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Everything about this school year feels wrong

But the hard choices could lead to a new, better education system

return to school fall 2020 choice

Some parents desperately need their children to be back in classrooms come September. Others question how schools can possibly keep students and teachers safe as the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States surpasses the 4 million mark. Many parents hold both those concerns at the exact same time.

There is no perfect solution here, and every choice comes with sacrifices. Parents who cannot sacrifice income face the toughest choice—their child or their job.

School re-entry plans differ by location, by size and by socioeconomic support, but in every school district, in every city and state, there is one thing parents can be sure of as September looms: The 2020-2021 school year will be vastly different than every year that came before it.

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The back-to-school commercials are still airing on TV, but they reflect our strange new reality—a scene of masked students carrying fresh backpacks down locker-lined hallways cuts to a kid studying at home, books splayed on a new desk.

This year, the pandemic is our teacher, crumpling up our cultural script for K-12 education and demanding a do-over.

We have long relied on a story of standardized education, one that creates an easy shorthand for the experiences of childhood and youth—every neighborhood has schools where bells rings, balls bounce, kindergarteners laugh and teens go to prom—but this script ignores how much of the K-12 experience isn't standardized, but stratified.

In upending our traditional planning for school, the pandemic is giving us an opportunity to rewrite the script for the educational experience. This year, more than any before it, is forcing a recognition of how the current structure wasn't working for all kids, or all parents—even before the virus.

It's time to talk about the different kinds of plans parents are making for their children this year, to normalize having empathy for those whose plans don't mirror our own, and to learn how this interruption to learning can make the future of education better and safer.

Here are some of the diverse decisions parents are making—and the lessons they offer, if we're willing to listen and act.


We need to learn from parents who want kids back in school

For many parents, school closures have had massive impacts on careers or income, with mothers bearing more of the brunt than fathers. It is absolutely understandable these families prefer a return to in-person classes over another semester of distance learning from home.

Utah mom Emily Bell McCormick owns a communication and advocacy consulting firm and shares five kids with her husband, a surgeon. During a recent rally in Salt Lake City in support of in-person schooling, Bell McCormick explained how hard it has been for the couple to communicate with all their kids' teachers while supervising distancing learning and juggling their own demanding work schedules.

"Families are burning out," she explained, adding that she was responding to 18 different teachers while helping her kids with their schoolwork. Her kids say they miss school.

Meanwhile in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced some schools will not be able to reopen for in-person learning in September, many parents who occupy a lower tax bracket than the McCormicks are worried not just about burnout but about paying the bills, too.

Santa Rosa mom Ariana Beltran says she would actually prefer to homeschool her 6-year-old son, according to EdSource, but the electrician's apprentice cannot afford to stay home with him.

"I don't really have a choice because I work and I'm a single parent," Beltran said.

Her concerns are echoed in a lawsuit filed by a group of California parents trying to have schools reopen. The lawyer for the group says that vulnerable families are being forced to choose between their jobs and their families.

We need to hear the voices of mothers like Bell McCormick and Beltran going forward, not just in 2020, but beyond. The majority of American mothers are working mothers and nearly a quarter of working moms are solo moms who can't make the choice to drop out of the workforce. We can't assume American education involves a stay-at-home parent.

We need to learn from parents who don't want kids back in school

Of course, not every parent wants their child back in an in-person classroom right now, and we need to understand the reasons why—and respect parents for doing what they feel is best for their kids.

Arkansas mom and neuropsychologist Kristin Addison-Brown told the Arkansas Times that she and her husband just didn't feel reassured when they looked at their school's re-entry plan. So they are keeping their 9-year-old home come fall.

"I feel for the school administrators having to deal with this right now. I don't know that they're getting a lot of support from the state and federal government with key decisions they're having to make," says Addison-Brown, who lost an elderly family member to COVID-19 and understands that the pandemic is not over. "They're between a rock and a hard place."

The re-entry plan for the Jonesboro Public School District (released before Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statewide mask mandate for adults), recommended but did not require students or teachers to wear masks.

For Addison-Brown, that means her son's place will be at home for now, even though he would like to return to his social circle at school.

Meanwhile in Utah, mom Penny Brown says she plans to homeschool her children because Gov. Gary Herbert says masks will be required for K-12 schools reopening in his state.

Brown feels the mask requirement will be "strenuous and overbearing and dystopian."

We need to hear the voices of both these mothers, because their opposing positions on school re-entry plans led to the same outcome: Keeping their kids home.

