It’s easy to homeschool in Texas. A cursory search leads to a step-by-step guide for withdrawing your kid from the school system. Plug a few bits of information into a templated letter, send to a district administrator, and voila! You’re running a school, and everything your kid learns is entirely up to you.

“It was so nerve-racking,” says Sarahi Espitia, a mom of four in McKinney, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas. After a grueling spring of remote learning, Espitia began homeschooling her kids at the start of the 2020 school year. As a graduate of public schools, she felt like she had just plunged her family into the unknown. “We’re so used to going to school.”

Except that the definition of “going to school” had been radically upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Campuses closed abruptly, while children and teachers struggled mightily with online learning. Espitia, who also helps run the family’s restaurant, was left to navigate confusing new platforms, screen-time fatigue, and endless technical malfunctions for four children. Her kids were 10, 8, 6, and 3; her youngest, a preschooler, didn’t even know how to use a mouse yet. By the end of the year, Espitia says, her “kids were crying.” Wearied by online learning, yet wary of letting her children return to in-person learning, she turned to homeschooling—just for the year, just until things got back to normal.

The country appears to be on the verge of going back to normal—her district’s schools have been open for months—but Espitia’s kids won’t be going back to traditional school. Over the past year, she was able to shift her kids’ learning schedule outside of the weekday lockstep; because her husband works on weekends, she treats Mondays like a weekend, where kids have less “school” and everyone can spend more time together as a family. She liked that she could teach her kids more Mexican history than they learned in schools. Last year, she joined a Latinos Homeschooling Facebook group, where families share resources such as Spanish children’s books and curriculum ideas. Next school year, she plans to keep teaching her kids herself.

Espitia is a part of a wave of parents and caregivers who withdrew their children from US public schools and elected to homeschool because of the pandemic—and she’s part of a group that isn’t going back. The crisis gave rise to a diverse swath of families that are using tech to totally customize their kids’ learning, and they might even change what “going to school” means in the post-pandemic world.

A More Diverse Class of Homeschoolers

While homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, it has never been considered the American norm. In 2019, homeschooled students represented just 3.2 percent of US students in grades K through 12, or around 1.7 million students. By comparison, 90 percent of US students attend public school. But a March 2021 report from the US Census Bureau indicates an uptick in homeschooling during the pandemic: In spring 2020, 5.4 percent of surveyed households reported homeschooling their children (homeschooling being distinct from remote learning at home through a public or private school). By fall 2020, the figure had doubled to 11.1 percent.

The pandemic may also have given rise to a more diverse group of homeschoolers. In 2012, 84 percent of homeschool families were white. The US Census Bureau’s survey indicates that homeschooling rates increased across all ethnic groups in the past year, and the greatest shift was among Black families, who reported a 3.3 percent rate of homeschooling in spring 2020 and 16.1 percent later in the fall.

“Covid-19 was the publicist for homeschooling,” says Khadija Ali-Coleman, a longtime homeschooling parent and a researcher who studies African American homeschool students. In April 2020, Ali-Coleman and researcher Cheryl Fields-Smith cofounded the Black Family Homeschool Educators and Scholars network to connect researchers and the handful of Black homeschool families they had met through their research. But what began as a small Facebook group climbed to over 1,000 members, including many families new to homeschooling.

Families shared a number of forces that drove them away from public and private schools. Some were exhausted by the glitchy mayhem of remote learning. Other BFHES families pulled their children from schools after they overheard how teachers spoke to their children, admonishing students who didn’t maintain eye contact or keep cameras on.