The debate over whether kids should go back to school this fall has, unfortunately, become heavily partisan. Many have criticized the Trump Administration for insisting, despite record COVID-19 surges in many areas, that all schools reopen and threatening to withhold funding if they don’t. Recent polling, too, shows that Democrats and Republicans have very different opinions on the future risks posed by COVID-19.
But reducing the dilemma to a binary decision of whether or not to re-enter schools is oversimplifying things. Underneath these general fights lies a long list of technical policy challenges that states can’t ignore—such as how to ensure that children and staff are safe, that schools have enough information to plan and make budgets, and that funds are distributed fairly when kids opt to attend school elsewhere. If school district and state leaders aren’t vigilant about finding some balance between all of these competing concerns, many kids are going to slip through the cracks this fall.
No One Schedule Will Be Optimal for Every School or District
Democrat or Republican, the paramount concern should always be keeping students and staff safe, and the reality is that many schools won’t be able to do that if they’re required to return to normal classroom schedules. That’s why localities should be allowed to dictate their own schedules—no standardized schedule mandated from a state or federal level will be optimal for every school district.
State policymakers need to accommodate these differences by relaxing instructional time requirements and giving school districts as much budget flexibility as possible.
There are simply too many variables: School space, local COVID-19 caseloads, available resources and staff, parent schedules, and more. The best solution is to allow each district to adopt a service model that’s most feasible for its unique circumstances. Some may be able to open classrooms full-time and maintain social distancing. Others will need to stagger out groups of students, and still, others will have to remain fully online. State policymakers need to accommodate these differences by relaxing instructional time requirements and giving school districts as much budget flexibility as possible.
As Kids Move, Education Dollars Should Follow
Another reality that must be addressed is that many kids are going to be disenrolling—at least temporarily— from their current schools to do what feels safe to them. That could mean attending state virtual schools, charter virtual schools, or to enroll in another school district. As kids move around, education dollars should follow them to their new schools.
Many school districts and states are understandably worried that temporary shocks to district enrollment figures could hurt their budgets. With these concerns, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order that the state would fund schools based on previous-year attendance figures, and many other states are considering similar measures.
It’s inequitable to keep dollars in empty seats and to withhold them from schools that are seeing enrollment surges.
But if policymakers bury their heads in the sand this way and decide to fund school districts based on outdated student counts, any district, charter school, or state school that gains new students won’t be receiving the funds they need to effectively serve those kids. As disruptive as it is to have students shuffling around so suddenly, it’s inequitable to keep dollars in empty seats and to withhold them from schools that are seeing enrollment surges.
Families Need Quality Remote Learning Options
Finally, it’s more important than ever that families have good online education options. Often by no fault of their own, districts struggled to transition to a full-time virtual model this past spring when they were shut down. Policymakers need to ensure that the many existing virtual education providers aren’t left on the sidelines this fall.
States need to clear the way so that schools and districts can leverage established online providers for the benefit of all students—especially during this challenging time.
To some extent, most states have online options including virtual charters, state-run cyber schools and district-provided virtual courses. But, right now, there are so many state-level barriers these options are difficult even to access. For instance, Texas limits virtual charter schools to a specified number of providers. North Carolina caps the number of students allowed at their two virtual charter schools. And many states don’t allow for the existence of virtual charters at all. States need to clear the way so that schools and districts can leverage established online providers for the benefit of all students—especially during this challenging time.
The public school system wasn’t built to quickly respond to disruptions as dramatic as COVID-19. Even with policymakers and local leaders being as proactive as possible, this fall is going to be a challenge. State and local leaders need to resist the temptation to go into survival mode. Instead, they should push to empower families—because even during a crisis, every child deserves access to a quality education.