How the pandemic inspired some families to take school on the road

The pandemic revealed what veteran homeschoolers knew all along: There is more than one way to teach a child

Chelsea Forsythe was a teacher early in her career, ran a preschool out of her home and earned a master’s degree in education. The idea of homeschooling long percolated in the back of her mind, a backup plan in case of emergency.

That emergency came last fall as her kids returned to school. When the physical building reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown, the kids encountered drama about masks, drama about outbreaks, drama about how to safely do just about anything.

“Being a kid was pressure enough,” Chelsea says. “And to have to add that on top of it I was like, nope.”

Thus began the Forsythes’ foray into homeschooling. The reckoning over what kind of education Chelsea and her husband, John, wanted for their six kids turned into a reckoning about what kind of life they wanted.

Life is short. Did they really want to spend so much of it on Zoom? If education doesn’t have to be done in a school, does life have to be done in a house? 

“Why are we just stuck in this home, stuck in this hamster wheel?” Chelsea wondered.

If ever there was a time to get off of that wheel, this was it. John, who has an MBA, sensed the time was no longer right for the family business venture he had embarked upon and decided to change course. Meanwhile, the housing market boomed, and their neighbor sold their house for a big number. 

An idea — strange, exciting, bold — coalesced in their minds. They called a family meeting to discuss it. Their children, now ages two to 14, gathered around the dinner table in their Richfield, Utah, home to hear a bombshell: Mom and Dad wanted to become roadschoolers. That is, they wanted to buy a pickup truck and trailer, travel the country full time, and hold class along the way. 

It did not go over well.

What about school? the kids asked. What about friends? And dance lessons and music lessons and chess club?

John and Chelsea countered with questions of their own: Of the places you’ve seen in movies and TV, which do you want to visit? What experiences do you want to have? What’s on your bucket list?

Eventually the kids flipped from worried about what they’d miss if they embraced roadschooling to worrying about what they’d miss if they didn’t.

Together the family cooked up a plan to visit all the lower 48 states, every temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and each national park. It seemed like a dream, even as the Forsythes put their house on the market, even as they sold it, even as they bought a used truck and a 400-square-foot, fifth-wheel trailer, packed as many books as they could fit, and hit the road.

“When we actually drove away,” Chelsea says, “we were like, ‘We’re really doing this. This is it.’”

Homeschooling exploded during the pandemic, both in interest and in practice. As a homeschool dad, I watched this with a benevolent smirk. Suddenly we weren’t just a bunch of cloistered weirdos.

Brian Ray, director of the National Home Education Research Institute, says the number of homeschool students roughly doubled from March 2019 (2.5 million) to March 2021 (4.5 to 5 million). A Census Bureau study of the number of households with homeschooled children found similar growth: from 5.4% at the start of spring 2020 to 11.1% at the start of fall 2020.

Granted it’s one thing to teach your kids at home and quite another to teach them on the road. But roadschooling is a subset of home schooling, and both start from the same place: dissatisfaction with the education system. The pandemic revealed what veteran homeschoolers knew all along: There is more than one way to teach a child. 

Nobody collects roadschooling data, but Fulltime Families, a membership organization serving families who live in RVs, started a roadschooling branch in 2016 and now has nearly 1,000 members. Anecdotal evidence suggests roadschooling has grown in the last two years as families reassessed their lives. The allure goes beyond untethering from the drudgery of modern life. It gives families a chance to create indelible memories, moments possible only when you get away from screens and start taking what you want out of life instead of letting life take what it wants out of you.

For Rachel Raum, whose family has been roadschooling for more than three years, one of those moments came when strangers plopped themselves “elbow deep” in mud to push her stuck trailer.

For Kaylee Techau, who is in her second year of roadschooling with her husband and two children, it was a trip to Space Center Houston, where interactive exhibits absorbed her kids for nine hours. Nine hours. 

“There’s something about the freedom of not having to be anywhere at any certain time,” Chelsea Forsythe says, “not even knowing what day of the week it is, getting confused on what state or where we’re even at, that just makes you embrace and slow down and reconnect with your kids.”

These are my people. My wife and I homeschooled our two kids until this year, and I admire people who take big swings at life. So I sometimes daydream about roadschooling. I’ll let the rental contract on my house in suburban St. Louis expire, buy a truck, a trailer and a goofy driving hat, and chase adventure. Those aspirations tempt me, now more than ever. 

