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As Montana schools sought to contain the pandemic last March by shutting their doors for the remainder of the spring semester, Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger began to notice an increase in the number of parents registering to homeschool their kids. The trend continued throughout the summer and into the fall, right up to the day in early October when his office recorded its official homeschool headcount for 2020. That figure was 1,567 students — more than double the 715 homeschool students recorded in October 2019.

Eggensperger can only speculate, but he’s confident that COVID-19 is responsible for the uptick. And he isn’t all that surprised.

“A lot of them just submit their [homeschool] registrations online, so we don’t really have a conversation with them,” Eggensperger said. “But I know it had a lot to do with the pandemic, whether it was not wanting to wear a mask, being required to wear a mask, just worried about social distancing.”

The story is the same in counties throughout Montana. According to preliminary enrollment data released by the Office of Public Instruction last month, the number of students identified as homeschooled rose from 5,815 in 2019 to 9,868 in 2020, a statewide increase of 69.7%. Of those new homeschool students recorded, 3,712 were in grades K-8 and 341 were in high school. OPI informed Montana Free Press via email that those numbers have not changed significantly since the data was finalized on Dec. 31.

“We know COVID-19 has impacted schools in many ways and that COVID-19 possibly affected parental decisions,” OPI said in a written statement emailed to MTFP. “However, there is no factual evidence that this was the main factor driving their decisions.

Homeschool registration in Montana is the purview of county superintendents, who collect enrollment figures on at least one specific date every year. Those figures are then reported to OPI. Students who were enrolled in public school and participated in remote online classes hosted by their school during the pandemic were not part of the homeschool count.

Whether parents were motivated by caution or frustration over health restrictions, the consensus at OPI and among stakeholders interviewed by MTFP is that the uptick in homeschool enrollment last fall was a direct result of the pandemic. Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said she too was unsurprised by the figures, given the myriad uncertainties of 2020.

“It’s totally understandable that parents would want to make sure that their kids were in the safest place possible, which is not going anywhere. Which is what we should all be doing in the middle of a pandemic,” Curtis said.

The largest increases in homeschool enrollment occurred in Flathead, Gallatin, Missoula, Ravalli and Yellowstone Counties. According to the Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools’ office, the county had a total of 1,931 registered homeschool students as of June 30, 2020, compared to a typical yearly average of roughly 800. As of Jan. 7, that total had dropped to 1,467.

Many rural counties experienced the uptick as well. Meagher County Superintendent of Schools Penny Plachy said her office had six students recorded as homeschooled prior to the pandemic. Now that number is 33. Plachy wasn’t so much surprised by the trend as she was about parents’ decisions to not take advantage of the virtual options offered by White Sulphur Springs’ elementary and high schools. And since county superintendents have little oversight over homeschool registrants beyond collecting annual attendance records, Plachy is concerned whether all of those students are receiving a quality education.

“The Board of Public Education is hopeful that legislators will take note of the recent drop in ANB numbers, due to the pandemic, and take into consideration how this will financially impact our school districts.”

Montana Board of Public Education

“I think it’s disappointing,” she said. “I think that kids in the homeschooling program, unless their parents are really serious about it, they could fall through the cracks of nothing happening, because we can’t monitor what they are being taught.”

The concern among school administrators in Flathead County, based on Eggensperger’s weekly meetings with them, is what impact the pandemic-induced migration to homeschooling may have on public school funding. The state doesn’t fund homeschool education. However, a large portion of the state’s K-12 education budget is based on public school enrollment figures reported to OPI, known in budget lingo as “annual numbers belonging” or ANB. Those numbers are used to calculate entitlements to districts’ general funds, as well as funding for several standard education programs. That COVID-19 could impact those numbers as the 2021 Legislature debates funding for the next biennium has public education stakeholders on high alert.

“The Board of Public Education is hopeful that legislators will take note of the recent drop in ANB numbers, due to the pandemic, and take into consideration how this will financially impact our school districts,” the Montana Board of Public Education said in a joint statement to Montana Free Press furnished by Executive Director McCall Flynn.

OPI remains optimistic that the pandemic’s influence on parents opting to homeschool their kids won’t significantly affect public education funding. While the office’s data shows a 2,749-student drop in public school enrollment last fall alongside the 4,053-student homeschool increase, there is some flexibility built into the budgeting process that could lessen the impact. Any districts that recorded a drop in their 2020 enrollment can opt to budget using a three-year average of their enrollment numbers. 

“Superintendent Arntzen’s OPI finance experts have been actively holding multiple sessions with school districts to explain current options and discuss future needs,” OPI said in a written statement to MTFP. “She led discussions at many levels with school leaders, county superintendents, and legislators. As the February enrollment data numbers come in from our school districts, it will lead to more understanding. Superintendent Arntzen believes the best strategy is to provide a safe environment for students to advance learning. We anticipate public school enrollment numbers to vary as Montana families continue to navigate the needs of their children through COVID-19.”

Curtis is equally optimistic that Montana’s budget process is flexible enough to soften the blow of a drop in public school enrollment. She also notes that legislators on both sides of the aisle are planning to propose a “band-aid fix” for public school districts “to either completely discount or to ameliorate any loss of student count that they have right now.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be too big of an issue moving forward, and then we have every indication that the legislators and the governor are willing to work with schools to make sure everyone has the funds they need to continue to provide public education,” Curtis said.

The flip-side of the rise in homeschooling is that, once the public health crisis has abated, students re-enrolling in public schools will result in a spike in enrollment numbers. Eggensperger anticipates that 40% to 50% of the 1,567 Flathead County students who registered as homeschooled in the fall will return to the public school system. From a budgeting perspective, such a spike could help to even out the long-term impacts of the pandemic on enrollment.

However, Curtis is concerned about the potential for school-choice proponents to use the homeschool uptick when advocating for more public funding for private education this spring.

“The messaging around this pandemic and uncertainty and these numbers being used as evidence that these parents are forever going to want to homeschool their kids and we ought to be funding it, that’s very dangerous,” Curtis said.

As the Legislature digs deep into public school funding and other new education proposals in the coming weeks, the pandemic’s impact on enrollment figures across Montana will continue to be point of interest for educators and the public alike.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.