Homeschooling grew during the pandemic. Why more NJ families are choosing the option

When the COVID-19 pandemic transformed public schools with remote learning, masking and social distancing mandates, April Barker and her husband felt compelled to make a big change for their family. The parents pulled their children out of public schools and started homeschooling.

They are among a growing segment of New Jersey families who are opting to educate their children themselves.

"We had a really tough time with our children doing virtual schooling during COVID," recalled April Barker, a mother of five children, three of whom are school age. "They just really did not conform to it. They didn't want to sit behind the computer screen.

"We were also in the process of deciding to sell our home and travel the country," she said. "We decided to do it. We sold our house. We traveled for just about two months and jumped into homeschooling while we were on the road."

The Barker family of gathers around the kitchen table in Jackson to homeschool their children. They are part of a growing proportion of parents who are choosing homeschooling rather than public education.
The Barker family of gathers around the kitchen table in Jackson to homeschool their children. They are part of a growing proportion of parents who are choosing homeschooling rather than public education.

The Barker family is far from unusual. In the 2019-20 school year, 1,295 New Jersey children were removed from public schools for homeschooling, according to state Department of Education records. However the following school year, with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting education across the nation, the number of students leaving public schools for homeschool across the state quadrupled to 5,326 children and teenagers, according to the department's records.

New Jersey does not track how many students in total are homeschooled each year; rather, the education department tracks how many leave public school for homeschool programs. The department does not track the inverse, or how many students stop homeschooling and register for public school.

Across New Jersey, public school enrollment declined by 3,908 students between the autumn of 2019 (1,375,829 students) and the autumn of 2022 (1,371,921 students), according to Department of Education records.

While public school enrollment has declined since its pandemic peak, about twice as many students left the public school system last year as did in the years before COVID-19 emerged.

Between the 2020-21 school year and 2022-23 school year, 12,593 New Jersey students left public schools for homeschooling, according to state department's records.

So why is it such a popular option?

Setting the pace

Like the Barker family, other homeschoolers say they have found freedom in homeschooling. Aidan DeVito, 17, of Middletown first found the idea of homeschooling appealing during the pandemic when mask mandate debates were dominating discussions about the return to classrooms.

But once he tried homeschooling, Aidan found it freed him, not only from the arguments surrounding COVID-19 safety and risk, but gave him freedom over his own time.

"I ended up enjoying it a lot," he recalled. "I liked the freedom that it gave me. I liked that you could wake up whenever you wanted, and you could pretty much schedule your day how you want it."

Homeschooling also gave Aiden the opportunity to work at his own pace, faster or slower depending on the subject matter and level of difficulty, he said. The traditional classroom setting was more stressful by comparison, he said.

Homeschooling was also an adjustment for his mother, Meghan.

"I never thought I was equipped or capable to homeschool, because I'm not gifted in teaching," Meghan DeVito said.

Yet the pressures of the pandemic and shifting mandates helped to change her mind, and Meghan moved her son and her daughter to homeschooling.

"My son thrives in his own homeschool setting," she said. "He does not thrive in a classroom. He thrives academically, his grades are there, but he's not happy."

Both Aidan and his sister have returned to public school in order to play high school sports, but it was a difficult decision for Aidan, the high school junior said.

"It was definitely tough," Aidan said "It is a little bit of a culture shock."

A path for unique needs

Brielle Billig of Old Bridge said homeschooling was also the best option for her son, who she said was diagnosed with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Billig was living in Marlboro when she decided to try homeschooling and pulled her son out of public school in first grade.

"He needs to move. He needs to be able to get up. He needs to fidget," she said.

But the rigid structure of public school weighed on her son and before long, his self esteem and happiness were sinking to levels that required intervention by school professionals and the family, Billig said.

At the time, "my son is coming home every day like a stressed millennial investment banker," she recalled. "I see his love of learning dying. And I said, 'I don't feel that this is an environment that is designed for kids with ADHD, designed with kids that have anxiety and mental health issues."

With homeschool, Billig says her son learns using more hands-on lessons, can dive into a particular academic interest, and the family has the freedom to take educational field trips. She uses a comic book based math curriculum and a separate English textbook to keep him engaged with his schoolwork.

"He's learning in a much more natural way where he's retaining it, rather than just sitting at a desk and having to memorize it," Billig said.

Billig also has a daughter who attends public school.

"She thrives in a social environment," Billig said. "She loves going to school. In an ideal world, I would love to homeschool them both, but I can't."

For her son, "school was a chore," she said. "And it made learning a chore also. So now by doing it at home, that love of learning is back in him."

Where is homeschooling the most popular?

Over the past three years, thousands of New Jersey students left public school for home schooling, according to the state Department of Education. The exodus peaked during the 2020-2021 school year and had declined since, according to state records.

Yet, homeschooling remains more popular that before the pandemic.

That popularity has affected some school districts more than others. Toms River Regional was among the top five districts that lost the largest number of students in the 2020, 2021 and 2022 school years, according to state records.

Some smaller school districts also saw large proportions of their student population leave during the pandemic.

With the proliferation of online and book-based curriculum options, many families say they are finding new educational variety that fits their lifestyles and children's needs.

"We just choose to do what works best for us," said April Barker, the mother of five children from Jackson. "The beautiful thing about homeschooling is you can really set your own pace."

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers education and the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than 15 years. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, or 732-557-5701.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Homeschooling grows across New Jersey. Here's where it's most popular.