Parents, the Pandemic and School Choice

It’s frustrating how little “public” is in Georgia public schools these days. Transparency is lacking, accountability is fading and students are struggling, academically, socially and emotionally.

  • Interested in knowing what the state’s public school 2020-21 enrollment is in the wake of the K12 shutdown? You won’t find that on the state Department of Education (GADOE) website.
  • Interested in comparing districts’ pandemic protocols across the state? Get ready for a painstaking search; that’s not on the website either.
  • Want to know whether there’s an uptick in homeschooling? In Georgia, parents or guardians who wish to home-school their children must submit a “Declaration of Intent” to GADOE by September 1 or within 30 days of beginning a home study program. The numbers are not published, however; you need to file an Open Records request.
  • Want to know students’ progress in the wake of the pandemic upheaval? Don’t expect much help from the Department of Education: The state school superintendent’s goal, according to news reports Thursday (September 24), is essentially to ignore end-of-year tests and teacher performance.

According to the National School Choice Week alliance, more than 60% of U.S. K-12 public school students started the school year remotely. Few have returned to the  classroom full-time, although, happily, the impressionable early grades are prioritized for in-person learning in many districts.

As working parents, guardians and children operate at the whim of administrators, schools and, in some cases, teachers, it’s clear many parents are considering their options. In Fulton County – the first metro Atlanta school district to go virtual last year – teachers walked out to protest the district’s decision to bring back students one day a week beginning September 21. (The county will open schools full-time October 14 for those who wish, if COVID-19 cases continue to decline.)

A Decatur City Schools survey found “although 85% of teachers surveyed were concerned about returning, just a third thought virtual schooling was ‘as valuable’ as in-person, as did fewer than a quarter of parents and students,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Two out of three teachers have little faith in online classes. Parents, observing their children struggle to learn via Zoom and Google and without the hands-on help of an in-person teacher, are even more disillusioned. If more than 75% of parents are dissatisfied with the value they are getting from their public school, it’s small wonder enrollments for the new year are down at metro-area public schools.

The decline is reported to range from 1.8% in Gwinnett County to 5% in DeKalb. In Gwinnett, that’s about 3,000 students fewer than October 2019. That could drop again by October 5, the next scheduled headcount.

While some drop can be attributed to procrastination after schools shut down as long ago as March, anecdotal evidence suggests many are frustrated parents turning to home-schooling, districts outside metro Atlanta or private schools.

Some have found a secure, supervised place where their child can learn while they work and enjoy some face-to-face socializing, a critical component of development and emotional well-being. “Micro pods” of up to 10 children are a popular option, with friends and neighbors taking turns taking charge of the group’s education.

It’s likely, too, that many more parents are paying attention to the curriculum for the first time, and realizing it is too much, too little or too wrong. While Georgia’s curriculum standards are transparent, much of what is used as supplemental material may reflect the views of a teacher, not the child’s parents.

The need for transparency now is overwhelming. Even more important now is to seize the momentum for education choice for the families who find their public school is not serving the needs of their child.

The bad news is the turmoil over COVID-19 is not yet over. The good news is that, across the state, more families involved in their children’s schooling have come to embrace the idea that education choice should not be only for those who can afford it, but that all who need and want it deserve the option.

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