When Covid hit, Vermont’s public school enrollment dropped and homeschooling spiked. Then the trend reversed.

Students head toward Edmunds Middle School in Burlington on the first day of classes in August. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Between the fall of 2019 and 2020, amid a pandemic year that saw the advent of virtual instruction, K-12 enrollment in Vermont’s public schools dropped by thousands. 

At the same time, the number of Vermont children being homeschooled spiked to a high not seen in nearly 40 years.

But between 2020 and 2021, the opposite happened: The number of homeschooled children decreased, while public schools saw a new influx of students. 

State enrollment data from the Covid-19 pandemic school year, last updated over the summer, shows a surge in interest in homeschooling — followed by an apparent reversal, as students returned to public school buildings.  

Enrollment in Vermont public schools and home study have exhibited steady but opposite trends over the years. Since 2004, the year with the earliest readily available data, Vermont’s public school enrollment has decreased by roughly 10,000 students. 

The number of Vermont children enrolled in homeschool, meanwhile, has ticked up over the decades, to roughly 2,600 by the fall of 2019 from 92 in 1981. 

But the Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on both forms of schooling.

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, Vermont public school enrollment dropped by roughly 2,900 students — meaning the state lost roughly 3.5% of its public school students. (That loss increases to roughly 5% if pre-K enrollment is factored in.)

At the same time, the number of homeschooled students more than doubled, increasing from about 2,600 to 5,500. 

That figure comes from Agency of Education data organized by Retta Dunlap, who runs the homeschool advocacy group Vermont Home Education Network.

Parents had multiple reasons for switching to homeschool in 2020, Dunlap said.

Homeschooling parents are “not any one label,” she said. “I mean, they are across the board. You can’t call them all Christians. You can’t call them all atheists or Democrats or Republicans. They’re just all over.” 

For many, she said, the move was prompted by concerns about school mask mandates and the possibility of Covid-19 vaccine mandates. (Vermont has not required the Covid-19 vaccine to attend school.) 

Some were frustrated with the virtual learning that schools had implemented in the spring of 2020, Dunlap said. Remote instruction also gave parents a chance to see what their children’s classrooms and curricula looked like — and some did not like what they saw. 

“Covid put a big window onto the public school system, and what they do in a classroom,” she said. “And a picture’s worth 1,000 words. That’s not going to be so (easy) to shake from parents’ minds.”

Some parents who made the switch to homeschooling during the pandemic plan to stick with it, according to Dunlap. But, according to the Agency of Education, many home study students returned to public school in the fall of 2021 — the first year since the pandemic when schools planned to be in session full time. 

Between October 2020 and October 2021, enrollment in the state’s public schools increased by over 1,100.  

Meanwhile, the number of Vermont students enrolled in home study dropped by about 1,500. The reason for the discrepancy between the two figures is unclear. 

“In (the fall of 2021), we saw many folks switch from homestudy to in-person learning,” said Suzanne Sprague, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Education.

Vermont’s school enrollment data is collected in October, after students have settled into their schools, and generally becomes publicly available the following year. Data for the fall of 2022 will become available early next year, a state spokesperson said.

The state changed its data collection processes in the 2018-19 school year, Sprague said, which “had impacts” on that year’s data.

The state has also seen an influx of residents during the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, the state welcomed over 4,800 new people, the vast majority of whom arrived from other parts of the country. 

It’s not clear if that migration had an impact on the bump in enrollment in the fall of 2021 — or if it signals a change in the long decline in the state’s school-aged population. 

“There’s so many factors at play, right?” said Ted Fisher, an Agency of Education spokesperson. “The overall narrative about declining enrollment has been that just young Vermonters are less likely to want to live in Vermont than they were in previous generations.”

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When Covid hit, Vermont’s public school enrollment dropped and homeschooling spiked. Then the trend reversed.