So much of Abrome’s approach to the year has been influenced by Covid-19 and the challenges of bringing people together safely in ways that don’t put the welfare of the members of our community at risk, and in ways that do not contribute to the spread of a pandemic that has destroyed the lives of so many. Our focus on taking care of others led us to spend our days outdoors, where we continue to build community and practice Self-Directed Education.

What we offered before the pandemic was already difficult for most families to wrap their head around: ‘No curriculum, no classes, no testing or grading, and no age based rankings … but how will they learn to be successful?’ It was no surprise that in non-pandemic times we were unlikely to convince people that children cannot not learn; that they are always learning; that it is the medium in which that learning takes place that provides the real learning; and that prioritizing autonomy, play, and community is the surest way to providing a meaningful education that can prepare them to contribute and improve the human condition.

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Our focus on community centers on the child, but extends to those outside our community

During the pandemic we imagined that families who had been apprehensive about letting go of the illusion of schooling as necessary would finally let go. We have had so many families look into Abrome over the past few years who said that they knew that Abrome was what was best for their children, but at the end of the day they said they just could not trust themselves to let go of their fears that their kids would miss out in some way if they were not in a conventional (public or private) school setting. They knew Abrome was what was best for their kids, but they just couldn’t let go. I thought the pandemic (and recession, and uprising) would surely be enough to help families recognize the value of life, the value of time, and the necessity for their children to be able to have a sense of control over their lives.

Yet in many ways the pandemic has, counterintuitively from my perspective, made it more difficult for families to join Abrome. First, the fears for their children’s future financial security have been amplified. They can see that tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, and that most Americans are financially worse off now than they were one year ago. But they also see that a tiny sliver of society is profiting handsomely from the pandemic. Even a year ago there was a general sense that the future of society was going to be broken down into a small number of (economic) winners and a large mass of losers, and the pandemic has only made the ratio greater, and seem all that more daunting. The illusion of schooling as the way to end up on the right side of the ratio becomes more powerful the more lopsided the ratio becomes.

Second, our Covid-19 protocols have made it even harder for many families to get comfortable with Abrome. In response to the pandemic we took everything outdoors, in physically distant small groups (cells), and we wear masks around each other. We have expectations of each other in terms of the risk that each household exposes themselves to outside of Abrome, and in terms of communicating with us about that risk. Our approach to the pandemic assumes that there could be an infected person in the community at any time and that we must act in a way that minimizes the risk of them spreading the disease within our community, or out into the broader community. And that approach can seem a bit much to anyone who does not believe the pandemic is that dangerous, or who is focused more on their willingness to take the personal risk of contracting Covid-19 than their risk of contributing to the spread of the disease.

Third, logistically, the pandemic has limited the number of people who can join our community. Because we are separated into cells of seven Learners or less, we can only bring on Learners when there is space available, and we can only grow by growing the number of Facilitators we have on the team. If we have two Facilitators we can accommodate 14 Learners. If we have three Facilitators we can accommodate 21 Learners. But finding the right Facilitator is difficult as they need to trust and respect kids, be committed to anti-oppression and liberation, and be excited about being outdoors all day with young people. Fortunately, I believe our current team of Facilitators form a great foundation to build upon. Another logistical constraint is our need for prospective Learners to shadow. We are unique among most education communities in requiring Learners to shadow for five days so that everyone can make an informed decision as to whether the community, the prospective Learner, and the prospective family are a good fit for each other. There also needs to be enough room in a cell to accommodate shadowers (and if there are siblings they cannot be broken up between cells as that compromises the integrity of the cells). This required shadow period coupled with our three week on, one week off schedule creates challenges for many families, and pushes many to choose alternatives that provide a more immediate alternative.

Lastly, although our protocols that have made it easier for us to more safely be together in person for the first few months of this academic year, they are also going to make it harder for us to be together as the pandemic continues to ramp up. In Travis County (where Abrome is located) we started the year in stage level three. For most schools they started the year either remote (zoom schooling), in-person but socially detached (masked up, not allowed to interact with each other because they were inside), or in-person and unwilling to abide by the most basic practices that prevent the spread of the disease (mask optional, no or unenforced distancing measures). We got to be safer while also being together. But as Travis County went to stage four last Friday, we stuck to our protocols and made one of the cells go remote. And as Travis County quickly moves toward stage five, we are preparing to support our Learners by going fully remote.

Local parents demanding that schools fully reopen during the pandemic

Local parents demanding that schools fully reopen during the pandemic

Yet, while we hold fast to our commitments, we have noticed a near universal relaxing of standards for schools. Some of it has been driven by business and political interests who want employees to have available childcare so they can go to work. Some of it has been driven by pandemic fatigue where people shift their notions of risk for convenience as the pandemic wears them down. And some of it has been driven by parents who are demanding that the schools relax their approach to the pandemic, whether for reasons of Covid skepticism, because they want their kids to be able to be with their friends again, or because they think that their kids are losing at the game of schooling due to pandemic practices. This shift means that although Abrome was more easily able to bring Learners together at lower levels of risk than the conventional schools were able to; we will be partially or fully remote when the pandemic is at its worst; while students, teachers, and staff will continue to congregate indoors, with loosened pandemic practices, at many conventional schools. And as we get more stringent in our practices as the pandemic becomes worse, many others, including much of the mass media, are arguing that schools should take on more risk. It makes Abrome a harder sell to families who may want to join as we approach what may be the peak of the pandemic.

There are people who believe in Self-Directed Education who don’t believe Covid-19 is something to take seriously. They may have considered joining Abrome in non-pandemic times, but they are not going to choose Abrome now. There are people who believe Covid-19 is something to take seriously but don’t believe in Self-Directed Education. They have never considered Abrome and never will (unless something happens that causes them to prioritize autonomy for their children). And there are people who believe Covid-19 is something to take seriously and that Self-Directed Education is necessary for their kids. These are the ones most likely to join Abrome during this pandemic, but this group is also small, and the ones who have the flexibility within their lives to make the move to Abrome makes the group even smaller.

When I started Abrome I was committed to staying true to child autonomy, anti-oppression, and community care. I knew that if I wanted to grow I could have introduced aspects of schooling into Abrome such as “core skills” time where Learners were expected to work on mathematics or language arts, or I could have forced Learners to produce projects that would make parents feel comfortable because they could see a tangible representation of learning, whether or not the learning contributed to the development of the child. But I also knew if I focused on making anxious parents feel comfortable by subjecting their children to schoolishness, that we would become just another school that harmed children. And during this pandemic I knew that if I wanted to grow Abrome I could have simply said that masks were optional, and that we could come together indoors for reasons of comfort and perceived normalcy. Or that I could say that we will loosen our protocols and continue to meet in-person despite the heightened degree of community spread. But I also knew that doing so would put the health and welfare of our Learners, our Facilitators, their households, and everyone that they came into contact with at risk. And that by doing so, we would also be putting broader society at risk. And that doing so would signal to those within our community that growth was more important than doing what was best for everyone in society, whether they are members of our community or not, whether they believe that Covid-19 is a dangerous disease or not, and whether they are committed to the welfare of people they do not know or not.