But as enticing as that lifestyle appears, especially on social media, I know Instagram lies by omission. Budgeting is hard enough with fixed costs like mortgages and home insurance. It’s harder when trucks break down and trailers fall apart. If a family member isn’t handy with power tools, you’ll pay thousands to someone who is.

And the day-to-day challenges? My family of four crowds one another in our 1,500-square-foot home. In a trailer, the bathroom is close and the walls are thin. Privacy? There isn’t any.

Still, we’ve enjoyed small-batch roadschooling over the last six years on separate trips to Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Kansas and North Carolina, little tastes of the smorgasbord the Forsythes and their fellow roadschooling devotees have devoured. 

We plotted our trips much like D’Anne Lawley, a roadschooler from Texas, did with her husband and three kids: “Not with the intent of cramming knowledge down their throat, but experiences, and really filling them up with what the world has to offer.”

One dreary December day in 2020, my then-14-year-old and I hiked up a hill to Serpent Mound, a Native American burial site in Ohio. Gray clouds hung low, and mist covered everything in a glistening sheen. The grounds felt sacred, forbidden, as if we shouldn’t be there. 

We crested the summit. The grass rose in the shape of a snake eating an egg. My daughter shuddered. I saw concern in her eyes that had not been there when we got out of the car. “It’s creepy,” she said. We walked a lap around the 1,348-foot-long snake and were at a coffeeshop eight miles away before the unsettled feeling left her. 

I will never have to teach her what “mystical” means.

Moments like that show the greatest value of roadschooling: It gives parents control over their kids’ education. We were free to stay as long as we wanted, take as many laps as we wanted, and follow whatever conversation our visit prompted. With a class field trip, none of that is possible.

There are as many ways to teach while roadschooling as there are roadschoolers.

The Forsythes build some of their coursework through My Tech High, an online education company from which they customize a schedule for each child. The classroom can be anywhere — the table in the RV, the picnic table outside, the back seat of the Suburban. On those days, a good internet connection is crucial.

But the best days require zero internet, because who cares about connectivity when you’re snorkeling in the ocean at Dry Tortugas National Park (biology), hiking in the Grand Canyon (geology) or standing on a Civil War battlefield (history)?

The kids aren’t the only ones learning. At Gettysburg, John Forsythe reveled in awe at the size of it and the sacrifices made by soldiers there. He thought he knew Gettysburg from books, movies and documentaries, but seeing it firsthand was something else.

“Whether or not they won was a factor of whether or not guys decided to stay there and fight to the death, instead of abandoning that line,” he says. “You don’t get that until you stand there and go, whoa.”

Like many roadschoolers, the Forsythes belong to Thousand Trails, a membership program that allows them to stay at participating campgrounds for up to two weeks at a time. 

The family plots its travels by following the weather. Heading north last spring after spending the winter in Florida, Chelsea led the way in their silver Suburban, calling back to John if there was a low bridge or the GPS directions were wrong. John followed in their blue Dodge 3500 pickup, pulling the 44-foot trailer. They set out from South Carolina to Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina before, in early May, arriving in Virginia, where, there among the Appalachian Mountains, the family discovered a new addition to their bucket list.

The New River Gorge hadn’t yet fallen under the purview of the National Park Service when the Forsythes drew up their itinerary, but it was now, and they were so close to our nation’s newly minted, 63rd national park, they had to see it. 

They parked at the Endless Wall trailhead. Chelsea put Wyatt, 2, in the carrier on her back, and they all walked the hard-packed dirt trail. Skinny trees scratched the sky, their green tops shrouded in rainy haze. Bright pink rhododendron flowers cut through the mist. 

Suddenly the endless green gave way to a vast empty expanse. The earth just stopped and dropped straight down, as if the West Virginia mountaintop was a cake missing a piece.

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Stunned by the beauty, the Forsythes inched their way onto Diamond Point, an outcropping overlooking the New River Gorge. 

John and Blake, 14, lay on the rock, their faces over the edge, long legs splayed out behind them. Venice, 7, and Cassidy, 5, sat back from the edge, Cassidy with her knees to her chest, Venice with her legs crossed. Below, white foam on the river revealed the power of the rapids as the water rushed north. A rail line ran parallel to the river on the opposite side. 

“They sat there in silence, being quiet, and just looked,” Chelsea Forsythe says. “There was no talking, there wasn’t all the chaos of the world. We just got to enjoy the beauty and the shock and awe of the unexpected in that moment together.”

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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