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More Arkansas families plan to home school this fall amid coronavirus pandemic

More than 7,000 students' parents have filed to home school their kids this year than at the same time last year.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Despite expanded public school options for families this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number are concluding they can't beat home sweet home when it comes to educating their kids.

The trend comes as many districts plan virtual academies for families concerned about in-person learning and prepare for the likelihood schools may close to contain outbreaks. With two weeks until the start of school, some are looking at the structure of the online and hybrid plans and deciding to do it themselves, on their own terms.

RELATED: COVID-19 prompts new school bus safety measures

"It's been a little stressful. I'm not gonna lie," said Aimee Newcomer, a mother of four from Hot Springs, three of whom have special needs. 

Their various appointments and the rigid schedule of her local district's virtual academy convinced her to go it alone as a family.

"It just seemed like it was going to be less stress on the children and on ourselves as a family to just keep everyone at home," she said.

While the family goes it alone in relation to their district, they are far from alone in choosing this route.

"We are at a little over 7,000 students whose parents have filed notice of intent this year than at the same time last year," said state education secretary Johnny Key, referring to the document parents must sign and send to the local superintendent.

It seems obvious to blame the virus for the surge, but Key points out other factors at play. Among them, ADE is in the third year of a streamlined system for informing districts of a family's plans. Legislation passed in the past two sessions also allows home school students to participate in more extracurricular activities like sports in their local districts.

But the growing numbers still may surprise some after the difficulties of public school online learning last spring.

Key points out the important difference between home school and virtual school.

"A student who is part of a virtual academy, they are still a public school student," he said.

That separation from the public school structure is at the heart of why many families have traditionally chosen home school, but the overall image of the concept is evolving, according to Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council.

"In the past, the movement was championed by evangelical Christians, but that's not uniform anymore," said Cox, whose group supports the Education Alliance, the largest statewide organization for homeschooling.

"After the way online school rolled out this spring, I would have predicted a lot of parents would have called [homeschooling] the dumbest thing in the world," he said. "But many are figuring it's not so bad. We can control the schedule and take a vacation during the year."

Cox also points to the change in homeschooling laws that say a parent doesn't have to do the educating. They just need to provide the education. That clears the way for the creation of education co-ops, which predated the trendy "learning pods" that are being organized amid the pandemic.

"I think learning pods may be a new name, but it's a new name attached to a concept that has been around for a while," said Key.

Experts caution parents not to take an informal approach to a pod, homeschooling, or virtual learning. If you choose one of the first two options, you need to declare that to the district to keep the truant officer from getting involved.

RELATED: VERIFY: Data tracking COVID-19 in Arkansas schools

There is also a formal deadline to submit that declaration of intent on August 15. All things to consider while evaluating your stress levels.

"Honestly, it seems like the virtual school, and I know that they've done the best that they can, but it seems like virtual school is going to be more stressful than in-person or home school," said Newcomer.