Some McHenry County families have started home schooling because of COVID-19 mask mandate
Despite past hassles of attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jessica Clements and Kalyn Macchia said they never seriously considered pulling their kids out of public education before this year.
But the two McHenry County mothers of school-aged children decided to take the leap, they said, in part because of the statewide school mask mandate Gov. J.B. Pritzker imposed as mitigation effort to curb the spread of the deadly disease.
So far, with the first day of school in their respective local school districts having come and past, they said they have no regrets. Their kids are on board, too, Clements and Macchia said.
"With home schooling, socialization looks a lot more normal right now than it does at schools," said Macchia, whose second-grader and third-grader had attended Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 until this month.
She said she felt the required mask use and social distancing protocols to prevent COVID-19 transmission in place at schools last year and for the upcoming year have been -- and would continue to be -- sources of consternation for her kids.
As COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant have mounted in the state and across the country this summer, the idea of whether students, faculty and staff should be required to wear masks in school has been a source of intense controversy in Illinois and elsewhere. Parents on both sides of the issue packed school boards and held rallies throughout the state as local education leaders were deciding whether to require masks in school buildings this academic year.
Faced with the mounting cases and varying local coronavirus mitigation policies, Pritzker announced in early August that he was imposing a school mask requirement when students returned to school because "far too few school districts" had imposed such requirements. Pritzker's decision has been met with continued controversy as some parents throughout the state protested and have sued him over the policy.
Macchia said she was convinced to transition them into a home-schooling curriculum partially by hearing from Leslee Dirnberger, the founder and president of Aspire Educational Consultants based in Barrington Hills, at a meeting Dirnberger held with other local families in recent weeks to inform them of academic options outside public schools.
Dirnberger's consultancy, according to its website, helps families get started with home-schooling routines and explore educational paths without using traditional school systems.
Dirnberger said she has held meetings and webinars attended by hundreds of McHenry County families over the past month who now are considering home schooling.
"They're fed up with the mask mandates," Dirnberger said. "What's happening is and what I'm seeing is that parents are wanting to know what are my options. They feel trapped. In this country, that should not happen. Parents should never feel trapped."
A new Axios/Ipsos poll conducted between Aug. 13 and 16 found that almost 70% of those surveyed favor local school districts requiring masks in schools.
Clements, a resident of McHenry Elementary District 15 with three school-aged boys -- 10-year-old Myles, 7-year-old Gavin and 4-year-old Dayne who will start prekindergarten learning at home this year -- said the mask requirement was not the only reason she and her husband, Jon Clements, felt the urge to try home schooling, she said.
When Pritzker announced his executive order on masks this month, Clements felt she the mandate "was just affirming everything inside."
The Clements family said their fifth-grader, Myles, started falling behind academically last year when remote learning was the main educational delivery method. Both she and her husband felt home schooling would offer a more consistent academic experience than last year's multiple transitions between remote, hybrid and in-person learning schedules.
Both the Clements family and Macchia said they would be unlikely to send their kids back to school this year if the mask mandate gets lifted, as they want to give a full year of home schooling a try.
But they may send their kids back to public schools if the masks are not required for the 2022-23 school year, they said, if their children want.
The number of students who are learning in a home-school environment each year is not tracked by state or local education officials, so it is difficult to gain a comprehensive picture of the number of newly home-schooled students this year.
But Tim Dempsey, the truancy officer for the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, estimates fewer students are in home schools this year than last year. He gets notified by school districts at the start of each year if a student who was enrolled last year does not show up to the first day of school, and when he inquires with the families, he is sometimes told they have started home-schooling and haven't yet notified their school district.
Additionally, Dempsey has received about 20 calls from families in the past two weeks inquiring about home-schooling, he said.
While he has heard from some parents who wish remote learning could be extended to their students again this year or are concerned for their child's health with full school buildings with the ongoing pandemic, most people interested in home schooling now have issues with the mask requirements, he said.
Dempsey said he always encourages parents who begin home schooling to find and use online material and programming that has been recognized by education experts.