Because of the COVID-19 virus, subsequent government shutdowns and mandates, there has been a surge in homeschooling in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that over 2020 and into 2021 there has been a “substantial increase” in homeschooled children across the nation, with the agency reporting that homes with at least one homeschooled child doubled to 11.1% from 5.4% — the largest jump since the education department was created in May of 1980.

In North Dakota, homeschooling is on the rise. According to the North Dakota Home School Association, more than 5,300 students were homeschooled for the 2020-21 school year.

Elizabeth Buck, who is the office administrator for the North Dakota Home School Association, said one of the greatest perks of homeschooling is that it gives parents the freedom of choice.

“Parents can choose the curriculum they feel best suits their children and family's needs. They can choose a religious or secular curriculum,” Buck said. “There are so many methods of education and curriculum available in the marketplace that it is almost overwhelming when a parent is initially considering homeschooling as an option for their family.”

In 2007, there were 1,478 homeschooled students in North Dakota, which was the first year of recorded data for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Buck said. By the 2019-2020 school year, that figure more than doubled, totaling to 3,762 homeschooled students. Amid coronavirus restrictions in 2020, that number continued to rise with a total of 5,343 homeschooled students for the 2020-2021 school year.

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According to the DPI website, there were more than 400 homeschooled students in Stark County, alone, for the 2020-2021 school year. The DPI website breaks down the number of homeschooled students per school district for the 2020-2021 school year, showing 327 students in Dickinson, 41 students in South Heart, 27 students in Belfield, 19 students in Richardton-Taylor and nine students in New England.

Lori Wentz of Dickinson leads the Southwest North Dakota Homeschoolers group, which she described as a co-operative that provides resources and information to parents who are new to homeschooling.

"It's informal; it's just parents working together," Wentz said.

She said homeschooling is a great option utilized by many parents temporarily in North Dakota who move frequently because they are enlisted in the military or work in the oilfields.

“It’s easier to homeschool because then you know they’re getting one consistent education without moving them around,” she said.

Wentz said another advantage of homeschooling is that parents don’t have to worry about controversial ideas such as critical race theory being pushed onto their children.

“We don’t have to deal with any of that nonsense,” Wentz said.

In recent years, North Dakota has lifted some requirements Wentz said she believed to be unnecessary.

“We are no longer required to submit testing for the public school. When all the Common Core uproar was going on, parents wanted to opt out of testing. We won that right, which is really good because the curriculum we use is pretty different from what the public school uses," Wentz said.

Wentz uses an Asian style of mathematics curriculum which she noted is more effective than Common Core. She said she received a high volume of phone calls from frustrated parents when schools shut down and went to virtual learning during the pandemic.

“It wasn’t necessarily their fault, but they (public schools) had to go to an online platform very quickly. And it perhaps wasn’t done with as much forethought as (it) could have been,” she said. “... Because of that, a lot of kids with special needs kind of fell through the cracks.”

One of the most common objections to homeschooling Wentz said she encounters is the notion that homeschooled children lack an adequate social life which she considers an outdated concern, even in a sparsely populated state such as North Dakota. She said students and their parents get together frequently.

“They participate in dance, gymnastics, Girl Scouts, etc. They do a lot of the same activities that public schoolers do. The only difference is that we're not in a school going from one room to the next for eight hours a day,” Wentz said. “I think my kids actually get more social interaction than some public school kids do because we have more time to be available for those things.”

Every Monday night, the Southwest North Dakota Homeschoolers group gets together to play Dungeons and Dragons and Magic the Gathering. On Friday nights, the group plays board games and other activities. The group has gym classes that meet twice a month, as well as a monthly swim day. They also do periodic field trips.

“So there’s always a big group of teenage boys hanging out at my house and eating my food. My kids have public school and homeschool friends. We even have a huge community on Xbox,” Wentz said, adding that they use designated servers on Xbox Live with special rules so they can kick out gamers who are using vulgar language. “So it’s a safe place for kids to hang out.”

Wentz said homeschooling is more affordable than some might think.

“When my oldest daughter Lizzie was younger, we were pretty tight on finances back then. I think I spent like $200 a year on curriculum,” she said. “And that's because we practically lived at the library. I made use of the library all the time. I made use of free resources. I did things very, very economically. It is absolutely possible to do so, it just requires more planning. If you spend a little more on curriculum you don't have to plan much, which is nice.”

For more information on all of the homeschool cooperatives, visit ndhsa.org.