NC sees record growth in home schooling during pandemic

Dorothy S. Bass

Home schooling grew by record numbers in North Carolina last school year and enrollment in private schools rose by the largest number in 24 years during the coronavirus pandemic.

New state figures released Thursday show North Carolina’s estimated home-school population grew by more than 30,000 children during the 2020-21 school year — a 20.6{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} increase from the prior year. At the same time, the state’s private schools added 3,282 children for a 3.3{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} increase.

The growth in homeschooling, private schools and charter schools during the COVID-19 pandemic came as the state’s traditional public schools saw a 5{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} drop in enrollment, falling by 70,000 students.

North Carolina’s drop mirrors a nationwide decline in public school enrollment during the pandemic, according to the Associated Press. The question facing school and political leaders is how many of those children will return to traditional public schools.

“The pandemic has opened the eyes of a lot of families who were reluctant to attend a home or private school but who in the end found it was the best option for their families,” Terry Stoops, director of the John Locke Foundation’s Center For Effective Education, said in an interview.

“There may be some families that migrate back to traditional public schools. But I think we’ll see growth in the home and private-school sectors for the foreseeable future.”

Record home school growth

The initial closure of all the state’s K-12 public schools in March 2020 forced students to switch to an all-virtual educational environment. It helped shape the decisions that families made last school year and potentially for the future.

After a frustrating two months of virtual schooling, Tina Sherman of Apex pulled her twin boys out of middle school to home-school them for sixth grade. But she left her other two children in the Wake County school system.

“It was really hard to have a full time job and home-school two kids,” Sherman said in an interview Thursday. “But I don’t regret it. We absolutely made the right decision for our boys.”

Sherman was among a record 19,294 new home schools that opened in the 2020-21 school year — a 103{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} increase over the prior year. The state website to register for home-schooling was down for nearly a week last July due to a tremendous surge of parental interest, The News & Observer previously reported.

According to state figures, there were 112,614 home schools registered last school year. The 179,900 students in home schools is more than the Wake County school system, which is the largest district in North Carolina.

The state’s home-school population had been rising steadily since before the pandemic, but it jumped by a record 30,727 children last school year. The number of students has more than doubled since the 2012-13 school year.

Nationwide, a U.S Census Bureau report found that home schooling had doubled between the start of the pandemic and last fall, according to the AP.

“Given the challenges of this past year-and-a-half, we anticipated seeing a shift in what the educational landscape would look like, and at the top of that list was the real likelihood that home-school enrollment would go up, which is what we’re seeing now,” Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a statement.

Private schools see biggest growth since 1997

The majority of the state’s public schools opened last school year offering only remote learning. Schools then transitioned to offering a mix of both in-person and online classes, with most districts eventually switching to full-time, daily in-person instruction by the end of the school year.

Seventh-grader Sophie Uvino, left, gets her temperature checked in carpool by Thales Academy American history teacher Nathaniel Johnston, right, before she can enter the school on July 22, 2020, in Rolesville. Juli Leonard [email protected]

But many of the state’s private schools opened last school year, promoting how they were offering in-person classes while still following COVID-19 safety precautions.

The state’s private schools would go on to see their largest single-year increase in enrollment since 1997. There are now 107,341 students attending North Carolina private schools.

“I think families made school choice decisions this last year for different reasons, including the uncertainty around the virus as well as the uncertainty around when schools would return in-person,” Jodice said. “With private schools offering in-person learning with much more availability across our state, it should come as no surprise that there was an uptick in private school enrollment.”

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said another thing to consider is that there are now a record 783 private schools open in the state, an increase of 32 schools over the prior year.

“There was a recognition among individuals and organizations of an increased demand for private school seats, and there were those that did as much as they could to accommodate that demand,” Stoops said.

Will students return to public schools?

The vast majority of North Carolina’s children still attend traditional public schools. But that number has been declining, dropping by 100,000 students since 2014. Charter schools, which are taxpayer funded schools, grew by nearly 9,000 students last school year.

The percentage of students attending North Carolina’s traditional public schools fell to 76.4{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} last school year. In Wake County, it fell to 75.8{14f62f8d01b0e9e4416e7be29f093eee2960b1e4c60488fca25d8fca5b82c641} of students attending the district schools.

A big part of the drop in traditional public school enrollment was in kindergarten, where some families may have opted to wait a year before enrolling their children. A bill stalled in the General Assembly would allow school districts to delay planned kindergarten class-size reductions this fall if they see a spike in their enrollment.

Families of older students may also be returning to traditional public schools.

Sherman, the home-school parent, said she’s already re-enrolled her twins in the Wake County school system. She said the combination of COVID-19 vaccine availability for her older children and the desire to have them have more social interaction with other kids helped make the decision for her.

“This for me, and many of the families I know, homeschooling was out of necessity and out of necessity for the challenges my children were facing,” Sherman said.

The state Department of Public Instruction is projecting that school districts will recover most of the students they lost during the pandemic.

The budget approved by the state Senate would prevent DPI from taking state funding away from districts whose enrollment this fall comes under projections. The budget also includes a bigger than normal reserve to give to districts whose enrollment is above projections.

Some state lawmakers aren’t as sure that many of the students will return to traditional public schools though.

“We’ve got a lot of students that have moved out for various reasons related to COVID and other things,” state Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, said during a legislative committee meeting. “But we’ve also got students who are moving out of the public instruction arena and moving into home school and private schools and I think some of that trend is not going to revert.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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