As schools reopen, will NC’s homeschool boom continue?

In this undated file photo, Donya Grant, right, works on homeschool lessons with her children, from left, Kemper, 14, Rowyn, 11, Hadley, 16, and Mabry, 8, at their home. Grant has homeschooled her children since 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

RALEIGH — There is no doubt that school shutdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a spike in interest in homeschooling, and North Carolina has seen explosive growth in its own homeschooled population in that time. But many are wondering how many of the families that have chosen homeschooling during the 2020-21 school year will continue down that path once schools have reopened.

Spencer Mason, law and policy director for North Carolinians for Home Education, told North State Journal that as of July 2020, there were 97,000 homeschools in the state, and by the end of the year, there were up to 20,000 more. In the country at large, the National Home Education Research Institute says that there are 4-5 million homeschooled students (around 8% of all school-aged children), and in spring 2019, there were only 2.5 million.

“At the beginning of the school year we had a good amount of folks calling, but it hasn’t really let up at all,” Mason said. “Now it’s people who are frustrated with the way that public schools have been going.”

Mason said he was unable to put a number on what percentage may go back to their pre-pandemic schools, but he has seen signs that many new homeschoolers are planning on staying.

“I think we’ve had a lot that initially thought they were going to do it for a year or, in some cases, just to finish out 2020-21 school year,” he said, “but now we’re getting a lot of folks that are saying, ‘This is a lot better than we thought it would be. Our kids are really doing well. They’re enjoying it. They like learning.’ And a lot of them are talking about how their kids never liked school and are enjoying learning at home. So that’s another little thing we’ve been noticing, is we’ve had a lot of folks who were planning on just doing it for a year or for a period of time and are now changing their tune.”

Robert Bortins, CEO of the Southern Pines-based company Classical Conversations, one of the largest homeschooling resource providers in the world, told NSJ that nobody knows the real numbers on how many new homeschoolers there are and how many will stay.

“For us looking at it, we’re not sure what it will shrink by, probably a vast number of one-year homeschoolers — 50 to 75% — will go back to the school system that they came out of,” Bortins said. “But we’re thinking somewhere between 15-30% will continue to homeschool and maybe make more informed decisions on what that looks like for their family going forward.”

Bortins said even with schools reopening, Classical Conversations is seeing numbers six weeks ahead of where they expected to be, with their April 15 targets already being hit in February.

“The percentage of people homeschooling in the Fall of 2021 versus 2019, before the pandemic, I could see that number increasing 20, 30, 40% because parents have realized that they can homeschool and that it is a benefit to their children and their family,” he said. “So I think we’ll see a lot more families making that decision.”

In a similar trend, Mason said the NCHE’s annual “Thrive!” conference for North Carolina homeschoolers is already way ahead of their usual numbers, too.

“We’re way ahead,” Mason said. “We usually have an attendance of 6,000 to 6,500 people at that conference, and we’re actually ahead in our registration this year of where we were in 2019, so we may even have more than that this year [even with pandemic restrictions].”

Mason said one major disappointment has been introducing so many people to homeschooling in a year where their usual events, groups and other activities are so limited. NCHE has been able to introduce a webinar instead, which he says has been popular, to communicate with families who are interested in homeschooling.

Bortins also cautions parents who are trying homeschooling for the first time this year to take this into account.

“I’d say that if you’ve had your kids home during a pandemic for a year, that in a normal year it’s a lot easier to homeschool,” he said. “Normally we’d have a graduation and a prom and different activities, and a lot of those have had to be canceled just like other organizations have had to cancel their activities.”

Another non-COVID-related reason that Bortins says he hears a lot from families who want to pull their children from the school systems is that the schools are pushing activism, including Critical Race Theory, rather than just teaching the basics and then letting the parents handle ideological and worldview issues.

“I think people homeschool for a variety of reasons, but when our government-led education system is no longer concerned about reading, writing and arithmetic, and we see that in our test results, it has parents questioning why they’re sending and spending their children’s lives in these institutions,” Bortins said. “So I think anything that gets away from the basics and tries to educate children in a certain direction, instead of letting that be the responsibility of their parents, causes families to really take their educational choices into deeper consideration.”

A challenge for a lot of new homeschooling families, during COVID or not, is maintaining healthy relationships between parents and children now that they have to work together in the new dynamic of schooling. Bortins said this is the main challenge for families, but if they can focus on the relationships first, the education will follow. If the relationships are in constant crisis, the power struggles will make learning difficult no matter what other strategies the parent uses.

But Bortins said Classical Conversations has seen a 25-30% increase in new families joining their program and seeing “greater interest, even more than last year at this time, in parents looking at their educational choices and really wanting to educate themselves.”

“We’re just excited that more and more parents are looking at this option and seeing that it’s something that they can do,” he said.