Before we judge or condemn a parent for not trusting their school's reopening plan—either because it's too strict or not strict enough—let's consider how we got here. The lack of a coordinated national response to the pandemic has helped foster a widespread distrust of expert and scientific opinion, while also forcing communities to come up with their own response plans—which are often not just different, but contradictory to each other, so there's no clear "right" path forward. This has created confusion, stress and unnecessary sacrifice for all parents.

We need to learn from parents of kids with disabilities

School districts have made strides toward inclusivity in recent years, but parents of children with disabilities say many school re-entry plans represent a setback in their children's education.

The lawyer representing the group of parents suing the state of California in the hopes of reopening schools says distance learning plans often don't work for diasbled children who require educational supports.

"Special needs children are left out in the cold altogether, despite federal and state mandates," lead attorney Harmeet Dhillon said, adding "California cannot ignore its legal duties and harm these children."

But across the nation, many parents of students who typically receive additional supports or accommodations in their classrooms say those elements were missing in the roll out of distance learning in the spring.

"It has been very frustrating for us," Massachusetts mom Marla Murasko told NPR of distance learning. Her 14-year-old son Jacob has Down Syndrome and typically gets accommodations to the work in his classroom.

"He needs it very simplified in order for him to learn it. If there's no accommodations or modifications for him, he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him."

The added stress of having to modify lesson plans or activities (a responsibility that would usually fall to a teacher or educational assistant in pre-pandemic times) adds an additional layer of stress for parents of disabled kids.

LA mom Renee Bailey had a similar experience, telling KCAL, "Ever since the pandemic, my son has not received any of his contracted services that have been identified in his [Individualized Education Program]."

As the pandemic continues, returning to in-person school this fall is simply not an option for children who have compromised immune systems or other health concerns that make them high-risk for COVID-19. This is especially concerning considering a recent report from the Los Angeles Unified School District (the second-largest school district in the country), which found the participation rate for middle and high school students with disabilities was only 55% during remote learning. But since LA Unified will not be opening campuses this fall, remote learning is the only option.

Children with disabilities are getting left behind in the shift to digital, and as mom Allison Wohl recently wrote from the Washington Post, "technology can and should open doors, not create additional barriers."

We need to listen to the parents of disabled kids when they say their children are not being served right now. Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act ensured schools would have accommodations like ramps and elevators, and in 2020, during distance learning, extra supports from educational assistants and teachers are the digital equivalent.

We need to learn from parents who have the privilege of choice and those who don't

It's not just kids with disabilities who are getting left behind in the shift to digital learning, it's also kids who don't have access to computers and internet at home, and children whose parents must go to work and cannot be home to assist them in distance learning.

That report from the LA Unified School District didn't just find that disabled kids were missing out during distance learning, but also that more than 50,000 of its Black and Latino middle and high school students didn't regularly participate in digital classes. Homeless children, kids in foster care and those learning English also had low participation rates,

On the other end of the spectrum, a new trend among wealthy white families involves gathering kids together in small groups or so-called learning pods, where all the parents pitch in to commission a private tutor. These pandemic pods illustrate how some kids will always have access to education, and how quickly a crisis can widen the gulf of inequality in our school system.

We need to hear the parents on both ends of this spectrum because allowing a generation of kids to fall through the cracks and go without an education is going to hurt America not just in 2020, but in 2030 and beyond. The wealthy parents who are choosing alternatives to public school are telling society though their choices that the public school system is not meeting their needs in a critical moment. The families who are unable to participate in digital learning because of a lack of access are telling us that for them, this system is broken. America needs to hear what they're saying.

A post-pandemic plan for education in America

While many parents are waiting for things to "get back to normal," it's becoming more and more clear that when it comes to the education system normal wasn't working, and left far too many families vulnerable—to a childcare crisis, to misinformation and to inequality.

It's time to rebuild the school system by investing in education. Decades of chronic underfunding and inequity between school districts meant schools did not have the reserves or staff required to quickly pivot to digital learning. A divestment in education by many states after the 2008 recession meant schools were ill-prepared for what they had to do in 2020, and the Trump administration is currently withholding much-needed financial resources from the nation's schools in an effort to force schools to reopen classrooms.

America's children need an education, whether it's in a classroom or through a computer, and funding schools (fully open or not) is necessary, now. Reopening schools—whether fully in the fall or through a hybrid of digital and in-person learning—is going to take billions of dollars. Republican leaders plan to invest $105 billion in education, with $70 billion earmarked for K-12 education (and about half of that being contingent on schools re-opening), but the debate continues and the plan won't be finalized until next week.

That's unacceptable. It's nearly August and schools needed this money in May. It's time for federal lawmakers to stop sitting and start investing in children and the future of this country. If they do, the next crisis won't be so hard, because our schools will be healthy and ready.

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