In the spring of 2021, it became evident that millions of parents were not yet ready to send their children back to public schools following a year of pandemic-related school closures.[i] This was surprising, considering that schools experienced much pressure to fully reopen and that researchers had predicted that most parents would quickly send their children back to school when they did reopen.[ii] This hesitancy on the part of many parents has made it difficult to predict whether school enrollments will return to normal and, when coupled with the recent and rapid expansion in the number of homeschool households across the US, could indicate that the public school population may not return to its former levels for years to come.[iii]

Between April 2020 and the present, data collected via the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) indicated that an estimated 22–23 million US households included school-age children.[iv] The percent of these households that had at least one homeschooled child (i.e., a child who was taught at home but not enrolled in a public or private school) was 5.4% in spring 2020, 11.1% during fall 2020, and 19.5% by May of 2021. While these Pulse Survey numbers reflected very significant increases in homeschooling, it is difficult to use them to determine the degree to which they will impact public school enrollments at the start of the 2021–22 school year because the HPS surveys have not asked parents why they decided to homeschool their children. Consequently, projections about future enrollments must be based on other sources.

Since 1999, the National Center for Education Statistics has found that the most frequent reason parents pulled their children out of public schools to homeschool them was because they believed that schools were unsafe places for learning.[v] During the last year, of course, additional safety risks posed by COVID-19 increased those concerns. Even so, when the virus began to wane and schools began to reopen during spring 2021, it was expected that most students would return to school. Many did, of course, but it was also evident that more US families than ever before were choosing to homeschool their children, instead. Consequently, either more time was needed before parents could again feel comfortable with the notion of sending their children back to school or else other things were perhaps responsible for their delay in doing so.

Considerations

One important issue that may slow the pace at which homeschooling parents re-enroll their children in the fall of 2021 relates to academic matters. For example, parental dissatisfaction with the academic instruction that occurs at school has either been the second or third leading reason for homeschooling during the last two decades.[vi] More currently, a report revealed that, on average, students had lost five months of academic gain in mathematics and four months in reading on average by the end of the 2020–21 pandemic-affected school year, with the biggest losses being incurred by historically disadvantaged groups.[vii] When coupled with recent reports concerning parental dissatisfaction with some of the controversial subject matter that has been inserted into school curriculums,[viii] it seems reasonable that, before many parents halt their homeschooling efforts and re-enroll their children, they may wait until schools significantly improve the academic performance of their students and curriculum materials in their districts.

At this point, it is difficult to predict how high the number of homeschool families will rise, whether it will plateau, or if it will drop as the pandemic wanes and most schools reopen. Currently, it appears that anxiety related to COVID-19, concerns for children’s safety, dissatisfaction with how schools have performed during the pandemic, and school curricular issues may cause more parents to homeschool their children than ever before and could, at the very least, delay parents’ decision to re-enroll students in school. If the above-mentioned reasons provide accurate insight into what most parents are thinking about in relation to their children’s education, it seems reasonable that many of them will start to homeschool or continue doing so because their children will be safer in their own homes and will likely be able to learn more from a curriculum that parents can design and control. In the meantime, the homeschool movement continues to grow at a rapid pace.