Concerns over exposure to the coronavirus, excessive screen time, and instability in school schedules have driven an unprecedented number of parents to home school their children this academic year-a shift that could have lasting effects on both public schools and the home-schooling movement.
Nine percent of parents who weren't home schooling their children last school year said they planned to home school their children at least some of the time this school year, according to a nationally representative survey of parents by the EdWeek Research Center.
Typically, a little over 3 percent of the nation's school-age children are home-schooled in a given year, federal data show.
Home schooling in response to the pandemic is driving enrollment declines in schools and districts across the country, according to a majority of principals and superintendents surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center. Fifty-eight percent in a mid-October survey listed home schooling as being a major contributor to enrollment declines caused by COVID-19-more than any other single reason, such as losing students to charter schools, private schools, or "pandemic pods" in which families band together to hire instructors who teach their children at home.
Among this new class of home schoolers is Lacy Nadeau of Lincoln, Neb. She and her 10-year-old son, West, are at high risk for health complications from the coronavirus. West started 4th grade this year in his school district's remote-learning program. But for West, being on Zoom and silently watching his teacher work with classmates attending school in-person was both isolating and a slog.
"At the end of the day, all of us would have to take a nap because we'd all be exhausted from holding it together all day long," Nadeau said. "It kind of feels like the school board picked something that isn't really workable and isn't functioning, but the failure ends up being on the children."
About a month into the school year, she withdrew her son to home school him, and she's not alone.
Nebraska is one of several states reporting a sharp increase in the number of students home schooling this year. So much so that this will be the first time in at least 15 years that enrollment in Nebraska public schools will have declined-a drop state education officials have said corresponds with the number of new home schoolers. Nebraska private schools have also seen a dip in enrollment.
Even so, it's difficult to quantify exactly how much home schooling has increased nationally with the pandemic. Even in normal times, home schoolers are a difficult bunch to track. States define and track home-school enrollment differently, if at all, and there is a lag in the federal home-schooling numbers.
But other states besides Nebraska have reported significant increases in families saying they plan to home school, even as official tabulations have yet to be released.
In North Carolina, more than 10,000 new families filed notices of their intent to home school between the beginning of July and the end of August this year, compared to just over 3,500 during the same time period last year.
On the first day that North Carolina families could file online with the state to home school, the system crashed from the traffic, according to the Associated Press. The state agency that oversees home schooling said the increase in notices filed may have been the result of some parents being confused about whether they needed to register as home schoolers in order to participate in their public school's remote learning option.
Wisconsin is another state reporting a spike in parents and guardians filing with the state their intent to homeschool. For the previous two years, intent to home school forms were submitted for about 14,800 students between the beginning of July and mid-October. This year the number was just over 23,000.
"Every one of my counterparts [in neighboring districts] indicated they have seen a decline in enrollment, and the majority of it is home school," said Eric Runez, who leads the DeForest Area school district, which is in a suburb of Madison, Wis. The district started school remotely this academic year but began bringing its youngest students back to school under a hybrid schedule last month.
"Some of it is going to private school because private schools were fully opened. But I think home school has probably been the biggest reason for enrollment decline," he said.
While only about 50 students left DeForest schools, a district of nearly 4,000 students, to start home schooling this year, it marks the first time in nearly a decade that enrollment in the district has declined, said Runez.
DeForest has also seen a big drop-between 15 and 20 percent, he estimates-in the number of new families enrolling in kindergarten compared to previous years.
Even a comparatively small number of families opting to home school can squeeze districts' finances, said Runez.
"It's rarely clean enough that you can say, 'Oh, they are all 1st graders, that's a full 1st grade class.' It's probably three or four or five a grade level and you're still running typically the same number of courses and classes," said Runez. "You still have many fixed costs. ... You lose 20 students in your high school, but your utility costs are still the same."
Runezsaid that the fact that Wisconsin awards per-pupil funding on a three-year rolling average, and that his district had been until this year a consistently growing one, somewhat insulates DeForest from the worst financial impacts of losing enrollment.
But for some districts, per-pupil declines, coupled with cutbacks from the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, may be a "double whammy" for their finances, said Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University.
Lubienski, who studies home schooling, said the pandemic could give a long-lasting boost to the movement. While he believes many families that opted to home school this year will eventually return to public school, he thinks the United States will see a permanent increase in the number of home schoolers even after the pandemic ends.
