Schooling Selection Can Stop Fights Over Covid Insurance policies | Opinion
By Colleen Hroncich
“One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education.” This is a phrase that advocates for education choice have used for years to explain why families need choices. But it has never been as true as it is today when dealing with COVID-19.
Before the Christmas holidays, many Pennsylvania school districts had considered switching to distance learning due to concerns about the Omicron variant. Some teachers – particularly in Philadelphia – have called for a return to distance learning after the holidays.
According to Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker, there was a big spike in school closures nationwide in early January. However, in Pennsylvania, most districts continue to operate in person. Still, schools across the state have closed for at least a few days this month, with the largest group in the Philadelphia metro area.
Some families felt relieved when their schools announced they would be closing and transitioning to distance learning. This was particularly true for households with family members at increased risk. For example, a mother scheduled for breast cancer surgery told The New York Times that her procedure would be delayed if she contracted COVID. Others fear their children will catch COVID despite the low statistical risk of severe infection.
Regardless of their reasons, these parents should be free to choose a distance learning option for their children.
But many families are having the opposite reaction: They want schools to remain open for face-to-face classes. Here, too, the reasons are varied. Some have jobs that cannot be done from home and have no childcare options when a school closes. Others saw how badly their children fared in previous remote periods. Many also recognize that children are already at lower risk of COVID-19 and believe that – with vaccines available to teachers and most students – personal education should be a priority.
Such parental preferences should also be respected. They are certainly not marginal phenomena. According to a poll conducted by EdChoice in December, just as the Omicron variant was spreading, support for face-to-face teaching remained high among both parents and teachers. About three quarters said they felt very or somewhat comfortable returning to face-to-face classes. Only about 20% said they were very or somewhat uncomfortable going back to face-to-face classes.
In fact, there is mounting evidence that children have suffered immensely as a result of school closures. Last summer, NWEA, a research group developing pre-12th grade assessments, released a report on math and reading achievement for the 2020-2021 school year. While some progress was made, it was lower than typical years – particularly in math. Results were particularly low for minority students and students in schools at high risk of poverty.
A November report by Curriculum Associates came to similar conclusions. The majority of students suffered academic setbacks, and some are worse off than others. Students who were already lagging behind academically, students from minority communities and children in low-income communities had what the report calls the most “unfinished learning”.
With most parents and teachers – in addition to the well-documented harms of distance learning – expressing support for face-to-face learning, it’s no wonder consensus is growing that schools should remain open. Even President Joe Biden said so earlier this month.
But again, no parent should be forced to send their children into an environment they consider unsafe. Education choice is therefore the solution.
We don’t need “all open” or “all closed” battles. With the choice, parents can choose the environment in which they feel comfortable. And teachers can teach in the environment they prefer.
Efforts are underway in the Pennsylvania legislature to give parents more options, especially amid COVID concerns. State Senator Ryan Aument, for example, recently introduced Senate Bill 1015, which would create the pandemic grant program for educational savings accounts. The program would provide $7,000 in educational grants to low-income families who disagree with their districts’ COVID guidelines — whether they find them too strict or too lax. The funds could be used for approved purchases such as tuition, curriculum, tutoring and services for students with special needs.
The pandemic didn’t cause the problems in our school system – it just put them in the spotlight. A winner-takes-all system that imposes one solution on everyone will never cater for the diverse needs of children. That’s why families — in or out of a pandemic — need educational choices.
Colleen Hroncich is a Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.