On August 12, 2020

If public schools can’t open, spend the budgets on alternatives

By Rob Roper

A number of public school teachers and administrators have recently raised serious concerns about re-opening schools this fall. Harwood Union Superintendent Brigid Nease, just penned a 2,225 word letter sounding the alarm about the overwhelming challenges facing the system (see letter on page 10). Then on July 30, the House Education Committee held a three plus hour special meeting to hear from school officials about how they are preparing to open for the coming school year.

All indications are this experiment won’t end well.

The principals don’t even know if they have enough staff to open. One superintendent did a survey and 50% of her staff were either high risk for Covid or lived with someone who is. Teachers are waiting to hear what the plan is before they decide if they’ll take part or part ways.

On the consumer side, principals don’t know how many students they’ll have. Secretary Dan French testified that filings to homeschool are officially up 75%, but the one agency employee designated to handle this paperwork is overwhelmed. The real number is larger and is likely to keep growing as parents learn more about what’s really in store.

Libby Bonesteel, superintendent for Montpelier Roxbury, opined that schools are unequipped to handle most health issues. “We’re not a hospital setting,” she said, and pointed out that the symptoms of Covid-19 are symptoms young kids exhibit all the time.

What are teachers supposed to do if a student has, for example, diarrhea? This is the No. 1 Covid symptom for young kids, but it’s also brought on by a bad mix of junk food or a host of other reasons. Should school officials assume it’s Covid? Shut down the school?

If multiple kids exhibit symptoms such as a runny nose or fever (she said it’s common for four or five kids to exhibit fever on a given day) schools don’t have the resources to isolate them all. There is no space inside, and outside doesn’t work in January. What if a child or teacher actually does test positive for Covid?

“I understand the safety guidance,” said Bonesteel, “but when it’s put into reality in a school building, it’s just not realistic.”

As Nease concluded, “… I think we are going to try to reopen school, and I think we will fail in ways that may have permanent, unrecoverable repercussions for our students, school systems, and community.”

Nease, Bonesteel and their colleagues have my sympathies, but more so do the parents and primarily the students who need to have some return to stability now. For many if not most families, the ad hoc remote learning program schools put into place didn’t cut it either for accommodating adult work schedules or for fostering student learning. Families can’t afford another year of chaos. If the public schools aren’t in a position to offer a stable, predictable, effective learning experience, for whatever reasons, then other options need to be made available.

Even the New York Times recognized that alternatives are necessary with a briefing, Remote Learning? No Thanks, exploring some of the creative solutions parents are turning to, such as:

Genuine home schooling (learn more about VT options at VHEN.org.)

Home schooling “clusters” in which home schooling parents come together to share resources and labor among families to educate children.

“Pandemic Pods,” a similar but less formal arrangement to “clusters.”

Parents hiring full time tutors for their own kids.

“Micro-schools,” in which multiple families hire a teacher/tutor to teach a handful of children.

Established, professional remote learning programs.

To illustrate the popularity of (or desperation for) such options, The Times cited a new Facebook group, “Microschools and Pandemic Pods” that as of this writing has just under 30,000 members with 10,000 new ones joining in the past week alone.

But when one looks at these solutions it’s clear that they work best for families with financial means. The money to hire a tutor or the flexibility to forego a salary to homeschool aren’t universal. The worry that a Covid-induced gap in quality learning will lead to greater outcome inequities is a real concern. This is why the state should consider allowing funding to follow the child into some or all of these alternative solutions so that lower income families also have the options to homeschool or hire professional help. In some cases, such as micro-schools and pods, changes to the law may be necessary to allow kids to access a stable learning environment.

We spend $1.8 billion a year in Vermont to educate our children. That’s what the money should be spent on.

If the public school system can’t do this job, the money should be diverted into functional educational opportunities for kids. That’s who the system is really for, right?

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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