The coronavirus pandemic might permanently affect American education. Lindsey Burke, director for the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, says “the pandemic has just completely upended education.” But some of the changes might actually be a good thing.

Burke joins “Problematic Women” to discuss how COVID-19 could bring about needed education policy reform and to explain how pandemic pods are proving to be a highly effective form of schooling.

Also on today’s show, Whitney Munro, a wife, mother, and president of Walden Strategies, discusses the importance of caring for students’ mental health while they are stuck at home. And as always, we will be crowning our “Problematic Woman” of the week. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Lauren Evans: We are so pleased to welcome our colleague Lindsey Burke back to the show. Lindsey is the director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Lindsey, thanks so much for joining us.

Lindsey Burke:
Thank you for having me back.

Evans: There are a lot of great and creative things that parents are doing this fall to ensure that their child is still learning and still receiving an education.

Gosh, we really should applaud all these parents for their hard work. It’s really impressive what we’re seeing from parents in this season. They’re such troopers, and you interact a lot with parents, just because of your role in education research.

What are you hearing from parents right now?

Yeah, well, I think [you] nailed it, that parents have really been troopers through all of this. The pandemic has just completely upended education, both policy and just on the ground, what’s happening in schools across the country, in both the K-12 space and the higher-ed space.

Parents, immediately in the spring, became accidental homeschoolers. Right? Everybody had to homeschool, and I think a lot of families thought that it would just be for the spring. Right?

Schools across the country were closed down, public schools, due to the pandemic, and public schools have largely started doing what we’ve been referring to as “crisis” online learning. I think a lot of families thought this is going to go on throughout the spring, but districts will sort of figure this out, get their sea legs, and we’ll be back on track in the fall.

Well, that hasn’t been the case for a lot of school districts across the country. Something like—the count changes every day, but about 22 out of the 25 largest school districts across the country are going to remain closed as the school year kicks off, closed to in-person instruction.

They’re going to continue to do this crisis online learning. When we talk about parents being troopers during this time, they really are, because they’ve had to navigate this world in short order, and they have really demonstrated perfectly civil society and action by banding together in their neighborhoods with other families, pooling together resources, and doing things like “pandemic pods,” which is just so exciting to me to see that proliferate and to think about how that could really shape the future of K-12 education moving forward.

Virginia Allen: Yeah, so Lindsey, I want to discuss these pods a little bit further, and really, the creative thinking that parents really did with no time to create these. How will these affect the future of schooling, even when the pandemic is over?

Yeah, so that’s the $64,000 question, right? What long-term effect—or I guess it should say the $150,000 question, because that’s about what we spend to get a kid from kindergarten through high school these days. It’s about $150,000 per kid.

Keep that in mind. It’s the $150,000 question, right, what will this do long term to the delivery of K-12 education?

One data point that I’ve been pointing out is the homeschooling community. If you look at homeschoolers pre-pandemic, we had about 1.8 million kids K-12-aged who were homeschooling before the pandemic hit, so that’s about 3% of the population.

I think that’s an important number to keep in mind, because pandemic pods do look a little bit like homeschooling. In order for us to know what the long-term impact could be, we should really know where we started, in terms of families who are crafting their own education experience for their child.

Even if, post-pandemic, when this all starts to wind down, even if we only have 6% of families that continue doing pandemic pods or micro-schooling, that’s still double the number of families who were homeschooling before the pandemic hit.

That could really shake things up. It certainly means that parents will be directing their children’s learning to a greater extent than we’ve ever seen before. It means much more education freedom.

But I have a feeling we’re going to see more than just the 6% permanent uptick. I am optimistic that we will hit double digits in the near term, and then much more beyond that.

That’s because it’s working well for families. I mean, if you look at pandemic pods, we’re talking small class size, right? Families are pulling together four to 10, maybe 12 students in a pandemic pod.

It’s self-paced, it’s mastery-based, and so a student is mastering content before they move on to new content, as opposed to seat time, which is how the current system is structured.

The public education system is more worried currently about fulfilling seat time rather than learning goals being met. That’s really important. It’s also things like facilitating field trips, all kinds of interesting options that pods are putting out there, and I think families are going to want that long term.

