Felicity Brown, 9, uses a workbook to practice math with her parents and siblings at home in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. After homeschooling during the pandemic, the Brown family has switched to homeschooling their kids permanently using a Catholic-based curriculum and won’t be sending them back to in-person schools in the fall. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Although the pandemic disrupted family life across the U.S. since taking hold in spring 2020, some parents are grateful for one consequence: They’re now opting to homeschool their children, even as schools plan to resume in-person classes.
The specific reasons vary widely. Some families who spoke with The Associated Press have children with special educational needs; others seek a faith-based curriculum or say their local schools are flawed. The common denominator: They tried homeschooling on what they thought was a temporary basis and found it beneficial to their children.
“That’s one of the silver linings of the pandemic — I don’t think we would have chosen to homeschool otherwise,” said Danielle King of Randolph, Vermont, whose 7-year-old daughter Zoë thrived with the flexible, one-on-one instruction. Her curriculum has included literature, anatomy, even archaeology, enlivened by outdoor excursions to search for fossils.
The surge has been confirmed by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported in March that the rate of households homeschooling their children rose to 11% by September 2020, more than doubling from 5.4% just six months earlier.
Black households saw the largest jump; their homeschooling rate rose from 3.3% in the spring of 2020 to 16.1% in the fall.
The parents in one of those households, Arlena and Robert Brown of Austin, Texas, had three children in elementary school when the pandemic took hold. After experimenting with virtual learning, the couple opted to try homeschooling with a Catholic-oriented curriculum provided by Seton Home Study School, which serves about 16,000 students nationwide.
The Browns plan to continue homeschooling for the coming year, grateful that they can tailor the curriculum to fit their children’s distinctive needs. Jacoby, 11, has been diagnosed with narcolepsy and sometimes needs naps during the day; Riley, 10, has tested as academically gifted; Felicity, 9, has a learning disability.
“I didn’t want my kids to become a statistic and not meet their full potential,” said Robert Brown, a former teacher who now does consulting. “And we wanted them to have very solid understanding of their faith.”
Arlena Brown, who gave birth to a fourth child 10 months ago, worked as a preschool teacher before the pandemic. Homeschooling, she says, has been a rewarding adventure.
“In the beginning, the biggest challenge was to unschool ourselves and understand that homeschooling has so much freedom,” she said. “We can go as quickly or slowly as we need to.”
Felicity Brown, 9, draws as she takes a break from math practice at her home in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. After homeschooling during the pandemic, the Brown family have switched to homeschooling their kids permanently using a Catholic-based curriculum and won’t be sending them back to in-person schools this fall. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Race played a key role in the decision by another African American family to homeschool their 12-year-old son, Dorian.
Angela Valentine said Dorian was often the only Black student in his classes at a suburban Chicago public school, was sometimes treated unfairly by administrators, and was dismayed as other children stopped playing with him.
As the pandemic eased, the family decided to keep Dorian at home and teach him there, using a curriculum provided by National Black Home Educators that provides content for each academic subject pertaining to African American history and culture.
“I felt the burden of making the shift, making sure we’re making the right choices,” Valentine said. “But until we’re really comfortable with his learning environment, we’ll stay on this homeschool journey.”
Charmaine Williams, who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Baldwin, also is using the National Black Home Educators curriculum as she homeschools her 10-year-old son, Justin, and 6-year-old daughter, Janel.
Williams said she and her husband tried two previous stints of homeschooling for Justin after school officials complained about his behavior. Now — with the new curriculum and an accompanying support network — they feel more confident about choosing it as a long-term option.
“At school, children have to follow a certain pattern, and there’s bullying, belittling — compared to being home where they’re free to be themselves,” Williams said.
“There’s no turning back for us now,” she added. “The pandemic has been a blessing — an opportunity to take ownership of our children’s education.”
Lily Osgood, 7, selects a book to read from the family library of nearly 2,000 books she shares with her brother, Noah, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Fairfax, Vt. The Osgood children will continue to be homeschool this upcoming school year. As the pandemic took hold across the United States in the spring of 2020, it brought disruption and anxiety to most families. Yet some parents are grateful for one consequence: they are now opting to homeschool their children even as schools plan to resume in-person classes. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Joyce Burges, co-founder and program director of National Black Home Educators, said the 21-year-old organization had about 5,000 members before the pandemic and now has more than 35,000.
Many of the new families experienced difficulties, including lack of internet access, that limited their children’s ability to benefit from virtual learning during the pandemic, Burges said.
“It got so they didn’t trust anything but their own homes, and their children being with them,” she said. “Now they’re seeing the future — seeing what their children can do.”
For some families, the switch to homeschooling was influenced by their children’s special needs. That’s the case for Jennifer Osgood of Fairfax, Vermont, whose 7-year-old daughter Lily has Down syndrome.
Having observed Lily’s progress with reading and arithmetic while at home during the pandemic, Osgood is convinced homeschooling is the best option for her going forward.
She has made the same decision for her 12-year-old son Noah, who didn’t like the remote classes offered by his public school in the spring of 2020, and did homeschooling throughout the 2020-21 school year. It went so well that they want to continue for at least a few more years.
“He told me he was learning so much more at home than he ever did in school,” Osgood recalled. “He said, ‘School is just so chaotic — we don’t get very much done in any particular class. Here, I sit down, you tell me what to do, and minutes later I’m done.'”
Heather Pray of Phoenix, Maryland, says homeschooling has been a major success for her 7-year-old son, Jackson, who has autism. The family made the switch because Jackson was struggling with the virtual learning that his school provided during the pandemic.
