New Homeschooling Families Weigh How Long They Will Continue Amid Pandemic
Before the pandemic, Kristin Kanipe never expected she'd end up homeschooling her three kids.
"I remember talking to a friend and specifically saying, 'God would have to smack me in the head and make it "you have to homeschool" for me to ever homeschool.' I had no desire to homeschool. I actually did not want to homeschool," Kanipe said.
"Then the pandemic hit and I'm like, 'Oh, that's funny,'" Kanipe added, laughing. "And now I love it, which is the other strange thing. I didn't know I would like it."
More parents have chosen to home school their children during the pandemic, and it's contributed to a decline in enrollment at traditional public schools. Now schools, and homeschool families, are trying to figure out how long this trend will last.
Like most families, the Kanipes had an unexpected trial run of virtual learning last spring. The Kanipe kids attended Wake County Public Schools, and had always loved their school, but virtual class just wasn't working for them. So Kristin Kanipe and her husband decided she'd switch from being a stay-at-home mom to a full-time teacher to third grader Liam, second grader Kinsley and four-year-old Landon.
"Liam being on the autism spectrum, with remote learning, you know, we would be sitting there and all of a sudden he would walk away, right when his teacher's talking," Kanipe said.
Kristin Kanipe has a chronic health condition that means she needs to take breaks too.
"This way I can teach him and be on our own schedule," Kanipe said. "If we're having a hard morning, we can take a break for a half an hour, and come back when we're able to actually focus and sit down ― so the benefit of homeschooling."
Her kids enjoy learning together at home. She's weighing the future.
"I knew I was gonna do it and do it for one year, definitely. And then see one, where the pandemic was and two, how did we do with it?" Kanipe said.
Now Kanipe wants to try homeschooling one more year, to see what it's like when life hopefully gets a little more normal.
"We're gonna take it year by year and kid by kid," Kanipe said.
Kanipe knows a handful of families among her church and friends who at least considered homeschooling this year, but only some had the resources and a stay-at-home-parent to make it work.
Public schools that have fewer students this year are dealing with the uncertainty of whether families like the Kanipes will return. Wake County Public Schools saw their enrollment drop by more than 3,000 students last fall, the first time the district hasn't grown in years.
School administrators have no way of knowing how many students they lost to private schools versus home schooling ― and whether they left temporarily, or for good.
Mark and Laura Stowers own the Homeschool Gathering Place, a homeschool bookstore in Raleigh. Laura says business is good.
"Last summer was crazy," Laura Stowers said. "We thought that would begin to taper off once school started in the fall. But what we've seen is that just every day, there's new homeschoolers coming in."
Their January sales were up 25% from last year, and textbook sales have risen so dramatically nationwide that some publishers were out of stock for months. The Stowers spent years homeschooling their own kids before they bought the store.
"I as a parent am ultimately responsible for the education of my child," Mark Stower said. "What I think COVID has really done is opened and exposed more parents to the fact that there are some styles that don't work for their particular student."
While some students are thriving in homeschool, for other families, it isn't turning out to be their ideal.
"Homeschooling has been tough, a very humbling experience for us," said Kimberly Neal.
Neal started homeschooling her kids in August ― all four of them, from Pre-K through 8th grade. She feels a little like a one-room schoolteacher.
"I don't know how they did it back then," Neal said. "I'm teaching phonics with one and then I'm doing times table with another and then the other is doing, algebra. So I'm trying to keep up with who is learning what that day."
Her middle child likes being home with her, but overall, Neal says homeschooling has been harder than she expected.
"We weren't really prepared how it would affect our kids emotionally, either not being around their friends, or the time it took to be able to even answer some questions that they could simply raise their hand for if they were at school," Neal said.
Neal hopes to send her kids back to Wake County Public Schools soon.
"As long as things are continuing to go in the right direction, there's no more spikes, which it looks like there shouldn't be," Neal said.
As the daughter of a retired educator, she said she also wants to know her children's teachers are vaccinated before she sends them back.
While she's hoping her kids will return to their schools in August, Neal can't say for sure.
"I'm not certain. We're still just waiting," Neal said. "I feel like there's hopefully plenty of time to get things going in the right way."