Tania Watson had concerns about public school even before COVID-19. She worried about safety in a large-school setting and the quality of education. 

COVID-19 made her even more cautious. She doesn't know how she would feel about a required vaccine for COVID-19 at public schools.

"My kids are not vaccinated," she said. "I don't believe in a lot of it and we are trying to be smart with vaccines, only doing what's needed. We just don't want it to be mandatory."

That and a desire to teach her own children led to the decision to homeschool her 5-year-old son this year. As a working mom who is new to the home education environment, she said the process has been difficult to figure out.  

"A lot of people are doing online and I don't know what to do because a 5 year old shouldn't be in front of the computer a long time," she said. "It's just hard and I kind of hope that things go back to where they were in the past with a small schoolhouse and one teacher who loves the kids."

With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the face of public schools, more local families are looking at alternatives. 

Online academies and microschools have seen an increase in interest and enrollment.

Watson, who lives in Sahuarita, is focusing on play-based learning for her son right now. Ideally, she would homeschool in a small group, taking turns teaching with other mothers. But she hasn't found that yet. 

"I'm just confused," she said. "I'm so new to this homeschool thing."

Homeschool veterans

Colleen Barnhill has been homeschooling her children for eight years. Her son was going to kindergarten at a charter school and since he was academically advanced the school wanted to push him ahead.

“He’s very young for his grade and I didn't feel it was the appropriate course of action,” she said. “I had a friend who homeschooled and they said why don’t you try it for a year."

Barnhill has stuck with it and her main method of instruction is what is called “living books” in the homeschool world. She turns to encyclopedias, historical fiction and other literature to help learn topics such as history.

“It gives a broader scope and it's more interesting for us,” she said. “It’s a lot of reading, discussing and it's the crux of what we use.”

Barnhill said it helps to find other homeschoolers or social media groups.

“Talk to other parents to ask about what works and what does not work because otherwise you can be spending a lot of money,” she said. “In general, homeschool takes a couple years to find the right curriculum for your family.”

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Children participate in an activity at Beth Garcia's home. 

Online academies

There are a number of fully online schools available in Arizona that are offered tuition-free to in-state students by partnering with a charter school. One of those programs is Arizona Connections Academy, a K-12 public school.

The academy offers an accredited curriculum where parents act as a learning coach. Students have a number of minutes they must complete each day, which gives flexibility.

Sahuarita mom Janel Holaday has been homeschooling for about five years and has a 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.

The journey to homeschooling started when her son attended Anza Trail School in kindergarten and she discovered it wasn’t moving at his pace.

“I spoke with his teacher and had a couple meetings with the school but they wouldn't move him up to a higher grade that was more appropriate,” she said. “It wasn't serving him well and they couldn't meet his needs.”

She joined a homeschooling Facebook group and discovered Connections Academy, where her son has remained since. She said the ability to set their own schedule has been crucial.

“Whatever time works for you, you have that flexibility,” she said. “The other important thing is they allow students to go at their own pace and my son was actually really happy about that.”

Along with the flexibility, she likes being able to see exactly what her son is learning, the free textbooks and workbooks they’re provided and the ability to add to the curriculum. The academy even provides a laptop.

“So many parents have been contacting me and they’re really unsure about what to do,” she said. “We've had no bumps with Connections Academy, even during quarantine."

According to Samantha Bryant, who helps with public relations at the academy, since COVID-19 there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of families seeking information about their program compared to last year.

Recently, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools increased the academy’s enrollment cap by 1,000 students so they can serve 3,500 students this year. Last year around this time, there were 1,800 enrolled; they are currently at about 2,500.

Principal Heather Noto said families choose the academy for many reasons including children having a poor experience in a brick-and-mortar school, bullying or maybe a student wants to focus their schedule on a craft or sport. COVID-19 has brought even more students in.

“I have nothing but symphony for brick-and-mortar schools and as a parent I understand how hard the decision is of what you will do for your child,” she said. “We continue to have access for students and continue to work, learn new material and move forward.”

She said there are options for socialization. During the portion where live teachers are instructing a virtual class they are interacting in real time as a group. They also offer virtual clubs like chess or National Honor Society.

“We definitely know the socialization piece is important so we try to build that into Connections Academy,” she said.

Primavera Online School has also seen an increase in interest.

Cody Bendix, corporate communications director, said over the summer they received a high number of inquiries about the school.

“As to this fall, Primavera continues to see some increased interest and enrollment appears to be trending slightly higher than previous years,” he said. “However, with many different options available to parents, most are still figuring things out and have yet to make a final decision.”

Primavera is tuition-free, accredited, and expanded to include elementary school this year.

Microschools

One of the latest school concepts to pick up momentum are microschools, home learning environments where an acts as a guide for a group of five to 10 students. Often a parent is a guide to their own children along with additional children.

There can be a mix of ages and grade levels working independently on online curriculum as well as engaging in social activities and learning experiences with their small peer group.

Prenda began in 2018, and currently has microschools for grades K-8 across the state, including Sahuarita. 

