Before the pandemic, Karen Mozian had a concrete vision of her son’s K-12 education: He would go to public school, just as she had.
But then schools shut down in March 2020 and Mozian saw 9-year-old Elijah glued to Zoom at the kitchen table, struggling to get his words out. Elijah stutters, and distance learning made it worse. He was barely engaging, daydreaming through his classes.
Elijah was diagnosed with ADHD in the summer of 2021, just before his sixth-grade year. He was back on campus and his school granted him accommodations, such as additional testing times and help with incomplete assignments, but Mozian noticed that Elijah was expected to advocate for himself — and he didn’t want to be singled out. His grades dropped abruptly.
Combined with what she saw as a stressful environment of COVID-19 restrictions, Mozian realized that school wasn’t working for her son. It was painful to see him struggle so much. So she pulled him out and started teaching him herself.
“To say I’m home schooling my kid are words I never ever thought would cross my lips,” said Mozian, a wellness business owner and daughter of a longtime public school teacher. “But I realized that there are other ways to learn, that I put a lot of faith in the public school system.”
During the pandemic, a growing number of families in California and across the U.S. have chosen to home school their children. The reasons for doing so are diverse, complex and span the socioeconomic and political spectrums: Schools implementing too many COVID-19 safety protocols, or too few. The polarizing conversation around critical race theory. Neurodivergent kids struggling with virtual instruction. And an overall waning faith in the public school system.
What all of these parents have in common is a desire to take control of their children’s education at a time when control feels elusive for so many people. In an effort to understand this trend, The Times interviewed 10 families in Southern California who were pushed by COVID-19 to start home schooling. While it remains to be seen how many will continue past the pandemic, most of these parents said they won’t return to brick-and-mortar schools now that they’ve experienced the benefits and flexibility of home schooling.
The proportion of American families home schooling at least one child grew from 5.4% in spring 2020 to 11.1% in fall 2021, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis. The number of Black families choosing to home school increased five-fold during that time, from 3.3% to 16.1%.
In California, nearly 35,000 families filed an affidavit with the state to open a private home school for five or fewer students during the 2020-2021 school year, more than double the affidavits filed in 2018-2019.
The pandemic enabled parents to truly witness for the first time how and what their children were learning, albeit at a time when educators were scrambling to adapt lessons to a virtual space. Many were unhappy with what they saw, said Martin Whitehead, spokesman for the Homeschool Assn. of California.
“There is dissatisfaction with how folks were being taught and treated in schools,” Whitehead said.
Such frustration often pre-dates — but was exacerbated by — the pandemic, and is one reason more Black families are pivoting to parent-led education, said Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, co-editor of the book “Homeschooling Black Children in the U.S.”
Black parents already knew that their children are much more likely than white students to be punished and suspended, Ali-Coleman said. They knew, of course, about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that their kids will not see themselves in most mainstream curricula, outside of Black History Month. But seeing those realities play out in real-time was sobering and motivating.
“They saw how teachers were talking to the children, the tone of their voice,” Ali-Coleman said. “More Black parents started having conversations and camaraderie around this — that this is not right.” Though it should be noted, Ali-Coleman said, that Black families are not a monolith and their reasons for home schooling are diverse and layered.
Crista Maldonado-Dunn was interested in alternative education before COVID-19. But when her son’s preschool shut down in March 2020, she began talking with her close friends — all families of color — about “building an environment for our children to explore and love who they are, and where they come from.”
They formed a small co-op (affectionally called their “tribe”) and began meeting in Maldonado-Dunn’s backyard in El Segundo. Parents took turns teaching lessons, many of which were centered on their own identities and cultural histories. Maldonado-Dunn’s children were able to learn more about their Apache, Samoan, African, Spanish and Portuguese heritage. Family elders were invited to teach lessons.
“How do you prepare a child for an uncertain future?” asked Maldonado-Dunn, who left her career as an entertainment consultant to focus on her family. “We’re just trying to give them as many tools as possible, and a really strong sense of self. Every day is different, kind of like college for little people.” Her kids, now 3 and 5, are learning jiu-jitsu, Spanish, and hike with a group of other home schoolers weekly.
“The pandemic forced us to really look at what we value and prioritize those values,” she said.
Other parents are leaving public schools because they don’t want their children exposed to critical race theory. The theory, which became a hot-button issue among Republicans last year, examines how racism is historically embedded in legal systems, policies and institutions in the U.S. and is generally not taught to K-12 pupils.
Karen Golden, director of Creative Learning Place, an enrichment center in Palms, said at least four of the 85 home schooling families she serves pulled their kids from public schools because of critical race theory.
Professionals who provide support to home schoolers also saw a wave of interest in the fall when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that children in public and private schools would be required to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by next school year.
“I’ve received many, many phone calls from parents who are afraid of the vaccine mandate but have no idea how to home school,” Golden said. “They are panicking.”
Mozian, the mom in Redondo Beach, said the impending vaccine mandate also factored into her decision to continue home schooling Elijah. She and her kids are not inoculated, she said, because she is concerned about the potential long-term effects of the vaccine.
“I’ve had many friends tell me, ‘I’ll be doing what you’re doing soon, too, if these mandates happen,’” she said.
A number of families at Creative Learning Place began home schooling because their kids were so anxious and depressed after a year of isolation. “They are falling apart, and the schools aren’t able to support that level of mental health need,” Golden said.
While the choice to home school has historically been ideological — and often still is — a growing segment of “the mainstream middle class, well-educated and not on either political extreme, has been very disenchanted with public schools’ response to the pandemic,” said James Dwyer, a professor at William and Mary Law School and co-author of “Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice.”
“Now it’s more about competence,” Dwyer said. “But it remains to be seen how enduring that motivation is.” He anticipates that many parents will return to public schools for the same reasons they enrolled their kids in the first place — childcare during the workday, the social environment and extracurriculars, and the fact that it’s a service they’ve already paid for.
Mozian said she will be home schooling Elijah through at least middle school. His natural curiosity shapes what he learns; Mozian and Elijah — who loves the beach — have researched the ocean’s currents and tides, and he’s taking a class on astronomy through Outschool. Mother and son visited Griffith Observatory recently to make the subject more tangible and fun. Mozian is now working part-time to accommodate home schooling, which has strained the family’s finances.
She knew it was worth it, though, when Elijah said to her after sleeping in past 7 a.m. on a weekday: “It’s so great not to be so stressed and hurrying all the time.”
“It made my heart melt a little bit,” she said.