BY JESS NOCERA, SEAN MCGOEY AND SABRINA MORENO Richmond Times-Dispatch
When Henrico County’s Delilah Alexander and her son, Jennings Caldwell, joined the Richmond Homeschool Collective last fall, homeschooling was nothing new to them. While Alexandre has always homeschooled her 17-year-old son, she has met families through the collective who have started their homeschooling journey because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some families were unhappy with the fully online school, while others felt unsafe for their children to return to school when COVID restrictions were lifted, Alexander said. (The collective demands vaccinations.)
“There were a lot of families who didn’t feel safe sending their kids back to school and that was even before the mask mandates were lifted,” said Alexander, who is part of the collective’s administrative team. . “There were a lot of families who felt it was much safer to go to school at home.
According to data compiled by the Associated Press, the pandemic has seen a rapid increase in homeschooling in the United States, potentially the highest the country has ever seen. Even two years into the pandemic, as schools reopened, parents opted to keep their children at home.
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AP found that in 18 states that shared data throughout the current school year, the number of home-schooled students increased by 63% in the 2020-2021 school year, then dropped. decreased by only 17% during the 2021-2022 school year. According to the US Census Bureau, about 3% of American students were homeschooled before the surge caused by the pandemic.
Virginia has one of the highest numbers of homeschooled students in the country, with more than 55,000 children receiving their education at home in the 2021-22 school year, up from nearly 37,000. in 2017-18, according to AP data.
In March 2020, school systems across the country abruptly closed as the pandemic unfolded rapidly. Many districts assumed the shutdown would only last two weeks, but in reality it would last for months. In the summer of 2020, school board meetings became battlegrounds as parents voiced their desire for a return to school or for schools to remain virtual.
In the Richmond area, public schools in Hanover County returned to school five days a week in September 2020, while public schools in Richmond remained closed until the following spring, when a few hundred students from primary have returned. Chesterfield County Public Schools had one of the most aggressive back-to-school plans in the region, starting with blended learning in fall 2020 before opening five days a week the next winter. Public schools in Henrico County began dismissing students in February of last year.
In all situations, some parents were happy and others disappointed with the decisions of their respective school districts. In some cases, parents have turned to other forms of education, such as home schooling.
According to State Law, home schooling may be offered if the eligible adult has a high school diploma; demonstrates the ability to provide adequate education; offers a program of study that can be delivered through a distance education program, a correspondence course, or in any other field and “is a teacher of the qualifications prescribed by the school board.”
While homeschooling numbers for the current school year have fallen from last year’s record numbers, those for this year are still significantly above pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Associated Press.
(Several of the nation’s most populous states did not provide data in response to AP requests; Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas all provided data for at least a year, but not for 2021-22; Georgia, Illinois and New York reported no numbers.)
Records from the Virginia Department of Education and analyzed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch shed additional light on homeschooling in Virginia. Including those receiving home schooling under a religious exemption, the total number of home schooled students is just under 62,000 for the current school year.
Homeschooling students are most heavily clustered along the Interstate 95 corridor and in the Virginia Beach area; of the 15 localities in Virginia with at least 1,000 homeschooled students, only three — Augusta, Bedford and Franklin counties — are not among the 25 most populous jurisdictions in the state.
These population centers also saw the largest increases in homeschooling over the period; Virginia Beach — the state’s largest city — and the state’s four most populous counties — Fairfax, Chesterfield, Loudoun and Prince William — all have 1,000 more students this year than in 2017-18.
The city of Richmond has fewer homeschooled students than Chesterfield, Hanover or Henrico counties, but is the only major locality in the region where the number has increased in each of the past five years.
The state’s education department isn’t tracking why parents chose to homeschool their children, but the lifting of COVID protections — including requiring masks in schools — as students returned for in-person learning in the fall has raised the stakes for parents like Robin Andrews.
Her daughter, Faith, was entering third grade in Henrico County public schools among millions of children under 12 who were not yet eligible for a vaccine. At the time, the Virginia Department of Health recorded the highest number of cases of the pandemic in children under the age of 17.
The number would quadruple at the height of the omicron surge in January.
Andrews, a public school teacher in Henrico County, had seen what a respiratory virus could do to a child before. She didn’t want to see him again.
In February 2019, Faith was sent to the hospital for almost a week, where her fever was so high that the thermometer did not initially register it.
“It was the second time that one of my children asked me: ‘Mom, am I going to die?’ “, said Andrews.
The first was in the late 2000s when her eldest daughter, now in college, was airlifted by helicopter to an intensive care unit in Charleston SC and intubated after her legs stopped working while on vacation. She had a rare respiratory virus called viral myositis.
Doctors said it almost killed her.
“I think the PTSD that I was experiencing in both situations – being in a place where I felt helpless and couldn’t help my children and the unknown – all of those things combined made me feel that I just needed to know that I’m doing everything I can to keep them safe,” Andrews said.
So she homeschooled Faith for the fall 2021 semester while teaching her own class. When federal agencies cleared the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 in November and she was fully vaccinated by the end of the year, Andrews re-enrolled her.
“It had nothing to do with my feeling that she wouldn’t get what she needed from her school. None of that,” Andrews said.
Yvonne Bunn, director of homeschooling support and government affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia, said the organization has seen a 40% increase in the number of parents choosing to homeschool their children. students during the pandemic.
“We have seen increases everywhere since COVID. Starting with the first COVID, parents didn’t seem to know what to do,” Bunn said.
Decisions to change course on public school attendance were made by families facing challenges with virtual school, as some struggled to get good internet access, while others seen their children falter with online school, Bunn said. In the second school year under COVID, many families chose to continue homeschooling simply because it worked for them, Bunn added.
Richmond Homeschool Collective is a secular group that welcomes diversity, including LGBTQIA, black and brown, and neurodivergent families.
Alexander, a member of the Richmond Homeschool Collective, has kept his son homeschooled his entire life because, in his early childhood, he was discovered to have multiple severe food allergies. Additionally, living in Kansas around the time Jennings was born, Alexander wanted to make sure her son learned real science and real history, as she said school board members sought to incorporate religious indoctrination. in the program.
His son is going to college in August and so Alexander wanted him to interact with kids his own age in social settings. Jennings has always appealed to adults and young children.
Collective membership fees pay for the rented space where classes and other activities take place. Families decide how many or how many classes they want to attend.
Alexander, who teaches philosophy classes, currently teaches a class for the collective. Classes included computer programming, pottery workshops, a variety of writing classes, and an environmental science class this year.
Until this year, families could only join the collective if they had a student who was at least 11 years old. Given the increased need for home-schooling programs, the collective is expanding to families with younger students.
Navigating the home schooling process in general can be difficult. Andrews — the Henrico County teacher who briefly taught her daughter, Faith, outside of the public school system in the fall — recognized the benefit of already being a licensed teacher.
Her mother, who was a retired educator, was able to do activities with Faith the day before Andrews took over in the afternoon after school ended.
“It was tough, because I don’t teach at the same level as her,” Andrews said. “But there’s nothing too difficult when it comes to making sure you’re protecting your child. And if you feel there’s something you need to do to make sure…then that’s it. worth a try.”