WALDEN – Kassandra Reichle had always wanted to homeschool her children. She got her chance when COVID came along. Her 5-year-old was ready to go to school, but the pandemic pushed her to homeschool instead.
After a year of finding her way through homeschoooling her kindergartner – what Reichle called “try and learn” – the Walden mother decided to continue homeschooling her daughter for the next year.
It was a learning experience for both, she said.
“People learn in so many different ways … What has always interested me is teaching my kids home in the way that I knew they can thrive,” said Reichle. “The young kids are going through such developmentally important years. They are restricted by masks, rules and by not being allowed to be with their friends … Their social-emotional skills, mental health and inquisitiveness are pushed to the side. I just disagree with it all.”
Families choose to homeschool for diverse reasons – flexibility, individual attention, hands-on learning, a desire to pass on specific cultural values – but today many parents who choose homeschooling also echo Reichle’s concerns.
The pandemic led to homeschool surges throughout the area, across the state and beyond. In Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties, about 2,714 students were homeschooled in the 2020-21 school year, the last year data for which data has been released. The number of homeschoolers had increased 1.6 times compared to 2019-20, according to state data.
The homeschooling population is likely to continue to grow and spread through all kinds of communities across the country, said Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative California-based think tank.
“Homeschooling is not just going to be the wave of the future. It’s going to be the tsunami of the future because I think so many parents have discovered homeschooling really does work and it’s more doable than they thought,” said Izumi.
Meanwhile, the uptick in homeschoolers brought a boom of activity providers. Many business owners and activity organizers created programs for homeschoolers during the pandemic to accommodate an increasing request.
Boom of resources
Homeschooling parents need to find a way to balance academic, extracurricular activities and the social-emotional needs of their pupils. They are getting help these days, they say, from an abundance of resources available to them. More curriculum sharing, more activities for homeschoolers and parent support groups have made it easier for them to navigate homeschooling than it was for many of their predecessors. Even local libraries offer packets of projects designed for homeschoolers.
A typical day for Reichle and her daughter goes something like this: they study for about two hours in the morning, and the rest of the day may include playdates, activities, outdoor play, field trips or a visit to the library or a museum.
It’s been a valuable experience, she says.
“I would continue homeschooling regardless (of the pandemic status) because I feel like this is the best way for her to figure out on her own what she is passionate about and how to learn things,” said Reichle.
After working as a full-time public school teacher in Westchester for 18 years, Michelle Sciullo quit her job and started a homeschool enrichment program last summer. As a homeschool mother of three, her goal is to offer other homeschool parents an opportunity for their children to be involved in activities and socialize with other children. Many of the projects and activities she does with children on her 15-acre property in Carmel cannot be achieved in a regular school setting, she said.
Children from Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties have participated in the program, she said.
Her five-week program focuses on science and nature and offers physical activities and outdoor exploration. Children learn measuring and mathematical skills through cooking, identifying plants in the woods and experimenting with air pressure in snow, for example.
“I’ve been in education for 18 years. I have a pretty good idea of what kids need mentally,” said Sciullo. “What they need is time to be together, to be able to work together collaboratively. A lot of that is through unstructured play where they can use their innovation, imagination and problem-solving skills.”
Beth Zylstra, owner of Hollow Hill Farm in Montgomery, started a new program for homeschoolers last fall. She offers four 1.5-hour weekly sessions, which incorporate horseback riding instruction, art, crafts and games. She has taught nearly 40 homeschoolers since then. In response to the uptick in demand, she has expanded the facility with an extra floor and four stalls and plans to open a new location with an indoor arena this year.
Zylstra, who grew up as a homeschooler all the way through high school, said she has an insight into the value of this way of learning. Homeschooling allowed her to do what she loved and gain hands-on experience in the real world, she said. By the time she graduated from high school, she had already had almost 10 years of working experience.
Cindy Mpasiakos, owner of Traveling Teacher art studio in Monroe, offers personalized art program for homeschoolers both at the studio and in their homes. She said some homeschool parents have formed “pods” and bring in educators and activity organizers to their group of children so they do not need to follow COVID restrictions that are enforced in schools.
