A Harvard homeschool expert says he’s ‘not convinced schools should ever have closed’

Critics of homeschooling say they're even more concerned now about child abuse since at least 55 million US children are learning at home.

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Critics of homeschooling say they’re even more concerned now about child abuse since at least 55 million US children are learning at home.
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After much deliberation, most schools across the US made the tough decision in March to close their doors and move to a remote learning platform to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite the overwhelming consensus to shut down, James Dwyer, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School – who co-authored a book on the history of homeschooling and its shortcomings – doesn’t think that was the right choice, since it could inevitably lead to children falling behind academically and potentially enduring abuse from adults in the home.

Homeschooling can foster an environment for abuse. A 2014 study found that 47% of school-age victims had been homeschooled and 29% had never been enrolled in school.

“I am not convinced schools should ever have closed,” Dwyer told Insider. “Given what we know about relative vulnerability to the coronavirus, the shutdown decision arguably amounted to a prioritizing of the welfare of certain adults over the welfare of children.”

Dwyer was referring to the fact that children are less likely than adults to develop the coronavirus and are also likely to have a low transmission rate in the classroom. He said that he thinks schools should reopen as soon as possible.

FILE PHOTO: A child wearing a protective face mask disinfects hands as she arrives at a primary school, while Austrian schools reopen for pupils aged roughly six to 14, during the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brunn am Gebirge, Austria May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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About 3% of US children were homeschooled before the coronavirus outbreak, a figure that’s now nearly universal. In 2019, long before parents were compelled to turn into teachers essentially overnight, Dwyer co-authored “Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice.”In the book, Dwyer argues that homeschooling requires more regulation to ensure the safety and appropriate development of children.

For example, Dwyer pushes for background checks on all members of a household to help protect children from abuse. He also calls for the parents who are homeschooling to have a basic education themselves and for more frequent evaluations of a student’s academic progress.

The biggest concern around homeschooling is that it puts children at risk for abuse

Since schools have closed, children have been more susceptible to abuse at home. There’s less oversight now that educators, therapists, and other school staff can’t monitor their students in person. Teachers report cases of abuse more than any other group.

A key indicator is the fact that calls to child abuse hotlines have dropped across the country. In Washington, they’re down about 50%. In Montana, Oklahoma, and Louisiana calls to such hotlines have dropped by 45% since schools closed, compared to the same period last year, according to the Associated Press.

There are also more triggers for abusive parents and caregivers, given the high rates of job loss, stress at home, and the economic downturn.

“Tensions in the home that predict for maltreatment are likely much higher now because of increased unemployment, fear related to COVID-19, the increased isolation, and the likely increased use of alcohol and drugs related to all the above,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School who has written extensively about homeschooling.

Abuse is even more of a concern now that caseworkers aren’t visiting homes during the pandemic

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Compounding the issue is the fact that the US Department of Health and Human Services decided that social workers don’t need to monitor foster care children in person and can communicate using video conferencing instead, which is less reliable.

For this reason, Bartholet said caseworkers should be sent to homes to conduct in-person visits for a more accurate sense of whether children are in danger.

In April, Bartholet published a paper in the Arizona Law Review in which she outlined the risks associated with homeschooling and called for a presumptive ban on it. In order to be permitted to homeschool, parents should have to present a compelling reason why, she wrote in her piece.

Many parents choose to homeschool to shield their children from secular education

In addition to abuse and inadequate teaching, Bartholet is concerned about some of the motivations of parents who choose to homeschool. Conservative Christians are the main drivers behind the rapid growth of homeschooling in the US, and many of them choose to homeschool to cloister their children from secular education and ideas.

A major flaw in the system, according to Bartholet, is that there’s much less regulation of homeschooling in the US compared to other countries where, for example, parents who homeschool are required to demonstrate that they’re qualified to teach and must submit curricula to a governing body.

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While Bartholet said she agrees with the decision to temporarily close schools to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, she said she’s concerned that families who weren’t homeschooling prior to the pandemic will decide to go that route, even after schools reopen.

Data shows that Bartholet’s hunch is correct.

Of 2,122 registered voters polled, 40% of families said they’re more likely to homeschool or partake in virtual school after the pandemic passes, RealClear Opinion Research found.

Both Bartholet and Dwyer agree that children will fare much better once they’re able to return to school.

“Children who were before the shutdown victims of abuse by adults in their home are now likely being terrorized, as they spend far more time cooped up in the home with those adults, who have less fear of being caught,” Dwyer told Insider. “It’s fair to say that the faster states reopen, the better off children will on average be.”