Parents, policy makers and presidents who love to tweet can all agree that our nation’s schools must be fully committed to educating children this fall. Unfortunately for the central planners in education bureaucracies, “fall” begins in August for the majority of states. Uncertainty abounds with parents afraid to send their children back into classrooms, many teachers only willing to teach online, and districts insisting schools cannot open without additional federal emergency education funding. With plans shifting and unclear, parents can reasonably conclude many traditional public schools will be unprepared to educate their children by the start of the 2020-21 school year.
This spring’s messy district-provided remote learning experience revealed that local school districts need to commit to stable online learning platforms and train teachers to provide high-quality remote instruction. The schools planning to physically open must prepare for the challenges of a hybrid schedule and socially-distanced logistics. These demands are too much for large, inefficient, and slow-moving bureaucratic systems. Disturbingly, a Pennsylvania superintendent confessed to an education reporter recently that, due to the COVID logistics and health concerns, “teaching and learning is basically at the bottom of the list of things we can plan for right now.” Often, teachers’ unions conflate political demands with public health ones; one union in Los Angeles called for a moratorium on charter school openings and for defunding of the police before it would support opening public schools.
The education establishment claims additional federal funds – $245 billion at the last count, around three times the normal federal investment in education – are required to “safely reopen” this fall. Let’s be honest, though. Only a tiny percentage of CARES Act COVID-response federal education funding has reached school districts, even though the bill was passed in March and the federal government swiftly released the funds to states. Those funds were for, “cleaning, equipment to protect student and teacher health, teacher training in remote instruction, and distance education tools” last spring. There is absolutely no way that federal funds included in the next COVID relief package, which will be debated later this month, will reach schools in time to open in August and September. Due to bureaucratic inertia and the requisite multiple rounds of paperwork, new federal COVID-response funds are unlikely to reach schools before 2021.
Even a brief glance at social media reveals that parents’ emotions and stress levels were highly elevated prior to President Trump introducing a federal component to already-fierce state and local debates about remote learning and hybrid school schedules. Many parents are expressing their angst through endless Facebook group discussions (which often deteriorate into vicious disputes) and fretful conversations at neighborhood pools, while others relentlessly submit questions to their school districts in their quest for answers that will quell their fears.
Too often, districts are not forthcoming with the information parents seek. One exhausted parent in my school district, for example, doggedly submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information about the district schools’ HVAC systems to try to determine the chances of viral spread at her school. At the end of the long process, the district informed her that the information she was requesting would cost her $3,537. She opted to keep her children out of the school buildings and chose the distance learning option for the fall.
Fortunately, in the midst of the chaos, parents are embracing educational options beyond their assigned public schools. For many, previously foreign options such as homeschooling, established online schools, hybrid homeschools and microschools are making their way into those Facebook forums and pool conversations. Despite the President’s wishes, the reality is that a lot of public schools are not going to open normally this fall and districts could change plans at any time. Districts like San Diego, CA, for example, had planned to offer in-person school five days a week, but just announced they will only provide online education. So, perhaps now is the perfect time for families to step away from the uncertainty and try a new approach to education.
For many families, a small educational environment will alleviate both their COVID and educational concerns. One trend gaining steam is forming “pods,” or small groups of collaborating households, to share responsibilities for either overseeing remote learning or providing homeschooling, while keeping interaction outside the “pod” – and thus risk for the virus – at a minimum.
The homeschooling and hybrid homeschooling communities are warmly welcoming and supporting new parents and students. State and community homeschooling organizations and experienced homeschoolers are offering support, webinars, curriculum advice, and encouragement. As J. Allen Weston, the National Home School Association executive director, observed, “the virtual schooling we saw this spring likely took far more of parents’ time than a homeschool group would.” Parents, including working and single parents who previously never thought they’d leave the neighborhood school they paid a fortune to attend when they bought their house, are ready to give homeschooling a try this year.
Another educational option gaining popularity is microschools. Microschools offer small school environments and personalized education, often in a home setting. Bellwether Partners describes microschools as having, “the flexibility to implement innovative educational approaches such as multi-age classrooms, highly personalized and student-led learning, blended learning, experiential learning, and teachers as the primary school leaders. “According to CNN, for the in-home microschool organization, Prenda, “website traffic was up 737% this June over the same month last year.” The model likely will grow as entrepreneurial-minded educators and parents embrace microschools as a way to escape the confines of traditional education and serve specific groups of families eager for a different style of education.
An educational model that could emerge in the coming school year, according to Bruce Hermie with the American Federation for Children, is accredited institutions that offer a la carte classes taught by certified instructors. With this option, parents could send their child to a Kumon-style facility with a small number of other children of their ability (regardless of age) for coursework such as advanced math and science. Parents could structure their schedules and customize actual schooling to the time period children learn best, while balancing their own work schedule.
All of these flexible options, while available for middle-class and wealthier parents out of pocket, should be supported with at least a portion of the state funds that would have gone to district schools. Education savings accounts, already available in five states, would help give more parents the financial flexibility to pursue the best options for their children.
Fellow parents, let’s all take a collective breath and realize that we have options and control over our children’s education, even in the midst of a pandemic. The traditional public school system chaos will rage on throughout the upcoming school year, but we can chart our own paths for our families. Excellent information and support for alternative educational models exist. We just need to steer clear of the never-ending, infuriating Facebook debates and explore and embrace the opportunities.