Susie Felt says she and her husband, Zach, never really thought about homeschooling their kids before.

Products of public education themselves, the couple sent their oldest child, daughter Nora, to kindergarten at Roosevelt Elementary School last year. They planned to have their middle child, Lucas, follow suit this year, and figured their youngest, Isaiah, would eventually go there, too.

An in-home daycare provider, Felt was happy in her work. She was contributing a nice chunk of change to the family’s household income, she says, and she was recently named Becker County Day Care Provider of the Year. She had no reason to think about leaving her job.

Then the pandemic hit.

Schools closed last spring to help stop the spread of COVID-19, and the school district went into full-time distance learning mode. As it became more and more obvious that the virus would be stretching through this school year, they began to wonder how the learning environment at the schools might be impacted.

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They had a lot of questions, and a lot of concerns. They started to weigh all their options -- and, after much mulling and research, decided to try homeschooling.

The Felt family is one of about 30 families in Detroit Lakes that are newly homeschooling this year. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
The Felt family is one of about 30 families in Detroit Lakes that are newly homeschooling this year. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

“We thought about it and prayed about it over a long period of time, and came to the conclusion that we would try it, and God would provide for us no matter what,” Felt said. “It was definitely a leap of faith. And it was definitely a hard decision. I think every parent has had to come up with decisions, and it’s been hard for everyone.”

The Felts are one of about 30 Detroit Lakes area families that are newly homeschooling this year compared to last, presumably because of the pandemic and how social distancing rules have affected public schools.

Mark Jenson, superintendent of Detroit Lakes Public Schools, said there are 60 families homeschooling right now within the boundaries of the district, with 130 students -- twice as many as last year.

Felt says she knows several of these families, and as the school year approached, they were asking many of the same questions she was: Would there be a normal learning atmosphere for the kids at school? Would they have to wear masks all day? Would they be eating lunch at their desks? Would they get normal recess time? How would they handle the transitions between in-person, hybrid and distance learning models?

“There were so many unknowns,” Felt said.

Melissa Gullard, who has homeschooled her three daughters for the past few years, has fielded many of these same questions as the administrator of the Detroit Lakes MN Area Homeschoolers Facebook page. Membership on the page jumped by almost 30 new members “once the COVID stuff started exploding,” she said, with about four to five new people joining the site every day at its peak. The page has 202 members today.

First grader Nora Felt works on a math assignment at her home on Tuesday. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
First grader Nora Felt works on a math assignment at her home on Tuesday. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

“Once public schools said they weren’t going to come up with their plan right away, I was getting messages and having to direct parents all over the place,” Gullard said. “They didn’t know what to do. Some had high schoolers, some had preschoolers; it was all ages.”

Some of these families were planning to homeschool only temporarily, until the virus subsides, she said, while others intend to stick with it for longer, possibly all the way through their kids’ graduations.

That’s what the Felts think they might do. Though they went into the school year with no idea how it’d go, Susie Felt said the first couple weeks have “been going awesome” -- so much so that now, “I’m leaning towards hopefully this being a long-term thing for my family, whether there’s a pandemic or not.”

Her kids are “excited to start school every day,” she said, and she likes being able to choose her own curriculum and set her own class schedule. She typically starts the day with a Christian devotion and then spends the morning teaching, from about 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. It’s a “relaxed atmosphere” and “if the kids are getting antsy, we can go outside and play."

This flexible schedule has worked well for the kids, as well as for Felt and her husband, as it means she can spend a few afternoons every week helping him run his business, Lumbros Building Solutions, which he opened about a year ago. On those afternoons, their kids stay at the house with a child care provider who is operating out of Felt’s former daycare space.

“I have a separate child care entrance and area at my home,” Felt explained. “When I made this decision (to homeschool), I was just standing in my child care space one day, and I felt sad that there would no longer be kids in there.”

Knowing there’s a great need for child care in the area, and wanting to keep her space useful, she offered it to another provider. So her in-home daycare is still there, it’s just being led by someone else. Felt can pop over and visit the daycare kids whenever she wants, and she also benefits by having care right there for her own kids when needed.

“So that has been another thing that has just kind of worked out,” she said.

Because of her experience in child care, Felt was relatively comfortable with the transition into homeschooling -- especially since her kids are so young yet -- but said she still had some reservations and a lot of questions. Finding a curriculum, for example, was “overwhelming” at first.

She found support and resources online and from other homeschooling parents. She joined some homeschooling Facebook groups, as well as the local LACHE group (Lakes Area Christian Home Educators), which organizes shared activities for homeschooling families in the region.

The group holds hikes at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, for example, and Friday play dates at the park. They have a combined band, and a choir, and get together for things like holiday parties, said Gullard, who often takes part in LACHE activities: “Socialization is so important. We’re definitely not ‘stay at home’ home-schoolers. Indoor activities may have slowed down a little because of COVID, but there have been a lot of outdoor activities.”

Though it's still early in the school year, Susie Felt said she's enjoying homeschooling and it's working well for her family. She thinks she may keeping doing it even after the pandemic subsides. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Though it's still early in the school year, Susie Felt said she's enjoying homeschooling and it's working well for her family. She thinks she may keeping doing it even after the pandemic subsides. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

Felt said she’s learning not to put too much pressure on herself or her kids, and is figuring out how to incorporate learning experiences into everyday routines, such as by turning grocery store price tags into simple math lessons, or bringing fallen leaves inside to examine under a microscope.

Like most parents right now, Felt said, she’s taking it one day at a time, just trying to do what works best for her and her family. The pandemic has put parents in a tough spot, she said, and she recognizes that what works for her family wouldn’t necessarily work for everybody.

“I think everyone’s doing the best they can and trying to figure out what the best action for their family is,” she said. “It’s hard for everyone, no matter what we’ve chosen for our families.”