COVID-era homeschooling levels have yet to return to baseline in Hilltowns

— Photo from Brittni Abriel

Learning at home: Brittni Abriel of East Berne got the idea for her preschool and after-school programs at the Henrieka Farm Center as she watched her own children learn life lessons on the farm.

HILLTOWNS — Berne-Knox-Westerlo is trying to figure out how to make school cool again.

The rural district, which already suffers from declining enrollment and has only around 650 students in kindergarten through 12th grade this year, had its homeschooling rate double during the pandemic, and, though classroom instruction is nowhere near as complicated as it was in 2020 and 2021, the high rate remains. 

The district’s 2022-23 enrollment report, published last month, shows that there are currently 77 students being homeschooled, compared to 41 students during the 2019-20 school year, before the start of the pandemic locally.

On average, 81 kids were homeschooled each full year since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, while an average of about 40 kids were homeschooled each of the three school years leading up to it. 

Of the pandemic years, 2022-23 has the lowest number of homeschooled kids, but the highest kid-to-household ratio, with 77 kids living in just 38 households (2.02-to-1). The 2021-22 school year saw 81 kids homeschooled within 44 households (1.84-to-1), while 2020-21 had 86 kids within 49 households (1.76-to-one). 

At the BKW School Board’s October meeting, Superintendent Timothy Mundell said that more than 30 homeschooled students this year come from just six families. He also said that he “thinks that’s related to the pandemic,” and that the district is working on a plan for “enticing people back.” 

Public schools still must meet state-set requirements for homeschooled students, even though they are not in class, such as reviewing teaching plans, approving quarterly reports, and conducting annual reviews for each student.

The rise in homeschooling exacerbates the district’s problem with declining enrollment, a trend that has been ongoing since at least the mid-1990s and continued this year. Berne-Knox-Westerlo had 1,040 students enrolled in 2008, and 1,266 students in 1993.

This year, the district had 691 students reported on Oct. 5, the day that public schools in New York are to base their enrollment data for this year. 

Of those 691 students, 36 are in pre-kindergarten, which the data sheet states was “not included in the enrollment report.” The average grade-year class size — excluding pre-K — is about 50 kids, with a high of 59 and a low of 40. 

“The numbers are consistent with the projections we’ve seen …,” Mundell said. “We’ve had some decrease in the population because the exiting senior class was larger than the incoming kindergarten class.”

He said the district will continue to monitor the trend and acknowledged that “decisions” will need to be made in future budgets based on enrollment figures. 

At least one revenue stream for the school, Foundation Aid, which is provided by New York State, is based on enrollment data, among other factors. The formula for Foundation Aid according to the 2022-23 state aid handbook is the “adjusted foundation amount” (basically how much money is to be spent per pupil) minus “minimum local contribution” (the fraction of overall expense per pupil the state does not cover) multiplied by the number of students enrolled. 

The New York State Education Department states that schools cannot claim state aid for students that are homeschooled. 

In 2021-22, foundation aid covered more than a quarter of the district’s budget, and state aid in general covered about half, and an increase in foundation aid was expected for this school year, due to enhanced funding of the program. 

The good news is that the trend appears to be ending, albeit not reversing itself. Board member Nathan Elble pointed out at the meeting that class sizes have remained relatively stable over the past three years.

The New York State Center for Rural Schools and Cornell University project that the district’s enrollment will continue to decrease somewhat but remain basically steady throughout the 2020s, especially if the district is able to win back a significant number of its homeschoolers. 

Whether that will be a simple task is unknown, however, and, although BKW might be more vulnerable to stress from the increase in homeschooling, it’s far from the only district that’s seen more of its students leave their classrooms and teachers behind. 

According to the Census Bureau in 2o21, interest in homeschooling went up considerably nationwide since the start of the pandemic, with the number of homeschool households doubling, as measured by the bureau’s Household Pulse survey. 

There are a great number of reasons why any one family might decide to homeschool its children, making broad generalizations difficult and unwise, but BKW’s profile almost perfectly matches a national profile outlined by researchers from the University of Michigan and Boston University, suggesting that the factors at play locally are similar to those nationally, with those related to the  pandemic being the most obvious among them. 

Those researchers wrote last year that grade-schoolers were the most likely to be pulled out of public schools, and that schools with in-person instruction were more likely than schools teaching remotely to see those students wind up in homeschooling as opposed to being enrolled in a private school. 

A disproportionate number of kids homeschooled in the BKW district this year are in grades K-5, according to the enrollment report and, while homeschooling in the district went up dramatically, the number of district students enrolled in private schools is down from pre-pandemic levels, and the lowest it has been since at least 1998 at just 38 students. 

The researchers do not speculate in their study as to why the pandemic caused the increase, but one of the authors, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, told the Associated Press that he felt that health and safety concerns were more likely than any ideological concerns (such as unfounded fears about the prevalence and impact of critical race theory) given the fact that the latter are not particularly unique to the pandemic years. 

This also is possibly reflected in the numbers provided by BKW, which did not see the same level of intensity around hot-button issues at board meetings and during its election as was seen elsewhere

While the May school board elections in neighboring Voorheesville and Guilderland were hotly contested, with candidates expressing sharp ideological differences, BKW’s school board election was uncontested

Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise that the homeschooling numbers have been “pretty stable” through the pandemic years, with 69 students being homeschooled this year and 66 students homeschooled during the 2018-19 school year. Voorheesville Superintendent Frank Macri said his district has 13 kids being homeschooled by nine families. 

It’s also possible that some families saw homeschooling as preferable to remote instruction, and then found that they preferred it even to traditional learning. 

Medusa parent Paulette Ryder told The Enterprise in 2018 that she liked homeschooling her kids because of the liberties it offered, from the structure of the day to what and how the children were taught. 

She described a “Not-Back-to-School” picnic planned for that year as “a celebration of homeschoolers not having to set their alarms, not having to stress for tests … It’s a celebration of freedom.”

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