When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Sammantha Ford Olliso knew it was unlikely she’d ever send her son back to public school. Like many children, Olliso’s son, who attended elementary school in Lawrence, struggled with iPad learning during school closures. And that wasn’t the only struggle.
“He has an autoimmune disease that presents as some severe behavioral problems, and it gets really bad when he’s sick, and he was always catching something at the school,” Olliso says. “When in-person school started up again and I saw many families actively trying to prevent masking, I knew it would be impossible to keep him safe and healthy.”
Olliso is not alone. School enrollment in Kansas has dropped by over fifteen thousand students since 2019 as virtual and homeschool enrollment has increased. Nationwide, enrollment in public schools has dropped by more than 1.5 million students during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Olliso is one of many parents who says the unexpected shakeup has worked well for her family.
“Him being home and seeing how he healed and flourished and how we managed it as a family cemented it in our minds,” Olliso says.
As some students stay out of public school, they’ve turned to pandemic pods, traditional homeschooling and virtual learning,
Before the pandemic, Kansas City Public Schools, which serves much of Kansas City, Missouri, would see between fifty and a hundred students enrolled in its Virtual Academy. During the pandemic, that number skyrocketed—last school year, they started with three thousand students in the program, says its coordinator Leslie Correa.
While virtual schooling has increased significantly in the past couple of years and is beginning to level off, homeschooling is seeing a steady gain of interest.
Maureen Mulder, who runs a Facebook page called “So you want to homeschool in Kansas?” says she has worked with “tons” of families since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Semi-homeschooling last year under the pressures of the Zoom calls was bad enough to have Kansans jump ship,” she says. “It also gave many the confidence to work with their own children at home.”
About two and a half percent of households in Kansas were registered for homeschooling in late April of 2020 and that number jumped to more than ten percent by late September, giving Kansas the sixteenth-highest increase of homeschooling in any state. Missouri wasn’t far behind, jumping from about six percent to almost eleven.
So why are so many Kansas and Missouri families turning to virtual school and homeschooling? Many parents and guardians say they are simply fed up with how schools handled the pandemic. Others have had a chance to see their students’ schooling firsthand through Zoom and have decided to take matters into their own hands.
Bobbi Nelson’s daughter attended Arrowhead Middle School before the pandemic and was one of many children who began learning on Zoom, a move that Nelson says led to her daughter being left behind.
“I knew before the pandemic that she was having problems with her teacher, as was a friend of hers in the same class,” Nelson says. “At first, I believed it was the kids making things up because they didn’t like how the teacher made them do some work—until the shutdown and everyone went virtual.”
Nelson’s daughter was a part of her school’s special education program. Nelson said being able to see the reality of Zoom learning while her daughter was at home and dealing with the problems that came with it made her decide to make a change.
“If my daughter didn’t respond to the teacher, she was kicked out of class or put in the waiting room, sometimes for hours,” Nelson says. “After dealing with all of that and getting nowhere, I pulled my daughter and started homeschooling.”
And students aren’t the only ones leaving. Teacher vacancies have increased by almost sixty-two percent from the fall of 2020 to October this year. With student to teacher ratios climbing, some parents feel their students are not getting the education they deserve.
The added flexibility can be isolating, though. Olliso, the Lawrence parent, says that while her son misses his friends, he is still enjoying homeschooling. After he’s vaccinated, she’ll make an extra effort to have him socialize.
“As soon as he can be vaccinated, we’re going to join other homeschool families so he’ll have other kids to engage with and peers who are in the same school situation as him,” Olliso says.