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BLOOMINGTON — Like much of the country, the Bloomington-Normal area saw increased interest in home-schooling during the pandemic, though that trend may now be reversing.
Nationally, the coronavirus pandemic ushered in what may be the most rapid rise in home-schooling the U.S. has ever seen. Two years later, even after schools reopened and vaccines became widely available, many parents across the country have chosen to continue directing their children’s educations themselves.
Home-schooling numbers this year dipped from last year’s all-time high nationally, but remain above pre-pandemic levels, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Associated Press.
That also appears to be the case locally.
“We did really see a spike last year,” said Mark Jontry, superintendent for Regional Office of Education #17, which covers McLean, DeWitt, Livingston and Logan counties.
In Illinois, families are not required to report that they are home-schooling, but a voluntary form can be submitted to the regional office. ROE #17 saw a significant increase in the number of people filling out those forms during the pandemic, Jontry said.
In the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, the four-county area started with around 75 families that had told the ROE they were home-schooling. There was a slight increase to 107 families at the end of the 2019-20 school year, as schools nationwide moved to remote learning.
The 2020-21 school year saw a more than threefold increase from the 2018-19 school year, however, with 301 families telling the office they were choosing to home-school.
That number has decreased this school year, with around 200 families as of late April. In McLean County specifically, that number is around 75 families, down from 162 at the start of last school year, Jontry said.
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Those are just minimum numbers. The Crossroads Area Home School Association, which covers Bloomington-Normal and a 45-mile radius around it, has seen the number of people in its communications list grow threefold during the pandemic, volunteer and home-school parent Denise Cale said.
The group estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 home-school families in its coverage area.
“Given the fact that so many changes were happening in the education sphere, I understand that people were seeking (alternatives),” Cale said.
Because most of CAHSA’s estimates come from Facebook groups and distribution lists, it’s hard to know if there has been a decline. People do not always leave the group when they stop home-schooling, or they may just be interested in the topic, Cale said.
As students return from home-schooling, they will adapt back to the classroom with differing degrees of smoothness, Jontry said. If they have been out of public schools for a longer amount of time, schools often choose to give them an assessment to determine the right level of classes for them to be in.
“That’s always a concern, that’s one of the challenges for our schools when a student returns,” Jontry said. “(…) by the same token, we do have some kids that excel in a home setting.”
In some ways, schools are transitioning students on a much larger scale as they return to consistent in-person instruction, Jontry said.
The fact that students are returning to public schools speaks to the strength of the American school system, National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a visit to Bloomington-Normal last month.
“We have the best schools,” she said. “(…) the challenge is making sure every school is like the best public school in the country.”
Some families that may have turned to home-schooling as an alternative to hastily assembled remote learning plans have stuck with it — reasons include health concerns, disagreement with school policies or a desire to keep what has worked for their children.
In 18 states that shared data through the current school year, the number of home-schooling students increased by 63% in the 2020-2021 school year, then fell by only 17% in the 2021-2022 school year. Around 3% of U.S. students were home-schooled before the pandemic-induced surge, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
‘Best place in the world’
Cale started home-schooling 12 years ago and continues to do so today in her rural home near Bloomington-Normal. What home-schooling looks like depends on the needs of each family, she said. The internet and purchased curriculums can be helpful resources.
“No teacher, whether home-school or traditional teacher, is an expert in all subjects,” she said.
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Bloomington-Normal’s public and private institutions, including libraries, Heartland Community College and the Children’s Discovery Museum, all help make the area one of the best places for home-schooling, Cale said.
“Bloomington-Normal is the best place to home-school in the whole wide world,” she said.
Parents who were already helping their children learn at home may have decided to switch to home-schooling, said Woodford County home-schooler Kristina Meyers. She is also an organizer with the Peoria Area Association of Christian Homeschoolers and has been home-schooling her nine children for the past 11 years.
“Trying to do the actual school system at home is quite difficult, because it’s set up for the classroom,” she said.
There are other impacts of COVID that could be encouraging people to move to home-schooling. Families worried about their children’s health may have decided to home-school, Cale said. Shifting values during the pandemic, along with spending more time with family anyway, seemed to motivate other families, Meyers said.
“I think the idea of family has become more important through COVID,” Meyers said.
Other reasons for home-schooling include the flexibility it brings, including opportunities for travel, the ability to set exactly the right pace for the students, and the chance to cater education to students’ interests, the two parents said.
Regulations in Illinois
In the absence of federal guidelines, there is little uniformity in reporting requirements. Some states, including Connecticut and Nevada, require little or no information from parents, while New York, Massachusetts and some others require parents to submit instruction plans and comply with assessment rules.
Illinois does not collect data from home-schoolers or keep counts on how people are home-schooling, said Jackie Matthews, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education. The agency does encourage those deciding to home-school to notify the school their child had been attending, so as to avoid the student being referred to a truancy officer.
The state does not set mandatory testing or graduation requirements, but there is a list of subjects that must be taught.
Not all parents fill out a form informing ISBE or their ROE that they are home-schooling. Meyers started home-schooling when her oldest daughter started kindergarten. She did not fill out the form, saying that as a parent, she is responsible for her children, so she chose not to give the state more information than required.
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The ROE will sometimes start truancy proceedings against a family if it believes the child is not actually receiving an education, Jontry said. Sometimes those cases involve a child being pulled out of public school after a series of disagreements between the school and the family.
“We do follow up with them to make sure they are providing home-schooling and not just using it as an out,” he said.
However, in his experience, most parents are providing that education, and the regional district has had very few cases of truancy involving home-schoolers.
Other education trends may have a longer-term impact on the number of people choosing to home-school, Jontry said. Curriculum, including topics like gender, sexuality and race, have become points where parents have disagreed with teachers and administrators.
“I actually anticipate we might see more of those curriculum disagreements,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed.
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