'During COVID I Saw It Was Possible': More Israeli Parents Opt for Homeschooling

Israel has no history of homeschooling, but COVID-19 is pushing parents to reconsider

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Maya Avraham and her daughters at their home in Ramat Gan, November 2020.
Maya Avraham and her daughters at their home in Ramat Gan, November 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Maya Avraham, a mother of three girls from Ramat Gan, started thinking about home schooling three years ago, when her eldest was in day care. “I met parents who were doing it and looked into it,” she remembers. After deliberating, she decided not to leave the regular system. “It was convenient that she had a framework and I could move forward in my own business,” she says.

But COVID-19 reshuffled the family deck. “Circumstances changed,” she tells Haaretz. Her husband, a machine engineer, started working from home. “He’s busy, but his presence helps,” Avraham says. The couple discovered that correctly allocating their time allowed them to be at home with their daughters, school them and work as well. “I reconsidered home schooling and found that it was still relevant,” explains Avraham.

At the end of the first lockdown, the girls returned to school and day care. This time around, with day care centers and elementary schools reopening, the family decided to try home schooling, at least for a trial period. The youngest girls, 2 and 5, returned to day care while second-grader Lea remained at home. “We’re still deliberating,” says Avraham.

The Avraham family is not an exception. Sources in the Education Ministry say that there has been a sharp spike, almost twice the normal levels, in requests for permits for home schooling. One cautious estimate puts the number at 2,000, compared to 1,100 last year. In 2006, only 100 such permits were given.

So far, 968 permits have been granted since the beginning of the school year. The discrepancy between that number and the estimate stems from data being updated slowly and the chaos caused by the pandemic. Many requests are still under review, says the ministry. “In recent weeks, there has been a steady stream of requests. Many parents admit that this is due to the coronavirus,” says a ministry source. In the past, these came from independent-minded parents or those who were displeased with the schools their children attended – and especially schools for children with special needs. The pandemic augmented the dissatisfaction. “This is a sign of weakness in the school system,” the source says.

Preparing a plan for home schooling is connected to a family’s higher socioeconomic status, which may underlie the unofficial opposition to this trend among ministry officials.

Good achievements

Along with public and private schools, home schooling is accepted as another option. In a report prepared last year by Dr. Gil Gertel for the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, he notes that despite partial data, there is a clear trend of increased home schooling. Gertel says it’s difficult to reliably assess the results of such schooling, but several studies indicate that home-schooled students have better or equal achievements compared to students in regular schools. This may have to do with the greater involvement of parents in schooling their children. Most of the data comes from the U.S., where home schooling is more common among white and affluent families.

After a few months of home schooling during the pandemic, Avraham says that being home together has already improved family dynamics. “Our middle daughter, who used to be impatient, has calmed down. The girls started studying out of interest and curiosity. For example, we studied the solar system, and my eldest daughter found a movie on how the earth was crated on Google. She watched it and explained to us what she had learned.”

Avraham emphasizes that she has nothing against their school (“It’s amazing,” she says). She wants her daughter to stay in touch with her teacher by phone, and the teacher still devotes time to her. “During COVID I saw that it was possible and that I could raise and educate them the way I see fit,” she says. Although her daughter’s school stresses emotional and social aspects, she believes that schools don’t give students important life skills. “Even though they are in a social framework all the time, ultimately a child can’t face an audience, express a position or take initiative,” she explains.

Maya Avraham and her daughter at their home in Ramat Gan, November 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

In the meantime, she’s taking her time before making a final decision. “I have no idea where we’ll be next month. I like home schooling, but my daughter likes her friends and teacher. I know that taking her out of school will remove her from all that. She fits into that framework and studies well, but something is missing at school.”

Another mother of two elementary-aged children in central Israel says that she’s concluded that home schooling could work for them. She applied for a permit a few weeks ago. “In the months when the schools were closed, we found that we could mobilize and set up a routine. There was a schedule, somewhat flexible, with a lot of room for topics that interested the children. I know we’re at the beginning of the process, but we’ve learned to love home schooling.”

Y.’s younger son, a fourth-grader, hasn’t gone to school since the coronavirus broke out last year. In August, the family, who lives in Jerusalem, applied for the required permit. “My husband and I grew up overseas and we’ve always felt that schools here didn’t suit us,” says Y. “Where we grew up, there was room for humanistic subjects like literature, history, geography. Here they stress technology and math, subjects that will be useful in life. I think the childhood years are an opportunity to expand general studies and grow as human beings.” Home schooling became essential during the pandemic. “For years I worked outside the city and the children had babysitters,” says Y. “I always felt I was missing something. Now I had an opportunity to be with them and share my knowledge.” When schools reopened in May, she decided to continue home schooling her younger boy. Together, they go well beyond the official curriculum.

“Some people never thought of this option before and now it’s possible,” says Limor Liberman, who runs a Facebook page on home schooling and gives advice to parents who show an interest in it. Her four children have been home schooled for years. “We’re so programed to think one way, and now everyone is wondering why they didn’t think of it before. They’re finding that when you dispense with formal demands and the obligation to study, the kids have more space.”

At the beginning of the second lockdown, Liberman said that dozens of parents approached her. “Many families had thought about it, but the lockdown pushed them in that direction. The pandemic showed people the advantages. Suddenly they opened up to that option,” she says adding that the choice is not a whim but a weighty decision that brings a significant change in a family’s life.

Coronavirus as an excuse

For some people, health concerns led to changes in their worldview. Roni, almost 6, had been at home since the end of the first lockdown. He returned to kindergarten when it reopened, but his parents believed that safety precautions weren’t being followed there and took him out again. Since then, they’ve all been home, with the health concerns making way for a new way of life.

“Since we started home schooling, the coronavirus became an excuse,” says his mother Shani. “We saw that it suits us much better. We’ve combined his interest in geography with learning reading and arithmetic.” They haven’t applied for a permit yet, and Roni still meets his friends at kindergarten once a week, when they meet outdoors. He doesn’t miss kindergarten on other days.” The change gave the family a new-found freedom. “We have new options of where to live once we don’t take schools into consideration,” she says.

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