Allen: Do you think that maybe with more and more families, even when the pandemic is over starting to say, “Eh, I don’t know that I want to put my child back in public education”? How do you think that could potentially, and hopefully for good, affect education as a whole, and specifically public education? Would we see some positive changes come from that?

Yeah, I definitely think so. On something that you said a second ago about families, whether they will want to return to the public system, this is the other benefit of moving toward pods, or even just families all being at home right now as a result of the pandemic, and having to really direct their children’s learning, is they’re seeing, they’re doing a deep dive into what their public schools were teaching their kids before the pandemic.

It’s given families the opportunity to really assess whether that’s the content that they want their children learning moving forward. That, I think, is another positive outcome, is giving families the opportunity to really be even more engaged with what their children are learning.

In terms of the impact long term on the public system, this is an opportunity like never before to really rethink the delivery of K-12 education.

Part of the reason that so many students were not able to access learning this spring and into this fall, so many reasons they didn’t have that educational continuity, is that dollars fund physical school buildings. Dollars fund a system, and that system was shut down as a result of the virus. Kids were shut out of learning as a result of the system being shut down.

I think it has made everyone hyper-aware, which is a great thing, of the need to rethink that model, to have public education funding follow the student, to fund the child directly, and to follow that child to any learning option of choice.

That could be a public school or it could be a charter school. It could be a pandemic pod. It could be a micro-school. It could be many things, but having those dollars follow children makes our education-funding system much more nimble in case there’s ever another crisis like this moving forward, makes it much more resilient, and most importantly, makes it so that children are able to select into learning environments that are the right fit for them.

Allen: I’m so glad you brought up the first point, Lindsey, because I think it’s so interesting.

We talked last week about what they’re teaching children in sex-ed in schools. The teachers, they really mainly do want to teach online. I know some want to teach in person, but one reason that they don’t want to teach online is because they want to be able to continue to teach this transgender propaganda to the students, which is just crazy.

Burke: Yeah, and we’ve seen a couple of instances of teachers, some teachers, this is not to paint teachers with a broad brush whatsoever, but we’ve seen a couple of instances online, on Twitter for example, of a teacher saying, “Well, make sure that parents aren’t watching what we’re teaching kids during the day, since it’s all online now.”

That’s really unfortunate, but I think should be a wake-up call for a lot of families, that they do need to take a close look at what’s being taught. It could be sex-ed curriculum. It could be a lot of what is coming out of the “1619 Project” right now that some families might take exception with.

There’s a lot right now that’s going on in the public system in terms of curriculum that parents really should take this opportunity to reexamine.

Evans: Lindsey, let’s talk for just a moment about how online education is maybe affecting more so families in low-income areas.

I mean, are you worried whether a family is low-income or just, it’s a two parent household where both parents are working, they don’t have a lot of time to give to their child’s education, that we might see a lot of this generation about six months to a year behind academically, because kind of a patchwork school year, in some ways?

Yeah, it’s certainly a concern, but that is why it is so critical that we immediately enable those families to find options for their kids. I mean, we spend about $15,000 per kid per year in the public education system across the country. On average, $15,000.

Imagine if those families had access to that money. That kid, with $15,000 in his pocket, to pay for a private school that’s open, right? Private schools are opening across the country, and they’re doing everything they can to open on time and safely.

Imagine if he could take that $15,000 to a local private school, or imagine if he could control a portion of that money to pay for a private tutor, to participate in one of these pandemic pods with other families in the neighborhoods, to hire a teacher of choice, to hire a private tutor, to hire someone with content-matter expertise who they know to teach.

I mean, the possibilities really are endless when we think about disentangling public-education financing from a rigid district-assignment delivery model that is closed right now and not meeting the needs of these families.

Allen: Unfortunately, public schools, I feel like are coming out, really, not looking very good through this whole situation. You recently wrote a piece for The Daily Signal [titled] “Districts Are Using Empty Schools as Expensive Day Cares, and Taxpaying Parents Are Being Charged Twice. This Needs to End.”

