Two of Raleigh mom Laina Yeisley's children work on their homeschool studies, joined by their younger sibling. She is the founder of the Triangle Homeschool Resource Center. Photo courtesy of Laina Yeisley

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Sarah Redden has always been curious about home schooling. The Kernersville mom of two kept the possibility in the back of her mind, but when it came time for her daughter to enter kindergarten a few years ago, Redden enrolled her in the public system.

However, after a chaotic end to her child’s second grade year in the spring, and with her son — who has special needs — about to enter kindergarten, Redden made the choice to educate her children at home.

“COVID made the decision for us,” she said. “The idea of my son being in front of a screen the number of hours they do now, there’s no way he’d be able to do that. And it’s going to cause him to be frustrated, and I don’t want his school experience to start that way.”

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus updates]

Redden isn’t the only North Carolina parent making the decision to leave public schools to home-school.

According to Nan Sanseverino, director of communications at the N.C. Department of Administration, the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education has seen an increase in home-school students in the state for the 2020-21 school year.

This summer, the state website for home-school registration crashed several times due to high traffic, with more than double the number of notices to establish a new home school as during the same period in the previous school year.

During the period of July 1-Aug. 24, the agency received 10,281 notices of intent to establish a home school, plus 767 reopen requests. Comparatively, during the same period in 2019, there were 3,529 notices of intent and 321 reopen requests.

Reopen requests refer to cases in which the home school administrator provided notification of closure the prior year but asked to reopen this year. Notices of intent are accepted on a rolling basis throughout the school year with no deadline for submissions.

Full statistical data for the current school year won’t be tabulated until July 2021, but during the 2019-20 school year, there were 94,863 home schools statewide, with 149,173 students. It appears the numbers for the new school year could be much larger.

Under the plan issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s 115 school districts had the option to open either with in-person classes while observing COVID-19 safety precautions or offer virtual learning. More than half of the state’s districts have opted for some type of in-person learning, while the five largest districts — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland — are among those that have proceeded with virtual-only classes.

Both options have their drawbacks. While some studies have shown that young children are less likely to catch or spread COVID-19, many North Carolina teachers have voiced concerns about students not adhering to safety precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing. And the recent COVID-19 outbreaks at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State that forced both universities to suspend in-person classes in favor of virtual learning have compounded fears of returning to physical classrooms. Since the beginning of the school year, several districts that began with limited in-person instruction have moved to online-only classes, especially as students or faculty test positive for COVID-19.

While virtual learning eliminates the possibility of spreading COVID-19, it presents other challenges, such as difficulty engaging younger children or those with special needs, scheduling conflicts for working parents and technical glitches. During the first week of classes for many districts, the NCEdCloud system — the statewide portal for accessing online classes — crashed twice, leaving thousands of students across the state unable to log into virtual learning sessions.

Laina Yeisley, founder of The Triangle Homeschool Resource Center, a Raleigh-based organization that offers information and support to home-schooling parents, said she’s seen a major uptick in the number of parents considering home schooling because of these issues.

“I run home-school 101 workshops, and I usually get 15-20 people to sign up,” she said. “Last month (July), I had two workshops at 100 attendees apiece, and I had a waiting list on top of that for each one. Parents have this opportunity now to give it a try to see if it works. It offers more flexibility than even virtual.”

That flexibility was one of the most appealing aspects to Raleigh parents Josh and Meika Darville. Both work full time — Josh as a real estate agent and Meika for a software company — so having a learning schedule for their children that accommodated not only their jobs but also their young children’s attention spans was important.

“Trying to mesh the schedule of the children with the teacher’s schedule was tough,” Josh said of the family’s experience with virtual learning in the spring.

“Since we switched to home schooling, I just told the kids we do 10 minutes of reading, 10 minutes of something else — their attention span is not great, so we’re trying to flex those muscles to get it to be longer. If we were doing it virtually, they would want the kids to sit there for 30-40 minutes at a time staring at a screen.”

The flexibility also extends to how home schools are operated. In North Carolina, home schools aren’t required to administer national standardized testing. And parents have a wide range of curricula that they can mix and match to fit their child’s specific needs and interests.

“The main thing is that home schooling doesn’t look just one way,” said Amanda Wares, vice president of Greensboro Home Educators.

“It’s unique to each family and each family’s circumstance. We have families that are single parents, we have families that work full time, there are many different ways to make it work.”

While home schooling has become a viable alternative for many parents in North Carolina, there’s a concern that this trend of so many families leaving the public system can negatively impact already vulnerable school funding.

According to the Learning Policy Institute — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization conducting independent research to improve educational policy — education budgets at the state level have already taken a hit across the nation due to a significant drop in revenue from retail sales and income taxes during COVID-19 lockdowns. And while the CARES Act provided $16.2 billion to fund education nationwide, there are still lasting impacts to education budgets.

While North Carolina’s funding may not be immediately impacted by a surge in home schooling, the exodus of students from the public system could lead to lingering effects that will reduce budgets for schools.

“The way the current system is set up, there is some padding to soften the decline in enrollment in districts,” said Bob Luebke, director of policy specializing in education at the N.C. Civitas Institute, a conservative-leaning policy organization.

“There are things that soften those ups and downs. If the numbers go down, the way the system is set up, the number will go down for funding, but it will do it because there are fewer students, and that also means there are fewer needs with less students.”

While there’s a surge in home schooling this year, there’s no guarantee those children will not return to public schools, particularly if a vaccine for the coronavirus becomes widely available. But until then, where and how students learn in this state will likely continue to change, and home schooling certainly plays a major role in that evolution.

“I think there are families who’ve been considering home schooling for years, and this put them over the top; and there are also families who weren’t considering it until their kids were home for months, and they thought, ‘I can do this,’” said Brian Jodice, executive vice president for Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina.

“I think it’s going to be a year unlike any other, and this school year will be incredibly different.”

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Jennifer Bringle

Jennifer Bringle is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. Based in Greensboro, her articles have appeared in many news publications across the state and nationally. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or other CPP news team members.

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