Concerns about COVID-19 exposure and that schools could possibly be shut down because of future outbreaks has more Guelph parents exploring other options for the coming school year.
The Guelph Homeschool Group and The Guelph Outdoor School have both seen an overwhelming surge in interest from parents looking for guidance, peer support and general information on how to get started.
“Regularly, we have about 115 families registered annually. And we’ve already seen an increase. Right now, we are getting lots of emails and questions from parents wondering what to do, what direction to take and wanting to know more about homeschooling and what it offers,” said Esmaralda Pitman, a co-ordinator with The Guelph Homeschool Group.
“But schooling is not the same today. Homeschooling isn’t the same. This is ‘pandemic’ schooling and even making the choice at this time, isn’t the same.”
The Guelph Homeschool Group is an inclusive group and offers a wide variety of homeschooling styles and motivations to connect families, share resources and provide encouragement. Members get access to on-line communities, a homeschooling library and resources, discovery kits, social and educational activities, field trips, workshops and parent support meetings.
“We just held a Zoom meeting for new members. There were quite a few and it was with four of our veteran homeschoolers who were there to offer advice,” Pitman said.
“We have a variety of resources families can borrow. We are always communicating and sharing ideas with each other. Families can have sub clubs with other families. This can include math clubs or arts clubs based on shared interests.”
The Guelph Homeschool Group is volunteer run.
All members are encouraged to organize events, activities and field trips inviting other members from the group to join in.
“Parents work together, we all work together,” Pitman says.
Traditionally, the homeschool group is very active throughout the year offering a variety of indoor and outdoor activities.
But this year, many activities will have to take on a different format with social distancing measures in place or on-line.
Public facilities such as museums are operating differently so large group activities will also be limited.
But the Guelph Homeschool Group is always looking for new and creative ways to keep the community connected.
“This year, we don’t really know what our plans are as of yet, so we’ve been trying to answer a lot of questions about the unknown,” Pitman says.
“We don’t know what it will look like. We are still waiting to figure that out. It’s just finding different ways of doing things even if socially distanced or on-line.”
The Guelph Outdoor School (GOS) is also experiencing a significant spike in interest and has expanded programming to help meet the need.
“The interest, it’s been massive, through the roof and into the sky. We have doubled the number of programs and our wait list is 50 families long,” says Christopher Green, director at the Guelph Outdoor School.
“I’m on the phone constantly trying to navigate registration and we just hired six people and we will be hiring six more, all full-time. We also provide teacher training on how to teach outdoors and this has been more popular. Our forest programs and teacher training programs have all expanded.”
Since 2012, the Guelph Outdoor School, a not-for-profit organization, provides a dynamic, full nature immersion learning environment and active mentorship stimulating all areas of development including physical, cognitive, emotional, social and academic.
GOS Nature Connection and Mentorship programs are designed to connect kids with themselves, others, and the natural world as well as provide a non-clinical and preventative approach to overall health and well-being.
“It’s a departure from conventional outdoor education. What we do is nature immersion and mentorship. We provide the tools that provide academic success in what kids love to do. Students are engaged. It’s not a problem because they are in the forest,” Green says.
“And kids cope and thrive academically through these experiences.”
In response to the pandemic and for the first time this year, a full week option has been introduced for students.
The Village Hearth Community School is a GOS/Montessori hybrid program where students will spend half days in the classroom and the other half, outdoors.
“We are working together and taking this step to meet a very distinct need right now,” Green says.
“But this is also a social justice initiative as well.”
To support the community school, GOS says it is holding scholarship spots as part of a commitment to takeaway the barriers between kids of colour and natural and wild places as well as educational options like this.
“It is not just educational, but it’s also about overall health and well-being and having access to outdoor spaces,” Green said.
“We are supporting kids for a changing world.”
Many parents remain undecided as they continue to weigh the risks and and benefits of going back to school.
But if considering other opportunities such as homeschooling, it really comes down to the family,” Pitman says.
“It’s about trial and error. Just try it out and find the learning style that best suits your own child. Take your time and be flexible and gentle on yourself so you can figure out what works for you.”