CINCINNATI — It didn't take long into the COVID-19 pandemic for Mandy Duff to notice a new challenge facing her 9-year-old daughter, Harper. Like thousands of other students across the Tri-State, she had to begin remote learning from home, working primarily on a computer throughout the day.
"I get a lot of headaches from screens if I, like, have it all day," Harper Duff told WCPO.
"It wasn't a good fit for her," Mandy Duff said. "It was just a lot of Zoom fatigue. I could see that virtual was a challenge for her, but it was a hard decision."
Ultimately, Mandy Duff — a former teacher herself — decided to homeschool Harper as an alternative to virtual learning.
"I was just kind of thinking, 'What am I doing here?'" Mandy Duff said. "I'm a teacher, and this is something I could be doing with her."
The Duffs weren't alone. Preliminary data from the Ohio Department of Education show that between 2019 and 2020, homeschool participation grew by about 25% across the state, which equals close to 5,000 children.
Duff said Harper gets her schoolwork finished much faster now than before, and that leaves time for Harper to explore her other interests.
Amanda LaGuardia considered homeschooling for her daughter, as well, but decided it wasn't a good fit for her family.
"I just couldn't properly attend to her education," LaGuardia said. "My context definitely played into my decision-making there."
University of Cincinnati economics professor Dr. Michael Jones said the COVID-19 pandemic allowed people to consider education alternatives like homeschooling or private school districts.
"I don't think you're going to see all of those children go back into the public school system," Jones told WCPO. "I think some parents have realized that they appreciate the flexibility."
Jones added that, with fewer students returning to public school districts, that could mean more investment per student.
"Because more of those students are now being homeschooled, it actually allows for more dollars per student for those students that still are in the public school system," he said.
A representative with ODE confirmed to WCPO that publicly funded school districts will not lose money in the current budget if more students opt not to return.
As for the costs associated with homeschooling, those will depend on what path parents choose.
"Micro schools" are one alternative, said Tasha Ring, director at Meridian Learning based in Mount Washington. Ring said homeschooling doesn't necessarily look like it did in decades past.
"A micro school is essentially the re-invention of the one-room schoolhouse," Ring said. "A lot of people had preconceived ideas about what homeschoolers look like. A lot of those preconceived notions have been shattered."
Micro schools could also offer some of the social interactions that a stricter version of homeschooling could miss, which Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center psychologist Dr. Lynne Merk said is critical to kids' development.
"We want to make sure kids know how to socialize and develop friendships and...learn how to compromise and negotiate," Merk said.
As the start of the school year looms on the horizon again, Mandy Duff said Harper will return to a traditional classroom but hopes her daughter will look back on the experience as a unique chapter.
"I hope that Harper looks back on it very fondly, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," she said. "But, you know, as a teacher, too, I see the value in a larger school system. I'm excited for her to get back to being a kid again and like running around at recess and laughing."
Harper Duff said she'll definitely look back on her third-grade year fondly.
"I think third grade is my favorite year of school so far because I got to spend time with my family at the time," she said.
For more information on homeschooling, the Ohio ODE addresses some frequently asked questions here.