent spike in cases has made her feel like she and her husband made the right decision for the school year, even when family and friends questioned her wisdom. She's glad her daughter won't have to worry about disruptions or exposures at school. The sacrifices she's making by staying at home are worth it for her daughter's education and her family's safety.
"I have no idea how long COVID is going to be around," Rincon said. "We have to learn how to work around COVID."
Naba hoped that while she finalized their transfer to their online school that her sons wouldn't be exposed to COVID. But on Monday evening — not quite at the two-week mark of the year — she received a recording from the school that her older son had been exposed.
It kicked off the exact sequence of events that she had hoped to avoid. She had to wait hours to get her family tested for COVID, due to testing shortages and high demand.
Naba wasn't able to get in touch with anyone about her son's exposure until the afternoon after she had been notified. The health clerk apologized and told her that she had been busy all day putting kids on quarantine. It wasn't until Thursday that her son's teacher checked in to give him schoolwork. By then, Naba was officially prepared for her son to transfer out and she let the school know.
The week ended in relief for Naba in another key way: a round of COVID tests in her family all came back negative. But the "frustrating" experience made her feel like she had made the right decision. It seemed like schools were totally unprepared for the way the year was unfolding, she said.
"I feel bad for the teachers. They want the kids there and they want them healthy," she said. "It’s just a mess."
To learn more about California Virtual Academies, visit cava.k12.com.