Covid-19 fears spark record increase in homeschooling

More than 1,000 families applied to homeschool children in August and September

Many families say they cannot risk sending their children back to school as it would put vulnerable family members at high risk. Photograph: Getty

Many families say they cannot risk sending their children back to school as it would put vulnerable family members at high risk. Photograph: Getty

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Fears over Covid-19 have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of parents homeschooling their children.

New figures from Tusla, the child and family agency, show more than 1,000 families applied to homeschool their children in August and September alone, up about 500 per cent on the same period last year.

The surge has led to a backlog of hundreds of applications waiting to be screened before being placed on the official home education register, a legal requirement for children not attending school.

Many of those applying to homeschool their children are families who say they cannot risk sending their children back to class as it would put vulnerable family members at high risk.

Department of Education guidelines for schools state that only children with “very high risk” medical conditions are entitled to receive remote tuition.

No such provision is available to children who have very high risk family members.

Jan Rynne, a Dublin mother with a form of blood cancer which places her at very high risk, has set up a “forgotten families” group of dozens of other at-risk families who are either homeschooling their children or struggling to access remote learning.

She is keeping her children Daniel (12) and Emily (15) at home due to the risk that she could contract the virus.

However, her children are not entitled to remote tuition on the basis that they themselves are not categorised as very high risk.

“It is very frustrating and stressful. Many of us don’t want to homeschool our children, because they have to lose their school places.”

Safe return

Minister for Education Norma Foley has said public health advice states that children with immediate family members in both the high risk and very high risk categories can safely return to school.

“It is their recommendation that schools are safe places and that in terms of the health, advancement, socialisation, academic development and all the other aspects of a child’s wellbeing it is in their best interest that they would return to school and be catered for within the school environment,” she said recently.

However, Ms Rynne said the medical advice she received recommended that her children avoid situations where they were at a higher risk of picking up the virus.

“There is an implication that we are doing something wrong by our children and they would be better off in school. We don’t have that option... why not just give us access to remote learning to allow our children get an education?” she said.

School principals have expressed concern that the numbers opting to homeschool or keep their children out of class means schools risk losing teachers due to lower pupil numbers.

Pairic Clerkin of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network said it was a concern shared by many schools right across the State.

“If a school loses just one or two pupils, in some cases, that can be the difference between keeping a teacher and losing one,” he said.

The department has said it will be “conscious of the unique nature of this year and of any schools having difficulty because of students who remain out”.

It is understood to be preparing revised guidelines which are due to issue to schools soon.

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