In a year when so much about schooling has changed, add this to the list: A significant increase in the number of households where students were homeschooled.
That’s according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an online survey that asks questions about how the pandemic is changing life in U.S. homes.
When the survey began, the week of April 23-May 5, 2020, 5.4% of U.S. households with school-aged children reported homeschooling.
By the fall, that number had spiked: 11.1% of households with school-age children reported homeschooling in the Sept. 30-Oct. 12 survey. The Census Bureau says that figure is twice the number of households that were homeschooling at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
Homeschooling rates increased most dramatically among respondents who identified as Black. The proportion of Black homeschoolers increased fivefold, from 3.3% in late spring to 16.1% in the fall.
And there was significant variation among states. Alaska, Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Vermont and West Virginia all saw at least a 9% increase in households homeschooling. Many other states, meanwhile, did not show a significant change.
Possible reasons for that variation, the Bureau noted, include local rates of coronavirus infections and local decisions about how school is conducted.
A Look At The Data
Before we go further, a few words about the data. The Household Pulse Survey uses a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. households.
The Census Bureau notes that “a clarification” was added to the survey question at some point between May and September “to highlight the distinction between homeschooling and virtual schooling.” But a spokesperson for the Bureau was not immediately able to provide the before-and-after language.
A Feb. 25, 2021, version of the survey provided to NPR asks the question this way:
“At any time during the 2020-2021 school year, will any children in this household be enrolled in a public school, enrolled in a private school, or educated in a homeschool setting in Kindergarten through 12th grade or grade equivalent? Select all that apply.
– Yes, enrolled in a public or private school
– Yes, homeschooled
Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University, noted a couple of potential complications with this data.
First: What counts as homeschooling? “If you’re supplementing what their kids are getting through their normal school or to an online school, for example, are you still doing homeschooling?” Lubienski says. “It’s a question of definition.”
With parents and caretakers currently taking on many pedagogical roles usually performed by teachers in normal times, “homeschooling” certainly took place in many households where students were enrolled in schools.
Second: It’s long been hard to get reliable numbers of how many U.S. students are homeschooling, Lubienski says, because some of the families who do it are not inclined to answer questionnaires.
“A lot of families do home schooling specifically because they’re avoiding any kind of entanglements with the government,” he explains. “Part of that is they don’t want to respond to the government coming in and asking how they’re educating their children. They see it as their right to fly under the radar.”
A Confluence Of Factors
There has been anecdotal evidence throughout the pandemic that more families were turning to homeschooling.
J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home School Association, said last summer that inquiries from parents interested in homeschooling had “exploded.”
NPR member station WUNC reported recently on families in North Carolina who have turned to homeschooling – some who plan to it for another year, and some who are eager to send their kids back to public school.
He’s not surprised to see the current growth — but he doesn’t think it will last forever: “Will it be there in five years? I think there will still be some legacies of this explosion in homeschooling, but it won’t be at these rates by any means.”
He points to a number of factors in play right now.
For starters, many schools remain physically closed, and not all parents and students have been satisfied with the virtual classes offered instead. Second, even when schools are open, many parents and caretakers remain concerned for their child’s health and safety during a pandemic.
And many parents have newfound flexibility to try homeschooling in the first place: They’re suddenly working from home for the first time.
Whether the current spike will last will depend on whether employers continue to grant workers flexibility, Lubienski says. If workers can keep telecommuting, “that could potentially open up opportunities for homeschooling families that aren’t there otherwise.”