Lesley Stroot is a 21-year veteran public high school teacher from Maryland. Her school has been virtual since March 16th, 2020—she remembers the date. Unlike other public schools in her surrounding area, Stroot’s district hasn’t yet tried any amount of hybrid, in-person instruction.

“I teach all day without a single student turning on a camera,” Stroot told IWF. “I have no idea if they are learning the material…I liken it to being a stand-up comedian who bombs their set every day.”

While the number of students receiving A’s in her district have increased, so have the number of students who are failing. What Stroot has observed follows what pandemic education research is showing: a widening education achievement gap, where high-performing, well-off students are still excelling, while special needs and disadvantaged children fail at concerning rates.

Stroot would go back to in-person learning tomorrow if she could. She calls virtual teaching “soul-crushing.”

“I’m struggling, my students are struggling, and I just feel completely helpless as an educator.”

Meanwhile, her husband teaches at a Catholic school in the same district, where students, including the couple’s three children, learn in-person full-time. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stroot’s two daughters already attended the private Catholic school where her husband teaches. When they learned that public schools wouldn’t reopen for in-person instruction, they enrolled her son into the private school as well.

“It’s been the best decision for him, for our family, for everyone involved,” Stroot said. “We fortunately had a choice. Many people do not, and I really think that people are starting to open their eyes and say, ‘This is needed.’”

With the remote learning crisis that’s unfolded in the past year, demand for alternative options is exploding. Since pandemic learning began, an estimated 3.5 million students have left the public school system for private schools, homeschooling, virtual charters, microschools, and “pandemic pods.” But with money attached to institutions instead of students, families without means have no option but to keep their children enrolled in virtual public schools.

“School choice isn’t important just now in the middle of a pandemic, which hopefully we won’t see again for another 100 years,” Stroot said. If there’s something she hopes everyone has learned from the pandemic, “it’s that parents do need to have a choice in where and how they’re going to educate their children.”

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