Opinion: Going back to school this fall will be a luxury few families can afford

A child’s education has become a luxury item during the pandemic, one only afforded by people with a stay-at-home parent, flexible schedules and babysitters


Natalie Burge, teacher at Giano Intermediate School in West Covina, CA on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. As schools finalize plans for reopening in the fall, many parents worry how they’ll be able to manage continued distance learning. Image: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times

The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
By Lyz Lenz

Russell and Irene Anderson have two children ages 13 and 16 and they don’t know if their kids will be going back to school. “We just have our hands in the air,” said Irene, “we don’t know what to do.”

The Andersons moved to Algona four years ago from Ohio. In Ohio, they homeschooled their children after their oldest was bullied in elementary school. After they moved to Iowa, they enrolled their children in the local public school. “Our kids love the school, they love their teachers and their friends,” said Russell, “but the risks of going back to school are too high.”

Russell Anderson has underlying heath conditions that put him in a high risk category for complications related to COVID-19, and they don’t trust that mask wearing will be enforced in the school.

“It’s not what we want to do, but we don’t know what else to do,” said Irene.

The Andersons are like all of us parents in 2020 — bone weary and scrambling for answers. Private school, homeschool, anything but public school. But a mass exodus from public education has the potential to collapse the system and deepen the already significant inequality gap in America. In a pandemic, a child’s education, public or private, has become a luxury item. One only afforded by people with a stay-at-home parent, flexible schedules and babysitters.

Schools in Iowa closed in mid-March in an effort to control COVID-19. With six weeks until school is supposed to start again, schools are releasing their “return to learn” plans, which vary from district to district. Statewide guidance from the Iowa Department of Education discourages schools from making masks mandatory, and offers no clear metric on social distancing efforts and when or if schools should shut down again if infection rates rise. The guidance also offers no additional funding for schools, to pay for the cost of personal protective equipment, temperature checks, or sick leave for staff and teachers.

Many schools are adopting hybrid models that incorporate both online and classroom learning. Iowa City is exploring a model like this that will have some students at home and some students in the classroom. But that only works if parents are able to be home or hire a babysitter. With the state of Iowa lifting restrictions on businesses, many parents will have to go to work. And as we learned from this spring, working at home and teaching children online is not sustainable. Right now, the cost of public education might be too high for parents to afford.

It’s an impossible situation. In order to restart an economy parents need to work. But parents can’t work if kids are at home. But parents don’t feel comfortable sending their kids into a potentially unhealthy situation. Are parents supposed to stop working if schools have to close again because of an outbreak?

There are no answers. So parents are trying to find them. J. Allen Weston, Executive Director of the National Homeschool Association, a national homeschool non-profit advocacy group, said in the past two weeks the number of parents reaching out to him with questions on homeschooling has “exploded.”

Weston said the parents he is hearing from are interested in blended models of online learning and classroom work. One poplar trend is what Weston calls Parent Organized Discovery Sites (PODS), where parents take turns hosting each other’s kids in their homes. But homeschooling is all encompassing. Not a situation easily managed with two working parents.

Private schools are also seeing an increase in enrollment and outreach from parents looking for another option. Paul Pressler, the head of Summit Schools, a private school in Cedar Rapids, said he’s lined up several tours of his school with parents interested in enrolling for the fall, because of concerns over going back to school in a pandemic.

Being a small private school, Summit was able to transition to an online curriculum almost immediately when the schools in Iowa shut down in March. They also have a smaller, more controllable environment, Pressler said, which means they can limit the building to only essential people, do temperature checks, and incorporate social distancing in the classroom.

Jamie Newton, the head of the Middle School at Scattergood, a private school in West Branch, said that because of their focus on outdoor learning, they’re ideally set up for healthy social distancing practices.
Both Summit and Scattergood offer tuition assistance and are working to make their school affordable for parents. But in the end, a private school option is still extra money that many parents can’t afford in an uncertain economy.

In the 1960s, white families fled from the cities as Black neighbors moved in next door and schools were integrated. The result was that once vibrant city centers were bled dry.

In 2020, this new flight of priviledged parents from public schools will mean less money for an already cash-strapped and underfunded system. Districts are allotted tax dollars by the number of students in their schools. In Iowa, districts still receive a portion of the dollars allotted per student, even if the student attends another school. But that small portion might not be enough to offset the high cost of PPE for teachers and setting up classrooms for social distancing.

Even a small decrease in school attendance could lance what little money remains from our public schools and widen the achievement gap in learning outcomes between white children and children of color, the affluent and the poor. The pandemic has already compounded this divide in learning outcomes. Online learning hasn’t been productive specifically for Black and Hispanic students.

Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, contracting the disease and dying at higher rates than their white counterparts. Experts note that this is in part, because many Black and Hispanic people are essential workers and can’t afford to hide in their homes.

As schools return, this divide could turn into a canyon of inequality.

But the federal government is leaving this problem to the states, who are leaving it to the districts, who are ultimately leaving the problem at the feet of parents. Parents who are overworked, underpaid and not supported with paid parental leave or adequate sick time.

But this problem didn’t come out of nowhere, it came from a culture that pays lip service to families without adequately supporting them with affordable childcare, maternity leave, or healthcare. It came from politicians who declare themselves the champion of babies but consistently defund healthcare and birth control access.

We created this problem and now it’s crashing in on us. With the roof falling in on our head, we’re being told to pull it back up with bootstraps.

And so we are here, with our hands in the air, as COVID cases increase in the state and the country, not knowing what to do, making the best of system that is fundamentally failing families.

Next: Pandemic compounds known challenges facing students

(c)2020 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)