HUNTSVILLE — In 2020, Ophelia Talley was suddenly handed the opportunity, as she saw it, to homeschool her son, Noah.
"I had wanted to homeschool, and then COVID happened, and I was just like, well, we're trying it!" said the mom of two, who had previously sent her older son to kindergarten class in Huntsville.
Thousands of families learned at home during the pandemic. But while many returned to traditional classroom settings when schools reopened, a record number of families — and a record number of Black families, like the Talleys — opted out of school systems altogether.
"I'm seeing and hearing about lots of new families," said Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor of education at the University of Georgia who studies the prevalence of homeschooling among African Americans in the United States. "We're seeing more and more working families, and single parents — not stereotypical homeschooling situations — and they're finding ways to make their schedules work and share resources and teach in unique ways."
Fields-Smith said that throughout their time in the New World, Black families have pursued various ways to get an education, including relying on their own educators and community, even when it was illegal to learn to read or teach others.
As a result of that heritage, she said Black families she interviews tend to have a focus on shared, cultural and oral history and a determination to claim a better education for their children. Homeschooling is one way to push against public school systems that are often segregated and report poor outcomes for Black children.
"During slavery, if an African American slave learned how to read and write, they didn't keep it to themselves, they found ways to secretly teach each other," she said. "We have always been teaching ourselves for the uplift of our people."
Over the past year, a "statistically significant" number of Black households started homeschooling at least one child, moving the total number of households nationally from 3% to 16%, according to Sarah Grady, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Education, who spoke at a recent Harvard Kennedy School discussion.
It's tough to know how many families nationally might stick with homeschooling as pandemic restrictions ease, but substantial enrollment shifts could devastate public school funding and produce long-term effects.
Fierce debates around the country around in-person and remote learning efforts during the pandemic often cited virtual learning's impact on minority children and families. Yet Black families have been highly skeptical of efforts to return to in-person learning and have reported high levels of concern about potential health risks of sending children back to school buildings.
At least some chose not just to stay remote, but to stay at home for good.
It's tough to know exactly how many families homeschool in Alabama and across the country — definitions and state laws change, and Alabama has not required registration of homeschooled students for years — but recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that rates have grown substantially since the start of the pandemic.
Responses to a new survey from the bureau indicate 11.1% of households with school-age children were homeschooling nationally in October 2020, double the amount of the prior year. The bureau attempted to hone in on families conducting "true homeschooling," not just learning virtually through a public or private school.
In Alabama, 12% of families reported homeschooling in October 2020, against 5% that spring.
Homeschooling increased across all ethnic groups, with five times the number of Black households making the transition.
"Schools today tend to be test-oriented and standards-based, and home educators have more flexibility to focus on their children's interests; they tend to try and spend more time on them," Fields-Smith said. "But I also think the other piece of this is African American parents wanting their children to be validated and affirmed in who they are — to talk about their beauty, their possibilities — and to see being African American from a positive view, not a negative view."
On social media, Christal Gamble — who shares homeschooling tips and curriculum at @mamasweetbaby — frequently uses the hashtag #BlackHistory365.
"He's not learning about Africa like it's one country; he's learning about the whole continent. He's learning all 54 countries and their capitals," Gamble said of her 6-year-old, Cash Banks. "We talk about #BlackHistory365. It's an everyday component. Kids are being confronted earlier and earlier with racial issues, and with teaching at home, that's one area where I can make sure he has a strong foundation and is confident in himself."
Years earlier, Gamble began dedicating time to work with Cash on reading, math, Spanish and other subjects even before he went to pre-K. When Cash's congenital heart condition became reason to keep him home last school year, switching to homeschool full-time wasn't that much of a transition. Gamble works in sales, and both mother and son now work and learn at home.
"I'm fine with the school system, there's nothing wrong with the school system," she said — she herself graduated from Madison City's high school and her older sons still attend public school. "But, yeah, COVID definitely gave me a pause to go ahead and pull the youngest completely out. I knew we wouldn't be going back anytime soon, and I already knew he learned well at home."
Now, she and Cash dedicate time to learning math facts and geography. She tries to speak exclusively in Spanish for part of the day — in the morning, which means he knows a lot of words for breakfast foods.
"The parent is the child's first teacher," she said. "If you establish that relationship and make the bond very strong, you've got something to work with and you can always learn together."
'Looks like you'
Over the past year, new homeschooling families found others on social media.
Talley had met Gamble years earlier through her work as a lactation consultant, and they reconnected over social media recently. Talley frequently mentions homeschooling on her Instagram, @ophelia.t.iam.
"Then I noticed (Gamble) was learning from home, and she's just been an integral part in telling me that I can do this. Just having that other person that looks like you … is so important."
Just as Talley and Gamble found each other online, Talley also virtually connected with another Black mom in the Birmingham area, Krystin Godfrey.
Godfrey began homeschooling her oldest daughter four years ago, after a move made a commute to their old public school untenable.
"We really couldn't find a new school that we were satisfied with, so we decided to try homeschooling," said Godfrey, who was a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom and turning to blogging at @growingupgodfrey. "I had an idea of how to teach and I've taught in the classroom before, so we decided to give it a go, and we absolutely kept going."
Having homeschooling friends who parent Black and biracial children helped her see what was possible, she said.
"It was like almost a mental block for me to get to the point of quitting my job, even though I knew I wanted to stay home with my kids," she said. "I didn't know I was going to homeschool. But I knew that I wanted to be home. It still took me months to get my brain ready to process the fact that I was going to quit my job and do it."
Godfrey checks her curriculum and her children's progress against Alabama's state education standards, so that if one decides to go back to a traditional classroom, they'll be on track. In fact, this fall, her oldest daughter will return to public school for seventh grade.
"It's something that we've prayed about every year and has always been on the table," Godfrey said. She plans to continue working with her younger children at home.
Godfrey said she enjoys homeschooling and advises new families to think about it as a way to "focus on the kids' talents, rather than a burdensome checklist."
'Love, memories and experiences'
Similar advice, given by Gamble a few weeks into the Talley family homeschooling effort, was incredibly welcome, Ophelia Talley said.
"At first, we started out with a strict homeschool schedule, and it was extremely stressful for me and for my kids," she said. "It was ridiculous. So I actually reached out to Christal, and she was like no, you're stressing everyone out, you should only be doing an hour a day, maybe two."
Since then, the Talleys have eased into a gentler pace, often directed by the interests of Noah, who is 7, and Joseph, who is 5. The boys love learning about math problems and animals, and Ophelia works in her own interests too, such as moon phases and cycles.
She and her husband, who works a full-time job in addition to entrepreneurial efforts, split teaching duties.
"Even though I have a full-time job I'm also a full-time parent," Aaron Talley said. "There's definitely a part of me that misses that time I would have if they were in a traditional school setting. But the love, memories and experiences I get to make with my children on their learning journey is extraordinary."
Parents often talk about how to socialize homeschooled children, Ophelia said, but even though her children weren't in traditional classrooms during the school year, she set up online camps and playdates for them.
Homeschooling began as a reaction to COVID adjustments, Ophelia said, but her family is settling into the system and is beginning to plan for the long term by looking for a nanny or tutor.
Gamble said she and her husband plan to keep her son at home for several years, but could envision him re-entering the public school system for high school.
"We'll take it year by year, and if he wants to go back, we will," she said. "He's always going to be learning something at home."