Explain a little bit what you wrote in that piece and what you mean by the fact that some parents are now essentially having to pay for their child’s education twice this year.

Yes, yeah, and I talk about these as double-dipping districts, because that’s exactly what we’re seeing, right? These are districts who have created a situation. They have closed their doors, families cannot access them, and yet they still get to keep their tax revenue, right?

Your tax dollars still flow to those districts, even though they’re not open to in-person instruction. They have put families in a bind. If you think about the two parents who both might have to work outside of the home, right, that’s exactly it.

I mean, these are families who are in a bind now because schools are closed to in-person instruction, and so, they don’t have that custodial component. Some of these districts know this, and they have said, “Well, we’re going to keep your tax dollars, but we’ll allow your child to reenter the school so they can be here during the day. You can go to work, if and only if you pay us twice.”

In the case of Howard County in Maryland, they are asking for $325 per child, per week. Fairfax County in Virginia is talking about, about $1,400 a month to do this. I mean, we’re talking about a tremendous amount of money.

We’re seeing this happen in Durham, North Carolina, and Gilbert, Arizona, and it’s exactly what it sounds like, that school districts are really trying to charge twice. I mean, imagine being a private business and being closed at the moment, and not only are you still requiring your customers to pay for services that you’re not providing, but you’re charging them double.

I mean, we wouldn’t put up with it in any other segment of our lives, and yet, this is what so many of these districts are doing right now, and it has really put parents in a bind.

Evans: Yeah, man, I think $1,400, I live in a nice apartment in Washington, D.C., and, I mean, that’s my rent every month.


Evans: How are families expected to come up with that money? How does it make sense, even, with the virus. Kids can’t be in there in class because they’ll spread the virus, but they can go to this day care?

… Right, they act as if it’s the academic component that spreads the virus, not being together. You’re exactly right.

Allen: Really wild. Well, Lindsey, I want to take just a second and talk specifically to any of our high schoolers who might be listening, and these are young people who, they might actually be able to manage their own education pretty well. They’re old enough.

They can follow along the lesson plans online. But, also, there’s a lot more weight, essentially, on their academic career right now, because their education performance could determine the college that they get into or the amount of financial aid that is offered to them for a college.

I can speak from my own experience that, as a high school student, I really needed to be in the classroom with the teacher in order to learn. For any of our high school students learning from home, can you just give them a little bit of advice about how they can manage their education well this fall?

Burke: Yeah. Well, I’ve been seeing a lot of students on social media talk about the fact that they are able to get through their content much more quickly at home, much more quickly than the way the district system has set up schedules throughout the day. That they can get through all of their content in a day instead of two days or three days.

That is something, if you can buckle down, get through it, and then reserve some additional time for whatever extracurriculars you might be interested in. But, also, think about it like college, right?

I mean, this is, if you’re a high school senior, and you’re thinking about going to college, this is more or less what college is like, right? It’s much more self-directed. The onus is on you to really make sure that you’re completing assignments and doing even more reading than what was assigned.

I think it’s good preparation in that regard, if we can think about it optimistically. Maybe that’s a sliver lining, pre-college in a way.

But, the other thing I would say is this is, again, why I really, really love the idea of pandemic pods, because you’re not alone in a pod, right? You’re with a group of other students, in some cases you have a teacher, maybe even from the public school system or a private school, or a private tutor, so you have that instruction from a live person that you can marry with the online content that you’re learning.

Then, you also have the socialization of being around other students, as well. Pods really check all of the boxes, and hopefully provide a greater number of families moving forward with the opportunity to really craft what education looks like for them.

Evans: All I wanted in high school was to have the same classes with all my friends. I think it sounds even more fun than regular school.


Allen: Yeah, I mean, I guess really in many ways, high school students could just say, “Hey, everyone, this day of the week, come over to my house, and we’ll all do school together.”

Right. Yeah, and that’s basically how pods are working. They’re rotating from home to home, which is great as well. But, getting together, going through content that they’re all working on collaboratively. I mean, that’s exactly right.

It’s a small, intimate setting, and can really provide excellent socialization.

Evans: Well, Lindsey, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate you coming on the show.

Thank you for having me.