With Gov. Asa Hutchinson mandating the reopening of brick and mortar public schools in Arkansas for in-person instruction during the week of August 24, some parents are looking at other options, like homeschooling, or one of the state's virtual charter schools.
Jennifer Chosich, who lives outside of Little Rock, has homeschooled her 8th grade daughter for her entire life. She believes interest in the homeschool network has increased over the summer.
"What I'm seeing is a growth in the message boards of parents asking about the different virtual schools in Arkansas. Virtual schools are not traditional homeschooling, those are public schooling, but at home," Chosich said. "As well as asking questions about standard homeschooling. What do you do? What are the methods? When do you start? How do you start? These are all things that are coming up now."
Some parents opt to homeschool their children for religious reasons, preferring to provide instruction and curriculum aligned with their religious beliefs. Chosich describes herself as a secular homeschooling parent. She says typically many homeschooled students meet together for learning, and sports, but that has changed during the pandemic.
"As homeschoolers in the coronavirus, a lot of our activities are moving on-line. We are not having so many organized meetups and we are only looking at on-line activities, and on-line book clubs, and on-line meetups, and on-line team-building exercises and things to get our kids face-to-face, but in a virtual way."
Chosich credits the state's public libraries, particularly the Cabot Public Library, for stepping up to offer more virtual classes and programs for kids during the pandemic.
To officially register for homeschool, parents must submit a Notice of Intent through the Arkansas Department of Education or to the superintendent's office of their local school district. The deadline for submission for this school year is Saturday, August 15. Parents filing notices of intent after the deadline, may have to wait up to 14 days to be allowed to begin homeschooling.
According to the most recent data from the Department of Education, about 22,000 students are homeschooled in the state each school year. Concerns over the coronavirus don't appear to be adding to homeschool enrollment significantly. Data provided by superintendents in Springdale, Bentonville, Fort Smith and Little Rock is consistent with, or below numbers from recent years.
However, two of the state's virtual charter schools are seeing significant increases in applications. Amy Johnson is the head of school for Arkansas Virtual Academy, a kindergarten through 12th grade on-line charter school. Like traditional physical schools, the academy has separate schools for elementary, middle and high school students.
"Our elementary has pretty much doubled in size from what it was last year, so it's definitely the area we're seeing the most growth," Johnson said. "We are seeing growth in middle school and high school, certainly there, but a much quicker uptick in the elementary grade levels, in K through 5."
Johnson says the on-line charter got permission from the state to raise its enrollment cap from 3,000 to 4,000 students in response to an increase in requests over the summer. The virtual school system currently has over 3,600 students registered and has hired close to a dozen additional teachers.
Johnson, who homeschooled her five children, says, "I think we're a really great space for families that would really like to homeschool, but they don't really understand maybe as much about how school works. Or they're not sure that they themselves are confident enough with content or the way they would structure their homeschool."
Arkansas Connections Academy, another of the state's on-line charter schools anticipates a 50% increase in enrollment this year, expecting to serve 2,400 students. Both virtual charter schools are public, tuition-free schools.