How to Choose Between In-Person School, Online Learning, and Home School

Evaluating Learning Options During the Pandemic

Teen girl remote learning via online video lesson

 Getty Images/valentinrussanov

Few things are more important to a child's future than getting a quality education. That education can come from three main learning platforms: in-person learning at public or private schools, home schooling, or virtual learning via an online school.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made choosing the right platform harder. Parents should always keep a few key considerations in mind when making their choice. This includes the cost of each type of program, the time required for parents and students, and the type of learning experience children can receive.

In-Person Learning

In-person learning can take place in public or private schools. Trained teachers conduct classes, which children attend along with other kids. While every child is entitled to free public education, access to private schools relies on their parents’ ability to pay tuition. Some private schools are affiliated with religious organizations; some are not.

Registration policies for public schools differ by district, and many require parents to prove they live in the district when registering their children. Parents may also need to provide proof of a child's age before registering.


Public schools are free, while tuition at private schools varies.

Time Requirement for Student

Children are expected to attend in-person school during all times when instruction is being offered. There's variation in the number of days students must be in school, as well as the number of hours of instruction that must be provided.

In Kentucky, for example, schools must operate for a minimum of 170 days, while other states, including Alabama and California, require a minimum of 180 days of schooling. And while Delaware requires a minimum of 3.5 hours of schooling per day, Mississippi requires 5.5 hours excluding lunch and recess.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides a state-by-state guide to the minimum number of hours students must attend.

Time Requirement for Parent

Parents usually have limited obligations for in-person learning beyond monitoring homework assignments and making sure their kids get to and from school. Many schools encourage parents to volunteer some of their time.


States across the U.S. have truancy laws that impose penalties when children do not regularly attend school.


As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, in-person schooling has substantial benefits for children. Schools not only provide educational instruction, but also assistance developing social skills and emotional skills. For some students, schools also help to meet nutritional needs that parents may struggle to fulfill.

Online Learning

Online learning takes place over a computer or tablet rather than in person. Courses are typically developed and taught by licensed teachers. Students may attend live classes administered over the internet and have the opportunity to ask questions, or may watch video-recorded classes and connect with their teachers via email or other communication methods.

Registration requirements and time requirements vary based on the online program that students attend. Some schools are exclusively online, such as Florida Virtual School, while brick-and-mortar school districts may have their own online platforms.


Public schools throughout the country are offering online learning either full- or part-time during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Many online programs are free, although certain criteria may need to be met to attend. For example, Florida Virtual School offers a fee-free online program to Florida residents while requiring students to meet all school district requirements and participate in state testing.

Time Requirement for Student

Time requirements can vary by program. For example, students in Maryland Virtual Academy spend four to six hours a day on schoolwork, whereas students attending Florida Virtual School spend four hours a day from kindergarten to third grade and five hours a day from grades 4-12. The school may require your children to spend time both watching video instruction or attending in-person classes as well as independent time completing coursework.

Time Requirement for Parent

Parents may need to provide more support for children by aiding them in using technology, especially for very young children. The Maryland Virtual Academy estimates that your direct participation in your student’s learning will require roughly three to five hours a day for early grades and about two to three hours a day for middle school.


While some studies have found in-person classes to be more effective on average than online classes, some students do better with virtual learning than in-person courses. However, students who struggle with in-person education tend to have an even more difficult time learning online.


Most states have performance-based accreditation systems so if a school is not accredited, you should find out why before allowing your child to attend.

Home Schooling

Home schooling involves school programs run by parents, rather than by a public or private school. It differs from online learning because parents have more control over the curriculum as well as over when coursework is completed.

Parents can choose to purchase a full curriculum that comes predesigned or can develop their own curriculum and coursework based on their child's needs. States have different laws for home school, but most parents must file a notice with their school district of intent to home-school or must otherwise register their child with a local school. You can see state laws on the website of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).


Parents will incur costs for a curriculum, learning materials such as textbooks, field trips, and extracurriculars. However, there are multiple ways to home-school your kids while keeping costs manageable. The HSLDA estimates that you can keep your costs as low as $50-$100 per student, per year, and as high as $500 or more per student.

Time Requirement for Student

Time requirements can vary by student and program. The Illinois State Board of Education has created a table showing how long students should spend learning at home, based on their grade level. While pre-K students should be doing coursework for a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 60 minutes a day, high schoolers should be working for between 120 and 270 minutes daily.

Time Requirement for Parent

Parents are the teachers, so you’ll need to spend considerable time designing a curriculum and working with your children in learning. The more personalized the curriculum, the more time you’ll spend planning and teaching.


Some past studies have shown that home-schooled students perform at least as well as their public school peers in terms of test scores and college admissions. However, the effectiveness depends on the program parents choose, the quality of education provided, and the needs of the student.

How To Choose Between In-Person School, Online Learning, and Home School

Parents have a lot to think about when deciding where to send their children to school, especially during COVID-19.

"Whether we're facing the pandemic or not, the most important predictor of the child's success remains, in my opinion, a positive between an individual student's learning needs and the selected school environment's offerings in six areas," Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, told The Balance by email.

The six factors Chaluisán advised parents to consider are: 

  • Safety
  • Social-emotional development
  • Academic success
  • Learning needs
  • Technology
  • The setting where the education takes place

This means focusing on opportunities the program provides for social development, its track record on providing the support students need to be successful, and whether the program supports the child's specific way of learning. Both the level of connectivity in the home and the parent's options for child care are also important.

Melissa Lowry, an education coach and former teacher and principal, also cautioned that it's important to take into account the impact the decision will have on parents. "Many parents do not have the time nor the expertise to home-school effectively," Lowry told The Balance by email.

She advised asking some key questions, including how the time commitment will affect the parents’ job, as well as the entire family's quality of life.

By looking at the big picture and taking into account how virtual, in-person, and home schooling could affect the child and the family unit, parents can make a decision that makes the most sense for their needs.

Key Takeaways

  • In-person learning, virtual learning, and home schooling each have pros and cons
  • Look for an accredited program when choosing virtual schooling
  • Home schooling could lead to higher test scores but requires more time and effort from the parent
  • Parents should consider safety, the time requirement for each option, and each child's learning style when deciding which option is best
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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Education Statistics. "Table 5.14. Number of Instructional Days and Hours in the School Year, by State: 2018."

  2. Home School Legal Defense Association. "Homeschooling on a Budget...or No Budget?"

  3. Illinois State Board of Education. "Remote Learning Recommendations During COVID-19 Emergency." Page 18.

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