“My whole thing is we have a space for the kids to express themselves and be proud of themselves,” said Mpasiakos. “I just want everybody to feel comfortable. Everybody right now needs therapy and art therapy is great for the kids.”
Growing population with new dynamics
The Times Herald-Record analyzed homeschool data and trends for the period of 2009-2021 for the 34 districts in Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties. The analysis looked at figures provided by districts to the state Education Department each year, from a grade equivalent of kindergarten through 12th grade.
All three counties have seen an increase of homeschoolers from 2019-20 to 2020-21 by 165%, 156% and 170% respectively.
Cornwall, Livingston and Highland school districts’ homeschoolers increased the most during the pandemic in each county by 267%, 950% and 279%.
Nationally, about 11% of all U.S. households with school-aged children were homeschooling by fall 2020, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Before the pandemic, household homeschooling rates had remained steady at around 3.3% through the past several years.
According to the state data, homeschoolers in Port Jervis increased from 61 to 127 between 2019-20 and 2020-21. It ranked the second among Orange County districts.
Mike Rydell, superintendent of the Port Jervis City School District, said district records show different numbers. Rydell said Port Jervis recorded 89 homeschoolers in the 2019-20 school year and 115 homeschoolers the following year. The number dropped to 109 in 2021-22, he said.
The majority of the increase was directly related to the pandemic, said Rydell. During the spring of 2020, some parents said they did not believe the remote model would be effective for their children. After the district transitioned to a hybrid model in 2020-21, the reasons for homeschooling became more diverse.
Some continued homeschooling following the same philosophy about the efficacy or practicality of remote learning. Others cited personal reasons related to concerns about the spread of the virus and emotional effects of the pandemic, he said.
As homeschooling often requires a financial and time commitment, middle-income families made up the largest percentage of homeschoolers in past decades. However, the landscape is changing.
Izumi wrote in his recent book: “The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities,” that homeschooling among minority and low-income families has seen a steep rise.
The Census Bureau report shows African-American homeschooling families climbed to 16.1%, a five-fold increase from spring 2020 to fall 2020. For Hispanic households, homeschooling reached 12.1%, which doubled their proportion.
Izumi said mask mandates, social distancing and concerns over learning loss and school safety all contributed to the growth. With a flexible work schedule and a boom of resources, homeschooling has become more accessible for parents.
Sciullo, the former public school teacher, said she has seen changing dynamics in homeschooling families. Traditionally, stay-at-home mothers are the main force in homeschooling. Nowadays, however, more fathers step in and even both parents take the responsibility of homeschooling while they work from home.
“Parents are willing to make that sacrifice because they feel as though their kids would do better in homeschool rather than in regular public schools,” said Izumi.
Future of homeschooling
New York has some of the most stringent requirements for homeschooling in the nation.
Parents are required to submit a notice of intent to their local district superintendent and file individualized home instruction plans, quarterly reports and annual assessments. While school districts must provide a copy of the home instruction regulations and assure a child receives instruction in certain required subjects, parents are responsible for identifying the curriculum materials and executing the learning plans.
Parents say that meeting these requirements is a challenge that they need to dedicate time and money toward as they identify the needs of their children, and balance that with their family needs. But clearly, it is one more are willing to take on.
While educators and researchers acknowledged the pandemic has led to a growing homeschooling population, its future is unclear.
Will homeschooling parents return their kids to public school once the pandemic subsides?
Kevin Castle, superintendent of the Wallkill School District, said they had anticipated the number of homeschoolers would go up when the pandemic hit, but he does not think it will continue to grow. Actually, it did go down in 2021-22 school year, he said.
According to the state data, the number in Wallkill rose from 59 to 123 between 2019-20 and 2020-21, which made it rank the second among Ulster County districts. Castle clarified there was an error during the reporting process and the actual number for 2020-21 should be 97. It dropped to 88 this school year.
Castle said the district works closely with homeschooling families and offers support and resources, including help with completing learning plans and opportunities for participating in non-instructional extra-curricula activities.
“They are still our families and we care about the kids,” said Castle.
It was a learning experience for both, she said.