“My son did great (with homeschooling), even with just two hours of schoolwork a day,” Pray said. “I got him into piano lessons, taught him to read.”
Pray is also homeschooling her daughter, Hayley, who’s going into 7th grade and had been attending a Christian school.
“I had no idea how this was going to go — I just dove in headfirst,” said Pray. “I felt God was holding my hand.”
The Gonzalez family from Appomattox, Virginia — who are devout Catholics — opted to homeschool their three sons, ages 9, 13 and 15, after their Catholic school in Lynchburg closed in 2020 due to falling enrollment.
They’re using the Catholic-focused curriculum from Seton Home Study School, which Jennifer Gonzalez, the boys’ mom, described as rigorous but well-organized.
“My kids have just excelled,” she said. “We’re able to be home and be together.”
For their supporters, the thousands of Christian schools across America are literally a blessing — a place where children can learn in accordance with biblical teachings, untainted by the secular norms of public schools.
To critics, many of these Christian schools venture too often into indoctrination, with teachings that can misrepresent science and history and potentially breed intolerance toward people with different outlooks.
“These schools are front and center in the politicization of knowledge and that’s problematic,” said Julie Ingersoll, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida.
The polarized views have been highlighted in recent days after the appearance of an #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag on Twitter. It was introduced by Chris Stroop, an Indianapolis-based writer and activist, on Jan. 18, shortly after news broke that Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, would be teaching at a Christian school in northern Virginia that lists “homosexual or lesbian sexual activity” as among the disqualifying criteria for prospective employees.
Stroop, 38, calls himself an “ex-evangelical.” He says he attended Christian schools in Indiana and Colorado almost continuously from first grade through high school and recalls pervasive messaging that demeaned LGBT people and discouraged the empowerment of women.
“Not everything about it was bad — I had teachers I liked who encouraged me academically,” said Stroop, who went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford. “But I don’t think education as indoctrination is right.”
The news about Karen Pence’s teaching job was quickly followed by debate over the behavior of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky during a visit to Washington, D.C. While opinions varied widely as to whether the boys had behaved badly, that incident further fueled debate over faith-based schools.
Within days, there were thousands of responses to #ExposeChristianSchools on Twitter, including many personal stories of bad experiences by people who attended them.
One man said his school required students to sign an agreement promising not to listen to “worldly” music. Others faulted their curriculum, such as a Christian biology textbook that cited Scotland’s fabled Loch Ness Monster as evidence of flaws in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Even as the critiques multiplied, many people took to Twitter to defend Christian schools. Among them was Greg Lukianoff, an attorney active in promoting freedom of speech on college campuses. He said he was an “outspoken atheist” beginning in the seventh grade and frequently skipped school.
“Only as an adult did I realize how kind & tolerant my Catholic high school was towards me,” he tweeted.
In a telephone interview Friday, Lukianoff said he had forged close friendships with people from religious and secular schools, and felt it was unproductive to generalize about them.
Even Brian Toale, a 65-year-old New Yorker who says he was repeatedly sexually abused in the early 1970s by a staffer at his Catholic high school on Long Island, recalls many positive aspects of his school years.
“The education itself was top notch,” he said. “I did have several extracurricular activities where I learned stuff and made friends I still have today.”
But Toale, who eventually converted to Judaism, says the school administration failed to properly vet the person who abused him, and later treated him with disdain when he reported the abuse.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.9 million students — a tenth of the national prekindergarten through 12th grade total — attend private schools in the U.S. About three-quarters of them attend one of the roughly 22,000 Christian schools.
By far, the Catholic Church accounts for the biggest share of this group, operating more than 6,300 schools serving more than 1.8 million students — about 20 percent of them non-Catholics. The totals are down sharply from the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide.
The Council for American Private Education identifies 4,154 schools as “conservative Christian,” serving about 664,000 students.
Julie Ingersoll, the religious studies professor, says those schools are faring well, at least in the eyes of their supporters. She notes that many are now able to access publicly funded tax credits and vouchers in various states, and often can operate with limited regulation.
“But this leaves kids vulnerable on all kinds of levels, which of course was what the hashtag was about,” Ingersoll said in an email. “It’s been portrayed as a campaign against Christianity from ‘the left,’ but it was really a group of young adults who grew up in Christian schools (and Christian homeschooling) explaining how they believe they were personally harmed by it.”
“These harms were often related to sex, gender, shame, and abuse,” she wrote. “But stories also detailed impoverished education, especially when it came to science and history.”
The Rev. Russell Moore, a high-profile official with the Southern Baptist Convention, said the recent criticisms of Christian schools reflect some broader societal trends that have riled conservative religious leaders.
“There’s a certain mindset in America that sees any religious conviction as authoritarian,” Moore said.
Overall, Christian schooling “is in a very good place,” Moore said. “There are some phenomenal evangelical schools, preparing their children with remarkable academic rigor.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life, graduated from an all-male Catholic prep school near Baltimore. He has suggested in recent articles that such schools — while admirable in many ways — could do a better job of teaching their students about the church’s historical role in exploitation and oppression.
“I’m frustrated by the overheated commentary where Christian and public schools are almost viewed as enemy combatants in the culture wars,” Gehring said. “Each has their place, and like any institution they have strengths and weaknesses. The Catholic schools I attended through college shaped my understanding of justice and cultivated a spirituality that frames my life, even if those environments could sometimes be a little cloistered and privileged.”