WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — Amid the uncertainty surrounding the return to school last fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Sasha Garfinkle decided to home-school her daughter Malia Perez, who was going into 4th grade at the time.
Malia, now 10, has asthma, so Garfinkle, a single mother, figured it was “best to keep her home as much as I could” to avoid the coronavirus.
Though “it went OK” and the two spent a lot of time outside visiting waterfalls and doing science experiments, Garfinkle said there were “definitely a lot of other aspects of school that I hadn’t really thought she would miss.”
Malia missed socializing with her friends and her sleep schedule “got totally out of whack” without the school routine, Garfinkle said. Meanwhile, Garfinkle, who works as an administrative professional, said she had to take a pay cut to stay home.
This year, Malia is set to return to Dothan Brook School in White River Junction, Vt., which she attended from kindergarten through the pandemic shutdowns in the spring of 2020. Garfinkle said she’s nervous about the delta variant and she hopes the children wear masks, but she learned from home-schooling that her daughter “needs the in-person aspect” of school.
The Twin States saw the number of home-schoolers double amid the pandemic. In Vermont, the number of home-schoolers climbed from about 2,600 in the 2019-20 school year to 5,500 last year. In New Hampshire, that number rose from about 3,000 in 2019-20 to 6,100 last year.
In addition, some families opted for full-time remote learning or private school, bringing some local public school enrollments down.
Now, Upper Valley school officials are hopeful that students like Malia will return to public schools this year, which promises a return to full-time in-person learning. For some districts, the students’ return is key to bringing school enrollments back up to normal levels.
In the meantime, some schools that saw a pandemic enrollment boost due to people relocating to the Upper Valley hope to retain those additional students. Even slight fluctuations in enrollment can affect staffing as well as the amount of state aid districts receive.
In Claremont, 101 students were home-schooled last year, which is five times more than the 20 who were home-schooled in Claremont during the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year available for comparison. In addition, as many as 12 percent of Claremont students learned remotely all year last year, an option that the district isn’t planning to offer this year, said Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague.
Sprague said he expects both types of students — the home-schoolers and the remote learners — to return for in-person learning this year.
“I think people will find that home school is a lot of work,” he said. It’s “just easier to be in school.”
From a budget standpoint, Sprague said district leaders “want as many kids to be in school as we can have so we can capture those state funds.”
That has amounted to $4,300 per student in recent years. “If you lose 10, that’s a teacher,” he said. “It’s substantial.”
Meanwhile, some schools such as Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., are hiring more teachers to accommodate growing enrollment, said Jay Badams, superintendent of SAU 70, which oversees public education in Hanover, N.H., and Norwich. The pre-kindergarten-to-6th-grade school saw a jump from 318 to 339 students from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, according to state enrollment figures.
This year, the school has had to add a third kindergarten teacher for the first time in the five years that Badams has held his post, he said. That’s necessary to accommodate the 43 incoming kindergartners at Marion Cross. The school also added a third 2nd-grade teacher for the coming year, he said.
“We had a lot of folks who, for a variety of reasons, chose either remote learning or, in many cases, even home-schooling” last year, he said. “A great many are returning.”
Beyond that, Badams said, enrollment in SAU 70 schools also seems to be seeing a boost from new residents.
“We know we’ve got people who moved up here as a result of the pandemic,” he said.
Schools in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union in Vermont, including the Albert Bridge School in West Windsor, Hartland Elementary School, Weathersfield School and Windsor Schools, also saw upticks in enrollment from the fall of 2019 to 2020, according to state enrollment data.
David Baker, Windsor Southeast’s superintendent, predicted that the approximately 30 families who opted to home-school last year due to the pandemic will return to school this year.
“We should be back to capacity when school starts,” Baker said. “In fact, given people who are moving into our area, we might even see a slight increase in a couple of our schools.”
Some families that opted to keep children home as they learned remotely last year also will be returning for in-person classes this year.
Springfield, Vt., resident Lora Woodbury has five children ranging in age from 2 to 15. When she asked her two school-age children last year whether they wanted to go back to in-person learning, “they were kind of nervous,” she said.
One factor in her children’s decision to stay remote last year was the fact that some of their friends also wouldn’t be attending in person at Springfield High School and Riverside Middle School, Woodbury said. It was “more of a social choice.”
For Woodbury, “being remote helped me really see what they’re learning,” she said. In fact, she said, “their grades were a little bit higher this year.”
But she said she hopes their return to in-person learning this year brings new lessons about respect and social skills such as how to be kind.
“This is the world, and we have to get along,” she said. “That’s what I think school is good for.”
But some Upper Valley families who turned to home-schooling amid the pandemic plan to stick with it this year.
Among them is North Haverhill resident Sarah Davis’ family.
“We’re going to continue [home-schooling for] at least this year,” said Davis, whose daughter, Aubree, will be entering 2nd grade and son, Jackson, will be in pre-kindergarten. It’s “working for us.”
Davis, who was a child-care worker before the day care where she was employed closed during the pandemic, said she likes the freedom of being able to shape a curriculum that works for her kids. They’ve used a mixture of programs she’s purchased such as ABCmouse, an online subscription-based program, and Hooked on Phonics and free online resources, she said.
“It’s just nice being able to pick and choose what you teach your kids,” she said.
She’s connected with other home-schooling families online and takes the children to parks for socialization.
But for Aubree, who has social anxiety, it’s “better to be home,” Davis said.
Davis said she plans to continue with home-schooling for as long as she can and said that an added perk is that “none of us have been sick since we’ve been home.”