Sarah Raybon, a member of the outreach team, said they have more than 1,500 enrolled and counting statewide. 

She said families often choose Prenda due to the small group sizes, bullying in traditional school models and the pressures of long days at traditional public schools. 

“Families are realizing those pressures are too much and they want an alternative where students are excited to learn,” she said.

Though Prenda follows state standards including AzMERIT testing and benchmark testing in core subjects like math and English, a “teacher” doesn’t lecture.

Students are led by a guide, who does not need teaching experience, but is vetted through a background check and interview process.

The days are shorter and Prenda has three components: Conquer, where students complete their grade specific work online; collaborate, where students work together on a project; and create, where students create art or some other project. 

Parent Grace Kinney will be a Prenda guide this year and already has a group of children who will be attending her mixed-ages class in her home.

Prenda guides create a classroom environment in their homes and Prenda provides them the training and supplies. The parent support team is able to help families find a Prenda microschool near them or they can deal with a guide directly. 

Kinney met the families participating with her through various social media groups and knew some who had participated in a Prenda school with another local guide last year. Guides receive compensation and Prenda provides laptops to all students.

Kinney has worked in public, private and charter schools, and homeschooled her kids in the past.

“I always had the idea that big, full classrooms are not always working in the best interest of students,” she said. “This feels like homeschooling with peer interaction every day.”

Kinney intended to open a Prenda microschool before COVID-19 because she believed there was a better way for children to receive their education. But, she also feels microschools are a safer option during the pandemic.

“You have your COVID container of people you may see and we try to keep it small so we’re not creating risks for anyone,” she said. “We’re expanding that container a bit through this.”

Kinney said research shows lecture-style teaching doesn’t work for everyone and she likes the empowerment Prenda offers to children and families.

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Beth Garcia, who will soon become a Prenda guide, reads a book to a group of children in her home where she formerly ran a preschool called Little Fox Bilingual Preschool. 

Beth Garcia is also on her way to becoming a Prenda guide in Sahuarita.

Garcia found online learning wasn’t right for her children and Prenda offered the balance she was looking for.

“I thought this was a good mix because my children don’t do well with a completely online program,” she said. “This is a good medium between both worlds, in-person and online.”

She’s a certified teacher and previously ran a preschool from her home.

The next step is for her to go through Prenda’s one- to two-week training, get insurance for her home classroom and begin enrolling students. She hopes to have a group of six kindergarteners.

She knows many parents who are stressed and said it’s important to remember there’s no one right or wrong answer.

“Nothing is ideal, because ideal would be there was no COVID-19 and our kids were back in school,” she said. “Children are resilient and if we do what's best for them and love them they'll be fine."

Arizona Learning Communities

Dennise Jarvis, a local mom, has been in education most of her life and created her own program called Arizona Learning Communities.

Her program provides a base curriculum and support for parents who are homeschooling. She started the program in March and had students enrolled in the curriculum for a summer session. New families are enrolling for fall daily.

“I’m passionate about empowering families to take control of their child’s education and to give them the ability and knowledge,” she said. “A big part, sometimes, is funding because if one parent is staying home or going part-time to do their child’s education sometimes it's hard to pay hundreds of dollars on curriculums on top of making less money and buying supplies.”

Families who participate have access to groups for social activities and also receive a stipend for participating. The program is tuition-free because it’s partnered with a charter school called Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning Families which receives state funding.

Jarvis said the program is best for parents who are taking on the responsibility of being their child’s primary teacher. Arizona Learning Communities acts as "training wheels" to those who are new to homeschool or extra support and funding help for those who may have been homeschooling already. 

She stressed the importance for parents to remember everyone's educational needs are different as they choose an option. 

“For parents who are concerned about keeping their students home or who are worried they’re going to fail them, I want to squash wherever that's coming from,” she said. “The one-on-one time for children with their parents is so valuable and I want to honor and celebrate that. For a lot of families, it’s a big sacrifice, but it's worthwhile.”

Other options

Jarvis highlighted the number of options available to parents in Arizona. Alongside online academies, microschooling, traditional homeschooling and programs like her own, there is state aid available.

There’s the Arizona Department of Education's Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which allows qualifying families to take ownership of 90 percent of the state allocated funding for their child. With the money that would normally go to a district or charter school, families can spend that money on private school, homeschooling resources or tutoring.

There are also Certified School Tuition Organizations which take tax contributions and provide scholarships for students to attend private schools in the state. 

The numbers 

To homeschool in Arizona, a family must submit a one-time homeschool affidavit to the county superintendent's office stating their intent to homeschool. 

This year, as of July 15, an additional 21 students in the Sahuarita Unified School District and Continental School District submitted affidavits. Last year by July 15, 35 new affidavits had been submitted here. Based on last year’s data, August is the month most affidavits are submitted.

Families who select online academies or microschools do not have to submit an affidavit, though Prenda, Connections Academy and Primavera have all reported increases in enrollment.

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728