Katy Rene knew she didn’t want to send her 6-year-old into a classroom this year, given that she and her husband rely on their parents — who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus — to help care for their children while they work.
But Rene wasn’t excited by the prospect of her daughter spending hours in front of a screen for virtual learning, having watched her disengage during Zoom kindergarten classes this spring. So she decided to homeschool.
“It really is very flexible,” said Rene, who un-enrolled her child from the Pennridge School District in Bucks County.
The pandemic has driven an increasing number of parents around the region and the country to give new consideration to homeschooling, spurred by uncertainty about school schedules and aversion to virtual learning programs.
Tracking the growth of homeschooling is difficult. In Pennsylvania, officials say they don’t have data for the current school year, while in New Jersey, the state doesn’t track it at all.
But people connected with the homeschool community say they’ve seen a surge in interest. When districts began announcing their plans for the fall, the National Home School Association “started getting a deluge of calls,” said J. Allen Weston, the group’s executive director. “We had to expand our inbox two different times to accommodate all the e-mails."
Homeschooling is an option only for families with the resources to make it work, but more have been opting in. About 1.7 million children ages 5 through 17, or 3.3%, were homeschooled in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — double the number and share from 1999.
National numbers on homeschooling are unreliable, Weston said — 26 states require little to no notification if families choose to homeschool, and so don’t even keep statistics. Weston believes that, in a typical year, four million children are homeschooled, but that this year, that figure will swell to almost 10 million.
Susan Richman, who pushed to legalize homeschooling in Pennsylvania in 1988, has seen increased interest in her Pennsylvania Homeschoolers AP Online program offering virtual Advanced Placement courses to students across the country. More than 1,000 children are enrolled, compared with 850 last year.
Richman said she’s hearing from families that weren’t necessarily happy with public schools before. The pandemic “is the kick in the seat of the pants" to try homeschooling, she said.
Some families are simply searching for an alternative to their district’s virtual program — including some who sought to enroll in cyber charters that were at capacity, said Verna Aggie, director of Motivated Young Scholars, a West Philadelphia program that serves homeschoolers and children in cyber schools.
This year, the program has 12 children enrolled on-site for support with homeschooling, at a cost of $65 a student a week for half-day sessions, Aggie said. In the past, cyber charter students have filled those slots.
Previously, parents hadn’t expressed much interest in homeschooling, she said. “Now it’s like the school system has changed," she said. “We are moving into a different norm.”
Homeschoolers made up 1.4% of public school enrollment in Pennsylvania in 2018-19, numbering about 25,000 kids. Families opting to homeschool must submit affidavits to their school districts. New Jersey has no such requirement.
Advocates consider Pennsylvania among the most highly regulated states for homeschoolers, with state-mandated subjects, standardized test requirements, and rules that parents have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Parents must have their children assessed by a certified homeschool evaluator each year. New Jersey’s requirements are looser.
To Rene, a former high school teacher, it all seemed doable. She’s required to keep a portfolio marking her daughter’s progress, and to log school days — 180 are required.
“If you bake something together, or go on a nature walk, they count as homeschool days,” Rene said. She aims to spend an hour a day on more formal instruction: “I sort of figure if she reads every day, practices writing and does some math, whatever else we do is a bonus,” she said.
She was also able to obtain textbooks from her daughter’s elementary school — which Pennsylvania requires districts to offer homeschool families.
Rene, who plans to re-enroll her daughter “when the time is right,” wanted her to maintain a connection to her school, including through such routines as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We fully support public education,” Rene said. “It was really important to me that we not take away resources from the public school," including by enrolling in a cyber charter, which districts must pay for students to attend.
That’s not the case for homeschoolers, although school districts could see their state subsidy shrink in future years if students unenroll. While Pennsylvania funds schools primarily through local property taxes, districts also receive state funding based on enrollment, as in New Jersey.
Officials have said online learning this fall will be far improved from when the pandemic abruptly closed schools in the spring. But a number of parents choosing to homeschool said their experiences with virtual instruction were simply too frustrating.
Shana Kline, of Mount Laurel, loves her kids' school and their teachers. But every day of virtual school in the spring was a fight, especially for her 7-year-old, who would refuse to show his face on camera.
These days, she’s homeschooling her three oldest, now in pre-K, second grade, and fourth grade — all on their own schedules. Her second grader, for instance, likes to tackle schoolwork first thing in the morning and loves taking breaks to jump on the trampoline.
“I second-guess it all the time,” said Kline, a social worker by training. “But then I have flashbacks to the spring.”
Elizabeth Dukart’s two children are hands-on learners, and a spring spent learning virtually through their Cherry Hill public school was tough. “We managed, and I know the teachers worked hard to make it as wonderful as they could, but I just feel like it didn’t work for our family,” Dukart said. “They’re all still trying to figure out what to do.”
She opted to homeschool. “The boys are loving it,” Dukart said of her first and fourth graders. “Their handwriting is neater, their spelling is better. They’re learning so much."
A history lesson about ancient Rome might turn into a cooking lesson, with a nod to her 9-year-old’s dream of opening a restaurant someday. A frank conversation about people experiencing homelessness turned into a service learning project making food for the homeless.
A former teacher, Dukart had previously considered homeschooling, but dismissed it — perceiving a stigma around homeschooling as old-fashioned or “not on par” with traditional schooling.
Now, her family is in the process of converting their basement to a classroom, with an eye toward continuing to homeschool even after the pandemic.
“We don’t like that the coronavirus happened, but homeschooling was such a good decision for us,” Dukart said.
Richman, the longtime advocate who conducts annual evaluations for homeschool families, said the “lines are blurrier” today around how people homeschool. “It’s definitely not just families living on farms,” she said. Now, homeschoolers might be students taking a couple classes from their local school.
Whatever their plans, Richman expects some parents new to homeschooling will continue after this year. “I know a whole lot of homeschoolers who only thought they were going to do this for one year,” she said.
Rene intends to send her daughter back to her school district.
But she sees the upcoming year as an opportunity to bond in a different way. “It might end up being a special experience, when everything else around us is so unpredictable and difficult and challenging,” she said.