It’s back-to-school time. Like every other year, children are excited about new teachers, new experiences, new clothes, and maybe even some new friends.
But for many families, going back to school is not business as usual this year. In many cases, temporary changes to education brought on by COVID-19 have become permanent.
Perhaps the biggest change is how many families decided to homeschool their children. The number of families homeschooling during the 2020-2021 school year doubled compared to the previous year. That doesn’t count those who have been “attending” public school from home.
The data on private school has been mixed. Although the economic impacts of COVID-19 forced some private schools to close, others have seen a sharp rise in enrollment from families looking for alternatives to government schools.
It’s possible that strong private schools have taken advantage of a growth in demand while those that already were struggling were forced to close.
What is undeniable is that a significant change has occurred in the relationship between Americans and their local public schools, and it’s possible that this change is only just beginning. We can identify several reasons for this.
First, schooling from home gave parents a chance to peek behind the curtain of public education, and many didn’t like what they saw. For years, parents have been concerned about sex ed curriculum that is too much too soon and tells children they can choose to be a boy or a girl.
In addition, school districts and individual teachers increasingly are prioritizing components of critical race theory and curriculum such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which teaches that the American Revolution was fought at least in part in order to protect slavery. (After criticism from historians, editors at the Times backed away from the earlier claim that the Revolution was primarily about slavery).
Parents are beginning to realize that school is much different today than in years past, and have chosen to do something about it.
Second, COVID-19 opened the eyes of many families to the fact that public schools aren’t the only option. When schools closed, families were forced to adjust. Some families began homeschooling and discovered, despite doubts, that they could do it. They also discovered homeschool co-ops, churches, and other groups that provide support for parents and community for families reclaiming control of their children’s education.
In addition, legislative proposals in many states have made private school more realistic for many families. States such as Ohio greatly expanded the number of schools eligible for school choice programs. Indiana expanded a school choice program so that most middle-class families can use state education dollars to send their kids to private schools.
As a result, families that discovered new options also are finding that they like their chosen alternative better.
Third, the ongoing response to the coronavirus from local public schools continues to be untenable for many families.
From the beginning, public and private schools responded in radically different ways to COVID-19. During the fall and winter of 2020, 60% of private school students were receiving in-person instruction while only 24% of public school students were. The disparity likely would have been even greater but for jurisdictions that made it illegal for private schools to hold in-person classes.
This also reflects the difference between systems that are responsible primarily to parents and systems that are responsible primarily to politicians. While teachers unions fought to keep schools closed, parents were desperate to keep their children from falling behind.
Many of those who found options outside the public school system now have no intention of returning. Public schools that parents relied on and trusted all but abandoned students and families during a crisis—a fact that parents aren’t likely to forget.
There is reason to believe that COVID-19-related movement away from public schools will continue. Nine states (California, Washington, New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Hawaii) will require all students to wear masks as they begin the 2021-2022 school year. Individual school districts in other states are taking it upon themselves to require students to wear masks.
Families that were willing to endure one enormously difficult educational year for their children may not be willing to put up with a second. Mask mandates in schools are particularly galling given the fact that some states (South Carolina, Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and Utah) have forbidden local jurisdictions from requiring masks.
Increasingly, the experience of living in different states feels more like the experience of living in different countries.
In a world in which so many things that were once choices have become mandates, many parents now choose to exercise choice where they still have some. That’s why for many families this year, going back to school is different, either because they’ve already made a change or because they’re about to.
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