Families dissatisfied with distance learning and being cooped up in their homes during a pandemic are loading up RVs and buses with textbooks and computers and heading out to see the country.
“Roadschooling,” a mobile version of homeschooling, has been a full-time lifestyle for many families prior to the coronavirus pandemic. But since Covid-19 concerns sent students and employees home to work remotely it has become an option for a new group of families who have found themselves untethered by an office or school.
A majority of the California families interviewed by EdSource say they decided to roadschool because they were dissatisfied with the distance learning provided by their children’s schools in the spring.
Such was the case for Aiden, 12 , Georgia, 11, and Graham, 5, who weren’t learning as much as they had when they were on campus for in-person instruction at their schools in Chico, said their mother, Keely Saner. Georgia attended Chico Oaks Adventist School, a private school, while her brothers went to Chico Country Day charter school.
One problem was the number of hours of Zoom conference calls that all the children, including then-preschooler Graham, had to attend each day.
“They were wasting a lot of time waiting for the teachers to rally all the kids,” Saner said. “I can get the same amount of schoolwork done in two to three hours. It was a quality of life decision. We wanted more quality of life and didn’t want the stress that distance learning brought.”
So over the summer she and her husband, Steve Saner, sold almost every possession they owned, including their home, and withdrew their children from school, purchased a 40-foot motorhome and set off across the country to roadschool.
The family was able to become full-time travelers because Steve Saner is a self-employed real-estate investor who can work remotely. Keely Saner is the children’s primary teacher.
No data on roadschooling exists to confirm that there has been an increase in the number of children being educated by their parents on the road since the pandemic started, but an internet search shows a plethora of websites, blogs and Facebook pages with posts from families who started roadschooling after the pandemic closed school campuses.
Robyn and Victor Robledo and their five children are the family behind the website Nomads with a Purpose, which offers tips, videos and resources for roadschooling families. Robyn Robledo said there has been increased interest in roadschooling over the last three years, but especially since schools began to close in the spring.
She attributes the increased popularity of roadschooling to more parents working remotely and to social media accounts of family’s roadschooling adventures.
“With social media, you heard more about it and all of sudden there was a community of support,” Robledo said. “People didn’t feel so crazy. Another sane family is doing it, so I can do it too.”
Tracking the number of roadschooling families has been made more difficult during the pandemic because some families have opted to continue distance learning programs offered by public schools while on the road and haven’t officially withdrawn their children from school, said Cara Candal, director of Educational Opportunity for ExcelinEd, a nonprofit organization focused on education reform.
Candal suspects most new roadschool families, who are not traditional homeschool families, will return to brick-and-mortar schools after they reopen and employees return to workplaces. Whether families continue roadschooling will depend on parents’ financial resources and job flexibility to educate their children while traveling across the country, she said.
The Saner family, which had already been considering homeschooling before the pandemic to avoid California’s vaccination mandates, plans to file a homeschool affidavit, which will allow them to register as a private school.
Homeschooling rules vary from state to state and roadschooling families are required to follow the homeschooling laws of their state of residence. In California, a parent can file a private school affidavit, choose a home study program through a traditional or charter public school, or they can enroll in a private school that offers homeschooling options.
Since the family left Chico they have traveled through Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri learning about the Wild West, The Civil War and World War II. They have visited the hot springs of Bozeman, Montana and fished in the nearby Gallatin River. Their favorite stop so far has been the Route of the Hiawatha trail, a former train route in Idaho. The scenic bike trail winds through 10 dark train tunnels, including the Taft Tunnel, which is 1.66 miles long.
“You could picture trains going through it a hundred years ago,” Keely Saner said.
“Everything we do is a learning experience,” she said. “They were also reading about miners of the early 1800s and people migrating to Idaho. We try to do an adventure each day. “
Saner said that in between adventures the family uses downtime to do math, language arts and other assignments. The family will continue to roadschool until they find a state they like enough to settle down in again, Saner said.
The appeal of roadschooling is that students can make connections between what they are reading about and what they are seeing during visits to parks, historical sites and museums, said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Oregon.
“They can read about government, then pop into a state capitol and meet legislators and see things,” he said. “That is so much more interesting.”
Not every family roadschools full-time. Rachel and Daniel Chioreanu of San Jose and their two sons Isaac, 11, and Julian, 9, packed a milk crate filled with school books in August and hit the road. The family, who were already homeschooling, decided to take advantage of Daniel Chioreanu’s ability to work remotely as a senior network engineer at Apple to roadschool part-time.
The family travel schedule depends on Daniel’s work schedule. They traveled full time from August to November this year, and now are taking shorter one-to-two-week trips until June when they have a long East Coast trip planned.
So far the kids learned about the battle between the U.S. Army’s 7th Calvary and the Lakotas and Cheyennes at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, Native American history at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the site of his death, and they mined for diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas.
Visiting national parks has been a big part of their educational journey. The family is taking advantage of the Every Kid Outdoors Program, which allows families with fourth-graders free access to federal parks.
“By focusing on this age group year after year, the program aims to ensure every child in the United States has the opportunity to visit their Federal lands and waters by the time he or she is 11 years old, thereby establishing a lifelong connection to enjoy and protect our American outdoor heritage,” according to the National Park Service website.
The program includes an online diary and maps to help families plan trips. Rangers at individual parks also hand out workbooks that students of all ages can use to learn more about the park during their visit, Rachel Chioreanu said.
“It has been really fun,” she said. “I think the government really wants people to get outdoors and just explore and appreciate the things we have in the country.”
When the family isn’t visiting a park or museum their mother reaches into the milk crate for the math and geography books. They focus on short lessons, including requiring the boys to read four pages about the state they are visiting that day. She likes to add context in other ways, like watching movies related to the places they visit.
“To be honest I think they are learning way more in this experience than they ever did in the classroom,” Chioreanu said. “Something I can do in a day with my kids would take two weeks in a classroom. If they get something, they are moving on. In a classroom they can wait for everyone else before moving on.”
Camden Pennington, 12, of San Diego, enjoys roadschooling, especially his family’s philosophy of exploring wherever the road takes them.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “I think my mom is making a good choice for me. I like it a lot.”
His parents, Shana and Bradley Pennington, took Camden and his sister Capri, 9, out of their school in Poway Unified School District at the end of last school year to avoid more distance learning. They started roadschooling in September.
The family’s travels have included quartz and silver mining in Arizona, as well as visits to the Kofa Wildlife Refuge in Yuma and London Bridge in Lake Havasu. They also have visited Emerald Cove along the Colorado River and followed Route 66 before heading to the Grand Canyon.
After Thanksgiving, they plan to travel through Tennessee to North Carolina and then to New York City and Las Vegas.
The family is on the waitlist for a charter school that will support homeschooling, but in the meantime has a California homeschool affidavit.
Shana Pennington has a few tips for would-be roadschoolers. “Be flexible and have a loose plan,” she said. “You don’t want to be limited. You meet so many great people and get so many good ideas.
We had no plan five days ago and now one of our friends is going to bring a boat up to Lake Havasu, so we decided to come up to Lake Havasu. Be brave. It’s not as difficult as people make it out to be.”