The number of home-schooled students has steadily increased in Virginia over the last decade, with a thousand or more students joining the ranks each year. But as the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the region to pivot from in-person to virtual classes, that population jumped by over 21,000 students.
Documents from local school districts and state departments of education, which DCist/WAMU obtained through more than 25 Freedom of Information Act requests, show that historic numbers of K-12 students across the D.C. region switched from attending their local public schools to home-school for the 2020-2021 academic year as the pandemic raged.
“The increase this year is tremendous,” says Yvonne Bunn, the director for homeschool support at the Home Educators Association of Virginia.
Like several other parents interviewed by DCist/WAMU, Brittany Wade, a mother of five who lives in Northeast D.C., says she became motivated to home-school when classes moved online last March and the family became increasingly frustrated with virtual learning.
“There were certain things that my children just didn’t know and weren’t being introduced to at school,” Wade said. “So my husband and I just made the decision to just pull the carpet from up under us and just go ahead and start the home schooling process.”
In Virginia, the population of home-schooled K-12 students reached its highest peak in over a decade, with 59,116 students learning from home during the 2020-2021 school year — an increase of more than 21,700 students from the year before.
While the bump in home schooling was less pronounced in Maryland and D.C., home-schooling across the region saw an almost universal increase, despite the fact that it’s typically more common in rural communities.
The total number of homeschooled students across the region might not rival students who attend public schools — there are 1.25 million students currently enrolled in Virginia public schools alone — but their rise is still significant. Because funding and staffing across each school is determined partially by enrollment, fluctuations in the homeschool population have complicated the process by which some school budgets are calculated, experts say.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, K-12 enrollment dropped by 8,854 students — while the homeschool population rose by 2,665 students, according to Virginia Department of Education fall membership and homeschool records.
A similar pattern also appeared in Maryland, which saw an increase in homeschooling across most school districts. During the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment records show, the K-12 home-schooled population increased to its highest point in a decade at over 36,000 students — a roughly 8,000-student increase over the previous year.
In Prince George’s County, the home-schooled population increased by nearly 25%, from about 3,200 to nearly 4,000 students. In Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, homeschoolers grew to their highest peak in 16 years, with about 5,000 and 4,000 students, respectively.
The home-schooled student population also nearly doubled in D.C., growing from 389 students in the 2019-2020 school year to 764 students between July 2020 and February 2021, according to a performance oversight report filed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
That bump in homeschooling across the D.C. region mirrors national trends. The number of homeschooler households increased across the U.S. from 5.4% in April 2020 to 11.1% in the beginning of October, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. That came as school districts nationwide saw enrollment plummet this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — particularly among pre-K and kindergarten students.
“We don’t know how many of those [students] will actually continue to homeschool when public school is entirely open, but we expect a lot of them will,” says Bunn from the Home Educators Association of Virginia.
Last fall, school administrators in the region expressed alarm as they feared that they would lose funding because of enrollment decline associated with the pandemic, precipitated in part by students who decided to home-school.
In Loudoun County, for example, K-12 enrollment dropped by 2,614 students while the home-schooled population nearly doubled from 1,821 students to 3,326 students.
The increase in students enrolling in private schools, along with the students who decided to home-school, produced a conundrum for Sharon Willoughby, who is the assistant superintendent for business and financial services within Loudoun County public schools. Before the pandemic, the district’s enrollment was growing consistently, she says.
“We on average open up a new school every year, so we’re used to a continuously growing budget and more students coming in the door,” she says. “So for us to now develop [the] FY22 Budget for next year, when we look back on our history, we have this anomaly of what happened this year — of this drop.”
Willoughby says that, initially, the district expected a $22 million shortfall for the upcoming school year. But this winter, governors Ralph Northam and Larry Hogan announced they would allocate money from their respective state budgets to prevent school budget cuts associated with enrollment decline. Willoughby says now Gov. Northam’s “No Loss” plan has helped fill the budget hole associated with the drop in enrollment.
The same was true for Prince George’s County Public Schools. Last fall, Prince George’s schools CFO Mike Herbstman said he worried the county would see budget cuts due to the enrollment decline. But Hogan’s plan prevented the worst of those outcomes, Herbstman tells DCist/WAMU.
Looking toward the fall, many education experts and administrators say they believe that enrollment will rise closer to pre-pandemic levels.
While it’s hard to predict exactly how many students will home-school in a given year, Hamilton Lombard, a University of Virginia researcher and policy analyst on demographics, says he estimates that around half of students who were privately educated and homeschooled during the pandemic year will enroll in public schools this fall. But, he says, “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that all of them are going to be coming back next year.”
Robin O’Hara, a senior planner for Montgomery County Public Schools, says that while the home-school population “went up substantially” within the district, she expects many to re-enroll.
“We will see [them] return into the system as MCPS returns to a consistent in-person model, because clearly this was an anomalous year,” she says.
Enrollment is already starting to shift in D.C.: The number of DC Public Schools lottery applications for this fall decreased by 21% from the year before. Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged a $14 million funding bonus to the city’s public school system, committing that schools will receive funding that at least matched their pre-pandemic budgets. (Budget experts disagree about the extent to which this will fill any potential funding gaps.)
Mary Levy, an independent consultant and financial analyst who has worked with DCPS, says she foresees that enrollment fluctuations associated with the pandemic will affect school budgets and learning environments in the months to come.
“I think that when we have people who’ve been homeschooling popping up again in the enrollment, it’s going to exacerbate the level of disruption that schools are already experiencing,” she says.
This story was published in partnership with WAMU.