Several families have switched to homeschooling as a result of the pandemic

Anne Lowder’s two kids began the school year last August enrolled in the public school system, just like thousands of others across the county.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the school year began well, the Millingport-area resident said, but quickly became stressful.

After about the first month, the workload for her oldest daughter Callie, a second-grader at Oakboro Choice STEM School, mounted. Even with a teacher adept with technology and who tried working with each child, “the nature of public school was limited on how individualized she could get,” Lowder said. Callie would start her school day before 9 a.m. and often not finish until at least 6 p.m., if not later.

Her other daughter Alayna, a first-grader at the school, had a different experience. Because of a teacher that was unfamiliar with much of the material, Lowder said, Alayna would complete assignments with little to no instruction beforehand. Often, once she finished her work in the morning, she had very little to do the rest of the school day. Lowder said at certain times, especially for math, “I had to correct some of what the teacher was saying because she didn’t know the material herself.”

While the imbalance between the amount of work her two children were completing was stressful enough, Lowder also was caring for her youngest child, Teryn, who was 1 at the time.

“The older girls needed so much help that Teryn didn’t get the attention she needed,” Lowder said. “I was unable to get done anything I needed to do. The whole day was school and lots of tension. I know it works for some families, but it was not a good fit for mine.”

Because of the many obstacles with remote learning, the family decided to switch Callie and Alayna from public school to homeschool in mid-February.

“The decision to pull my girls out and start homeschooling was not an easy one,” Lowder said, noting that her daughters “had a lot of great experiences,” at Oakboro. “We had gone back and forth with the idea for months.”

But the move to homeschooling the girls has allowed Lowder to individualize their education and move at a pace that felt comfortable to both.

“We get to make our own schedule,” Lowder said. “And most importantly, my kids get to be kids again. They get so much more time outside to play and explore, and they are beginning to enjoy learning again.”

“This was definitely the right decision for my family,” she added.

Lowder isn’t alone in her sentiment. Her experience is similar to that of many families who recently made the switch to homeschooling.

While there already had been a noticeable uptick in the number of homeschool families in the county over the years, the pandemic appears to have only exacerbated this trend.

The percentage of homeschool students in Stanly County increased 12 percent from the 2018-2019 school year (1,186 students) to last year (1,331), according to data from the state’s Department of Administration, a higher percentage than many surrounding counties and Stanly’s four peer counties. NC’s homeschooling population also increased 5 percent during the time.

When looking back even further, the homeschooling population in Stanly has increased 131 percent since 2008-2009, when there were only about 576 homeschoolers in the county.

Stanly’s homeschooling population increased 12 percent in 2019-2020, a higher percentage than many of its surrounding counties and four peer counties.

But increases in homeschooling doesn’t appear to just be a statewide trend.

Homeschooling across the country more than doubled during the pandemic last year, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an online survey that asks questions about how the pandemic is changing life in U.S. homes.

“The reason we do it (homeschooling), is so we can tailor the education to the individual child’s needs rather than tailoring the child to the educational needs,” said David Smith, board chairman of the Stanly Montgomery Home School Association and father of three young kids.

Smith’s wife Jennifer said all the kids she knows that are enrolled with SCS and went through remote learning “had a much more psychological adjustment issue” than kids in homeschool programs, who are used to working from home.

SMHSA, which has been around for more than 30 years, offers social events throughout the year to homeschool families, including proms and graduations.

Since January, Smith said the organization has seen a roughly 10 percent uptick in membership, with the biggest increase coming from families with children in K-5.

“That’s not normal, but it’s a welcome sight,” Smith said.

There are 67 families that are part of SMHSA, Smith said, of which 55 are in Stanly County. One of them are the Hathcocks, who live in Oakboro.

After many years of her two children — 9-year-old Nathan and 7-year-old Lillie — attending Locust Elementary, Jamie Hathcock decided at the end of last school year to transition to homeschooling. It wasn’t an easy decision as the kids had great teachers, she said, and Hathcock even volunteered at least once a week at the school.

“It was really hard to leave there,” she said.

While her kids did well with remote learning and enjoyed working from home, because of the many unknowns associated with the pandemic, Jamie felt more comfortable teaching them. She said she knows a few other local families that also pulled their kids out of public school.

“I felt like no matter what, I could keep them on track and caught up on the goals for the year,” she said.

Hathcock said her kids really enjoy the Christian-based curriculum and spending more time with their mom, even if it means less interaction with other kids their age.

“They’ve missed their friends and their teachers, but they told me numerous times, ‘Can we keep homeschooling because we really like this?’ ” said Hathcock, who said she plans to continue teaching them.

Nathan and Lillie Hathcock work from home. They transitioned to homeschool at the beginning of the school year. Photo courtesy of Jamie Hathcock.

Jennifer Smith said much of the attraction surrounding homeschooling, as opposed to public schools, comes from the freedom it affords parents to customize school calendars around holidays and vacations and even day-to-day events like field trips.

“There’s an ebb and flow when you homeschool your children that you can give them a richer experience,” she said.

And with so much loss and uncertainty to day-to-day life caused by the pandemic, homeschooling allows parents some form of control.

“I think the trend in homeschooling in general is people are really saying, ‘Well hey, I can work from home, why can’t I homeschool my kids, too?’ ” Smith said.

While the homeschool population has continued to increase, the opposite has occurred with Stanly County Schools. The number of students has decreased around 11 percent over the last decade, with 8,190 students in 2020-2021 compared to the 9,176 in 2010-2011, according to enrollment numbers provided by SCS.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis said that with so many other learning options available to students, school districts across the state have been dealing with declining enrollment numbers.

Dr. Amy Blake-Lewis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said a key reason why parents have been shifting to homeschooling is to have more flexibility over their children’s schedules.

“There are parents that I have spoken to just in the past few months who say that they want the flexibility to travel with their students or to set their own schedule in terms of time of day that they provide instruction,” Blake-Lewis said during a recent joint meeting with the Board of Education and county commissioners.

To help bolster enrollment and to support the rising homeschool population, SCS created Stanly County Virtual Education, or SCoVE, two years ago. SCoVE supplemented what homeschools were taught by allowing students to take SCS classes (virtual, in-person or a mixture of both) that interested them.

Unfortunately, the program has never gained much traction, with no more than 34 students signing up for it in a year, according to school data. SCoVE has 13 elementary homeschool students and about 13 middle and high school students enrolled in the program.

Both David and Jennifer Smith have passed along information about SCoVE to the families involved with SMHSA, but they say, while some people have used it, for the most part SCoVE has never been “overly popular.”

Beginning next school year, SCoVE will offer a virtual learning option for any students in the county — those in homeschool and SCS. The application window ended April 23. This will be SCS’ only guaranteed virtual learning option.

SCoVE will function as an online K-12 school, but enrollment will be capped for each grade level, for a total of roughly 470 students, Blake-Lewis said earlier this year. During the 2021-2022 school year, there will be:

  • One class of 20 students per K-5 grade level, for a total of 120 students;
  • Two classes of 25 students per 6-8 grade level, for a total of 150 students;
  • Two classes of 25 students per 9-12 grade level, for a total of 200 students.

There are currently 335 applications to be part of SCoVE for next year, Blake-Lewis said. Admission decisions will be made by May 7.