Pandemic prompts parents to choose new paths for education

Pandemic prompts parents to choose new paths for education
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Not long ago, most parents’ stress from the back-to-school season amounted to finding their school supply list and wading through the crowds to shop for students’ new clothes, backpacks, pencils and notebooks. 

But this year, thanks to the pandemic disrupting life’s rhythms and routines, parents across the country are scrambling to set up new schools. If necessity is the mother of invention, then mothers from Virginia to California are striving to fill this frustrating time with creative opportunities. A year ago, no one would have dared to predict explosive growth for home-based learning or cooperative arrangements in which families instruct each other’s kids or hire professional tutors. But that’s where we are. 

Even as the nation reckons with the fallout from schooling disruptions that disproportionately harm low-income and other disadvantaged students, some parents may be making a long-term investment in their children’s education by solving a short-term problem they never expected to face.  

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During the transition to remote instruction caused by COVID-19, many distance learning programs fell flat. Two-thirds of districts did not expect teachers to give students meaningful instruction or feedback, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Many parents, for their part, witnessed up close what engages their children and motivates them to learn, what material challenges them, and where they need extra help.

In Michigan, shortly after school buildings closed down, the state education department announced it would not count hours spent on remote instruction. While the governor’s orders later overrode that announcement, it gave districts permission to take weeks in moving to any kind of formal instruction. Many of the state’s parents believed the schools gave their children inadequate educational offerings, which set back their learning. 

Families don’t want to head back down that road again, and many parents want their children back in a traditional classroom setting. Some fear exposure to the virus by returning to any sort of in-person learning. But others don’t want their children to return to a campus with social distancing, face masks and temperature screenings in place.

School systems would be wise to provide families a range of options to meet these different demands. Uncertain how the virus will spread, and urged by teachers unions to take extra precautions for employees’ health, many school systems remain stuck in their habits and are bound by their rules. In Michigan, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor have followed the examples of larger districts around the country, announcing that they will not return to conventional classrooms for any in-person learning this fall.

Their decisions are an indictment not of teachers but rather of a rigid system that was designed for a time long since passed. The challenges associated with the pandemic have only highlighted the need for change.

Students, who have one but shot at a K-12 academic career to prepare them for life, cannot afford to wait for systems to change. Families with financial means have an easier time responding to classroom shutdowns through creative, organic approaches to schooling. It’s their prerogative as the primary decision-makers for their children’s education. Federal lawmakers could ease their burden by allowing tax-exempt 529 education savings plans to also pay for at-home learning expenses. But that help wouldn’t greatly alter the educational path many parents already have decided to follow.

When not urging families to keep their children’s enrollment (and funding) in a district that may not serve them well, defenders of the status quo protest that departing from current arrangements is unfair. For parents who struggled to make ends meet even before facing the extra child care costs imposed by the pandemic, the idea of micro-schooling may seem far-fetched. This is especially true of lower-income families, who deserve the option of conventional in-person learning, wherever possible, as well as the choice of safe and creative alternatives to district schooling that only their wealthy neighbors can afford. 

The solution for state lawmakers is simple and straightforward: Provide stipends to families that are pursuing home education. While parents wait for state leaders to prioritize funding students over systems, private charity could step up to sponsor students. Elected officials should approve extra tax benefits for donations to such organizations.

It’s too early to know how many parents will continue to take education into their own hands when the crisis moment ends, and how many will return to traditional schooling. But the taste of something different might cause a large number of parents to embrace the educational alternatives before them, and embolden them to advocate more for their children’s individual learning needs. 

Such changes would have widespread benefits, as greater parent involvement is a key ingredient to a student’s success. A family’s economic status should not stand in the way of encouraging this opportunity.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.