That's "partly because people who haven't really thought about it before suddenly saw themselves forced into [home schooling], and then realizing that it's something they can see themselves doing," he said.
According to Education Week's survey, which was conducted at the beginning of the academic year, the less education and income parents had, the more likely they were to say they were home schooling this year. Twelve percent of parents whose highest level of education is less than a bachelor's degree said they are home schooling their children at least some of the time this school year, compared to 5 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or more.
Twelve percent of parents whose children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch said they are home schooling, compared to 5 percent of parents whose children do not qualify for reduced meals.
"Because of the pandemic crisis, some people ... may have lost their job anyways, so educating at home becomes much more possible," said Lubienski.
He also thinks home schooling will become more mainstream and socially acceptable, now that so many people are getting experience with schooling their own children from home-whether it's through traditional home schooling or overseeing their children's remote schooling.
And finally, Lubienski said, the influx of home schoolers from the pandemic will likely alter the profile of the home-schooling movement.
The two dominant stereotypes of home schoolers for a long time have been the conservative Christian parent and the anti-institutional progressive parent.
But over the past decade, said Lubienski, the home-schooling sector has been diversifying. In particular, more Black parents have opted to school their children at home because of racism in their public schools.
"I think that faced with this new reality it will diversify it even more," said Lubienski. "It's not just people with those two stereotypical reasons for home schooling. It's people who are seeing that this is a new option for themselves."
To accommodate families who are finding that they like the flexibility of schooling their kids at home, Runez, the superintendent in Wisconsin, said his district is considering making their remote option permanent.
Runez is confident most of his home-schooling families will come back to the district. He reached out to every family that withdrew from DeForest Area schools to hear their reasons for doing so. He found they were mostly worried about either getting sick, their children getting too much screen time, and the whiplash of going back to school only to be sent home again if an outbreak occurred-all issues that will be resolved once the pandemic is over.
For other parents, though, poor planning and dysfunction in their school districts drove them to take the plunge and home school.
Jenny Walsh, of Williamsville, N.Y., outside Buffalo, has three children: Hudson, a 3rd grader, Theo, a 1st grader, and Charlotte, a preschooler (who Walsh has decided to wait to enroll in kindergarten until next year, when she's 6).
Walsh, a stay-at-home mother with a master's degree in special education, started preparing to home school her children this summer, after she saw how education was handled in her district in the spring. But she enrolled her children in remote education this fall, just to make sure it was their decision as well.
"After the first week, they decided, heck yeah, home school is way better," Walsh said.
Williamsville, a district of about 10,000 students, was in such disarray over its remote learning plan that the school board voted unanimously to place the superintendent on a leave of absence. Days before the school year was to start, the superintendent said that all students in grades 5-12 would have to be fully remote and he delayed the start to the year for students in those grades because there weren't enough teachers to instruct them. The district had undergone a wave of resignations and requests for leave among teachers and other staff members.
Walsh's children were not directly impacted by those events. But it was still hard for her children to stay engaged with the instruction.
Home schooling offers "a faster pace of learning," Walsh said. In the remote classes, one of her sons would be finished with his work while other children were still trying to log on.
It also offers a "more relaxed, more engaged day. We can finish academics by 11, and have more time for interest-based learning," Walsh said.
Both Walsh and Nadeau, the mother in Nebraska, may be among those families that continue home schooling beyond the pandemic.
Walsh said she's "on the fence" about whether this will be a permanent change for her family. One potential benefit: Home schooling offers an opportunity for her family to live in another part of the region, rather than being tied to the suburbs for the schools.
"We're wondering what the schools will be like next year—will it be the same?" If so, they may stick with home schooling. "If it's back to normal, we may go back," she said.
The situation has changed her whole view of public education, said Walsh. Williamsville, an affluent suburb with involved parents, struggled, while it seemed that less-resourced districts nearby had better plans and a more invested school administration, she said.
"Lots of funding doesn't make a difference when the leadership isn't willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of leading," she said. The district currently has an acting superintendent.
Nadeau said she isn't so sure she'll send her son back to his public school, especially as she makes connections with other parents who can offer an outlet for safe social interactions.
"Today West got to go to the zoo with another family and mine. It was wonderful and it wasn't something he was getting from school," Nadeau said.