A child and a teenager doing their schoolwork at home in Washington DC
The proportion of American children who are homeschooled has nearly doubled when compared with before the pandemic © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

It was mid-morning, midweek and midwinter in the remote Badlands National Park of South Dakota — about as far as one could get from a schoolhouse. Yet throughout this surreal Midwestern moonscape of rainbow rock formations, I repeatedly ran into families with school-aged children. Why weren’t they in class? The reply was always the same: This is our classroom. We are homeschooled.

While many of the world’s children are back to the old routine — and many parents are horrified at the idea of ever having to teach them at home again — an estimated 3.7mn US households are homeschooling children. The proportion of homeschooled children in the US nearly doubled from 2.8 per cent before the pandemic to 5.4 per cent in 2020-21, according to the US Department of Education.

These do not represent the traditional cliché of homeschoolers: white families in conservative states, who sometimes avoid mainstream education for religious reasons. Some 41 per cent of homeschooled children were non-white even before the pandemic, according to a 2019 DoE report. Then, after the pandemic began, homeschooling increased more among African-Americans than among whites.

“Covid was the publicist for homeschooling,” says Khadijah Ali-Coleman, co-founder of Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars. Her 11-year-old brother was homeschooled for a few years because her mother feared he would be bullied, and she periodically home-taught her own daughter, now 19. Ali-Coleman says many black families homeschooled for religious reasons before the pandemic, but during Covid shutdowns they had a ringside seat in their children’s lessons and “many didn’t like the way the teacher talked to their kids”.

“Racism in schools is now a big factor motivating many black parents,” she adds, noting it can take many forms, from excluding the role of African-Americans in US history, to attitudes towards clothing or behaviour.

Among homeschooling parents of all races, 80 per cent said they were motivated by fears about the school environment, from safety (including school shootings) to drugs and negative peer pressure. Nearly 60 per cent wanted to provide religious instruction and three-quarters weren’t happy with what schools offered. Many are concerned that their child will become different from them if they attend a traditional school, says Paul Peterson, director of Harvard’s programme on education policy and governance. He notes that a recent focus on teaching gender topics could sustain the newfound popularity of US homeschooling.

Like so many other unintended consequences of the pandemic, homeschooling was given a boost by Covid — but will it endure? The DoE has no post-pandemic figures yet, but Peterson surveyed parents in spring 2022 and found there had been “no sign of abatement” from pandemic highs, which he puts at 6 per cent of the school-aged population.

Even this could be an underestimate, he says. “Where kids go to school is very badly measured in the US”, and homeschooled children are likely undercounted, he says. My home state of Illinois doesn’t require homeschooling families to register, my birth state of Michigan says they don’t count homeschool student numbers and many states exercise no oversight of such students. Peterson says DoE questionnaires may be returned at lower rates by homeschooling families who are already suspicious of the government.

Whatever the true numbers, this isn’t the Little House on the Prairie version of homeschooling, where parents make it up as they go along and students are ensconced in the home. If nothing else, the pandemic demonstrated the smorgasbord of options modern homeschooling parents have to choose from, including sophisticated online curricula, co-operatives and small neighbourhood study groups or pods — not to mention trips to the Badlands for science lessons. Covid may have upended American schooling, but for some, that change now means a new way of learning.

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