Not that there was any doubt as you Skyped your friends and saw their kids doing schoolwork at the kitchen table behind them, but homeschooling is way up during the pandemic. According to the Census Bureau, three times as many students are being homeschooled now as were taught that way before COVID-19 appeared. And that's real homeschooling with lessons chosen by families, not virtual classes offered by brick-and-mortar schools. Private school enrollment has also increased under the stresses of the past year. Undoubtedly, many families will return to public schools after the virus is gone, but others will stick with alternatives they learned to trust when government offerings failed.
"[T]he global COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new interest in homeschooling and the appeal of alternative school arrangements has suddenly exploded," the Census Bureau announced this week of the results of crunching data from the Household Pulse Survey.
Before the pandemic, the Bureau noted, about 3.3 percent of students were homeschooled. As COVID-19 spread in the spring of 2020 and schools fumbled their efforts to offer lessons beyond closed classrooms, that number rose to 5.4 percent of students. Many families must have liked what they tried—or really disliked what their old schools were doing—because the number of homeschooled kids doubled again once summer break was over.
"By fall, 11.1% of households with school-age children reported homeschooling (Sept. 30-Oct. 12)," the Bureau added.
Of course, this has been a confusing time, with blurry borders between various arrangements. Are kids "homeschooling" if they're watching video lectures of their English classes at the breakfast table because the teachers union won't let schools reopen? The Census Bureau says that doesn't qualify.
"A clarification was added to the school enrollment question to make sure households were reporting true homeschooling rather than virtual learning through a public or private school."
So, 11.1 percent of students are engaged in true homeschooling, with curricula chosen by their families.
The Census Bureau data confirms earlier reports, corresponding almost exactly with Gallup's finding last August that "there has been a five-point uptick (to 10%) in the percentage of parents who say their child will be home-schooled this year." The polling firm similarly distinguished true homeschooling from remote offerings by public and private schools.
As you might expect, while homeschooling has found new favor across the population, its adoption varies from place to place and from group to group. About 16 percent of African-American respondents told the Census Bureau they were homeschooling, compared to 12.1 percent of Hispanics, 9.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 8.8 percent of those of Asian background, and 11.6 percent of "other race." The jump among African-Americans is notable not just for the lead they've taken in adopting do-it-yourself learning, but for the size of the jump: only 3.3 percent of respondents in the group reported homeschooling in the spring, the lowest rate among all racial categories.
By state, the big homeschooling adopter is Alaska, where more than a quarter of those surveyed report educating at home. Illinois brings up the back at 5.4 percent.
Amid national battles between school boards and teachers unions over opening schools or keeping them closed, poor-quality remote teaching by most of those schools, and mass frustration among families, the big loser in all of this has been government-run schools.
"Comprehensive national data aren't available yet, but reporting by NPR and our member stations, along with media reports from around the country, shows enrollment declines in dozens of school districts across 20 states," NPR reported in October. "Large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural — in most of these districts the decline is a departure from recent trends."
Private schools, by contrast, also enjoy new popularity, largely because they've been able to offer the reliable education opportunities that have been unavailable at too many public schools.
"In our sample, 70 percent of independent schools experienced increases in enrollment or level enrollments during the pandemic recession," according to a recent study from Georgia's Kennesaw State University that covered 15 states and the District of Columbia. "In our multiple regression analyses, the main driver of this beneficial change in enrollments for independent schools was whether the public school districts that served their home county were open for only virtual instruction to start the 2020-21 academic year."
Unsurprisingly, most of the private schools in the study offered in-person instruction, while most of the public schools were only virtual. Many families, especially those with younger children, have been unhappy with remote-only teaching by schools unaccustomed to the practice.
The Kennesaw study authors remarked that, during the sort of economic recession that slammed the United States during the pandemic, you would normally expect enrollment declines at tuition-charging schools. Families have been motivated by their dissatisfaction with the performance of default-choice public schools to try something different, whether that's private schooling or homeschooling.
The next question is whether this surge of interest in education alternatives is likely to stick. Has homeschooling become a mainstream option? While we can't be certain what people will choose to do in the future, the data suggests that's likely.
"Private school and traditional homeschool parents remain more positive about their children's progress compared to district school parents," EdChoice reports of the results of its latest monthly survey. About 62 percent of private school parents say they are "very satisfied," as do 57 percent of charter school parents and 51 percent of homeschoolers. Only 37 percent of public school parents say the same.
Importantly, 63 percent of parents report feeling much or somewhat more favorable about homeschooling than before the pandemic, compared to 21 percent who feel less so. While numbers have varied over the months of the pandemic, increased favorability has maintained a solid majority. What was once an oddball choice (although decreasingly so) largely impressed those who gave it a try.
After COVID-19 passes, many families will go back to public schools for which they've already paid through taxes, but they won't forget their disappointment with those schools' performance. Having tried something different others will, instead, choose education options more to their liking.