Our COVID-19 World Demands Parental School Choice

I’ve asked two dozen parents what they are planning to do with their children if/when schools re-open in the fall. Nearly all said something like this:  “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.” 

During the back-to-school season, parents are usually jumping for joy while their kids are dreading the return of school. This year the roles have reversed. The uncertainty brought by a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in many states has parents fearing the dangers the 2020-21 school year could bring. Will social distancing, sanitizing, and mandating masks make classrooms safe? Or will schools inevitably become a Petri dish for the coronavirus?  

No one really knows.  

But If there’s one hopeful thing that this pandemic has brought to American K-12 education, it’s change. For example, COVID-19 has upended the nauseatingly circular debate over parental school choice. We stopped wasting our breath on ideological quarrels about whether public funding should be made available to students who attend private schools or kept exclusively for charter and traditional district schools. Why? Because the virus shut ALL the schools down!    

When that happened, it became painfully obvious just how deeply flawed and inequitable the American educational system is. We got to see just how rigid, antiquated, and ill-equipped some school districts were. Millions of children went totally off the grid–no one heard from them in months. And of the children who did show up for remote learning, students with disabilities and those from low-income or black and brown communities were grossly underserved. (To their credit, however, many school districts did an amazing job serving desperately needed meals to the community.)     

During the school shutdown, parents were forced to deal with the academic, social, and emotional needs of their children on an entirely different level. They saw the gaps in their child’s learning up close and personal, all day long. It was torture. I know because I was one of the millions of parents who worked from home while also trying to manage virtual learning for multiple children with just one spare computer.  

Parents understood the dire circumstances of the time, but we being proactive to minimize as much future chaos as possible. Black parents are especially cautious, repeating the same refrain regarding the future schooling for their children: I haven’t decided yet.”  

I emphasized the words “I” and “decided” because, in the post-COVID world, Black parents are much more prone to demand our God-given right to choose the best educational options for their children. We are no longer willing to accept the often-substandard schools that the government tends to assign to our zipcodes. We are searching for creative, effective, and safe schooling solutions for our kids in the event there’s a school lockdown again. After all, if a school is underperforming with the kids they see every day, it will likely be ten times worse if instruction goes virtual.  

In a post-COVID society, what’s best for the child and the family must be at the core of all educational decisions–not what’s best for maintaining our 100-year old public education system that rarely, if ever, made racial equity a top priority.  

So let’s talk about these choices.   

At first glance, real-time parental school choice seems like a question from a dystopic edition of the game “Would You Rather?” Would you rather give up your main source of income to safely and effectively educate your three kids at home? Or would you rather send your kids to school so that you can go to work and hope they don’t contract a highly infectious virus that has killed thousands of people in your city?  

No, that’s NOT the parental school choice I’m talking about!  

District schools, charters, and private schools across the country are now actively responding to the concerns of parents and complying with the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control so that they retain their teachers and compel families to return. These schools are staggering student schedules to limit the number of bodies in the building; repurposing school facilities like creating outdoor lunchrooms and one-directional hallways; establishing smaller learning cohorts that cycle teachers, not students, in/out of classrooms; offering deep cleaning regularly; and bringing in more school counselors and nurses to provide adequate mental and physical health services for students, just to name a few.  

Homeschooling, grandparent caregiving, “micro-schooling” or learning co-ops, and blended learning and virtual-only schools are also viable education alternatives for parents who don’t trust sending their kids back into school buildings.  

In essence, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the implementation of best practices and flexible learning models–a feat that 30+ years of educational research couldn’t achieve! With all it’s death and destruction, COVID-19 has also managed to awaken American education’s imagination.  

Now is the time for education policymakers to support parental school choice, that is, allowing public education dollars to follow the student to the schooling option the parents deem is the best fit for their child’s needs. Policymakers must expand, not limit, parental school choice because placing a child in the right/wrong school could literally be a matter of life and death.  

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s taught us that we won’t survive if we don’t radically change the way we do business. That’s especially true for education. 

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