For most parents, August is typically about back-to-school clothes, filling classroom supply lists and awaiting word of their child’s schedule or teacher assignment.

In this COVID-19 tainted year, however, many parents and guardians will spend these few weeks before the state re-opens its public schools focused on health risks and questioning whether they should keep their children home. 

“People are scared. Worried and scared,” said Bill Heuer, director of the Massachusetts Home Learning Association.

The MHLA was founded in 1987 as a voluntary organization that endorses home learning as an alternative to public or private schooling. Roughly 5,000 people engage in the association’s website and social media platforms.

Heuer said most recently the association has been conducting ZOOM sessions to answer parents’ home education questions. COVID-19 concerns, he said, is prompting people who were considering it in the past to make the change this year, while others are exploring the option for the first time. 

“Homeschool is a family lifestyle change and we tell them they have to make their own family choices,” he said. “They can file for an approval now and change their minds before it’s time to send them to school.”

Ashtyn Patraw of Webster has made an application to home school for the first time this fall.

“After careful consideration, correspondence with our school, St. Joseph School in Webster, and hearing the current planning information provided by the state, my husband and I both decided that school just would not be a place we were comfortable sending our daughter,” she said. “We feel that masks and social distancing guidelines within schools will have detrimental effects on the mental and emotional wellbeing of our children. The threat of more cancellations and distance learning also was a huge factor.”

Patraw said St. Joseph plans to use fogging machines, disinfectants, masks, and hand sanitizers that she believes pose a “concerning threat to a child’s immune system.”

The Patraw’s daughter started her third year at St. Joseph last fall. When the pandemic closed schools in March, at home learning began. 

“Remote learning left a lot to be desired for us. We tried it for four weeks or so and it was just a mess. It ultimately ended with me purchasing my own curriculum, reviewing and finishing our daughter’s year entirely on my own,” she said.

The process for withdrawing from a parochial school differs from a public school in that Patraw made her home education application to a member of the town school department, who she said has been “very kind and helpful.” She expects a decision on her submitted plan in August.

Homeschooling doesn’t have to be an all or nothing educational path for children.

Some families, Heuer said, choose to home school their child through all or some of the 12 grades, while others may send one child to public school and educate a sibling at home. Then there is the “partial home schooling” where one or two subjects are taught at home and the remainder at school.

“Once you choose homeschooling you can go back to public school anytime,” he said.

For Amy Stanley of Charlton, homeschooling the past two years was a family decision.

“It was my daughter’s request since elementary school, but due to the wonderful school system in Charlton we felt she was receiving an adequate learning experience and education,” she said. “We waited till 7th grade to homeschool. We wanted to make sure she had a strong academic foundation before looking into a homeschool curriculum.”

Although her decision two years ago didn’t include health concerns brought about by a pandemic, Stanley said she has heard from many parents that they plan to homeschool if their child is required to wear face masks. 

“The Dudley-Charlton Regional School District made the process to homeschool rather simple to do. Their requirements were clear and easy to understand and reporting progress reports were easy to do,” she said. “My daughter was allowed to attend any school function she’d like, such as field trips.” 

The Stanleys homeschooled their daughter through Grades 7 and 8. She will be attending Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton this fall. 

Dudley-Charlton Regional educates roughly 3,800 students. Superintendent Steven Lamarche said the Stanleys were among 24 applications approved for homeschooling this past academic year.

As for the upcoming year, Lamarche said, “We’ve had more inquiries about homeschooling, but we haven’t had an official uptick in formal requests.”

In a 2017 report, the U.S. Department of Education said homeschooling was growing in popularity with about 3 percent of U.S. children ages 5 through 17, or roughly 1.7 million students, being homeschooled at that time.

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to up those numbers.

Massachusetts law says children shall attend a public or private day school each year or receive advance approval from the residing school system’s administration for a home education program.

Maura Mahoney approves homeschooling plans for the Worcester Public Schools, where about 25,000 students are educated.

Roughly 105 Worcester families made applications to homeschool 65 students this past school year.

As for the upcoming school year, Mahoney said, “I’ve certainly had more calls for new plans. There is no deadline for parents to submit their plan. They can submit at any point.”

Parents are asked to detail the proposed instructional program to be taught at home, including subjects and materials, such as the textbooks. 

The proposed instructor must provide their academic background, life experience and qualifications as it relates to the program being taught. 

To ensure a child attains minimum learning standards, an end-of-year submittal must give evidence, such as standardized test results, daily logs, journals, progress reports and dated work samples. 

In the Worcester school system, home-taught children may participate in the annual standardized achievement testing. 

As for athletics, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has ruled that homeschoolers may join their residing school’s sports teams, but individual school systems decide if they will allow it. In Worcester, homeschooled students are eligible to participate in school sports if there is availability. 

So how do homeschooled children fare beyond high school?

Parents and students from the home-schooling community say the nontraditional method yields teens who are more independent and better prepared for college life.

According to college admissions counseling group College Transitions, standardized test scores are more important for homeschoolers than for traditional high school students entering college. The good news is a study found that homeschooled students outscore their peers by an average of 72 points on the SAT. And, once accepted to college, the graduation rate for homeschooled students is 67 percent, nine points higher than the 58 percent for traditionally schooled teens.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education says anecdotal feedback from the first generation of homeschooled students, who are now adults, indicates that those who were homeschooled responsibly do well in college and professional life.