‘Everyone’s Freaked Out’: Parents Across the U.S. Are Agonizing About the Fate of Public Schools

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By Rebecca Bodenheimer

August 3, 2020

After a spring plagued with shoddy distance learning, many parents with financial resources are reconsidering their commitment to public education.

Marissa Korbel’s 6-year-old daughter was supposed to be starting first grade at her local public school this fall. Instead, Korbel, a Portland-based attorney, decided to keep her daughter in the Montessori school (which runs from preschool through third grade) because it has the resources and space to open safely. 

Her daughter should have learned to read last year, but distance learning in the spring while Korbel and her husband both worked full-time from home meant that she wasn’t able to achieve this milestone. Beyond that, Korbel said, “she was quite frankly very miserable … not having any peer interaction, not having any teacher interaction.” Korbel was worried about the mental health impacts of social isolation on her daughter.

Public school parents all over the country are agonizing about the fate of their children’s education. In the wake of the United States’ failure to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, many major school districts are planning to begin the school year doing 100% distance learning. 

None of the available options are satisfactory or adequate for families, and the situation has pitted the interests of parents against those of teachers, many of whom feel unsafe returning to in-person teaching. Teachers are justifiably concerned that district administrators won’t provide enough resources—personal protective equipment, additional janitorial staff, more buses to transport kids, and adequate space for socially distanced, in-person learning— to open in such a way that would mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

RELATED: Parents and Teachers Are Terrified of Schools Reopening as COVID-19 Cases Surge: ‘I Just Don’t Know If It’s Safe’

While these fights play out on the local level between districts and teachers’ unions, ultimately they lead back to the unwillingness of the federal government to provide the necessary funding to open schools safely. Schools are funded almost completely through state and local tax revenue, which has been ravaged by the pandemic. 

The Senate GOP-sponsored HEALS Act, introduced last week, proposes $105 billion in federal funding to help schools adapt to teaching during the pandemic, but $45 billion of that is tied to in-person instruction. This move is likely tied to President Donald Trump’s previous threats to cut funding to schools that didn’t reopen in-person. Democrats are balking at this provision, and 71% of parents don’t believe in-person opening is safe. Furthermore, $105 billion is likely not enough: Senate Democrats are proposing three times that number for K-12 and higher education.  

After a spring plagued with shoddy distance learning, many parents with financial resources are reconsidering their commitment to public education. 

The reasons are myriad. Many parents work full-time (either remotely or in-person) and can’t leave their kids home alone or dedicate the time to helping their children with distance learning. Others have children who are neurodiverse or have behavioral issues that make learning from home particularly difficult. And many are concerned about the very real adverse mental health effects from the lack of social interaction.

Whatever the reason, these parents have the privilege to consider alternatives to public schools: private or parochial schools—which have the resources to be able to open safely with modifications—or hiring private tutors or teachers to assist their children with distance learning or homeschooling.

'Everyone’s Freaked Out': Parents Across the U.S. Are Agonizing About the Fate of Public Schools
Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER

The Complexities of School Closings

Many public health officials believe it would be reckless and unsafe for children, staff, and teachers to heed President Trump’s and other Republican politicians’ declarations to “open the schools” as if this were a normal school year. Nonetheless, students face many other risks with schools remaining closed, such as the fact that students with individualized education plans (IEPs) can only access special services at their schools. And, what will parents who have to leave the house to work do if they can’t send their kids to school and can’t afford private childcare? 

Then there are the children who aren’t safe at home; while reports of child abuse have plummeted (because teachers are mandated reporters and are often the ones reporting it), ER doctors are seeing more severe cases of child abuse. There are also record levels of childhood hunger since schools closed. And, of course, school closures will result in disproportionate learning loss by Black, Latinx, and Native American students because of the digital divide and their families’ precarious economic situations. 

No matter the alternative, school closures will exacerbate existing educational inequity.

RELATED: The Risk of Reopening Schools Is Far Greater for Black and Brown Americans

No Good Options

Lori Day is a Boston-based educational consultant who has worked as a public school psychologist and in admissions at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and private K-12 schools. She now helps families make informed decisions about which independently funded school is right for their children. The national average for private school tuition is approximately $11,000 a year.

“Everyone’s freaked out,” she told COURIER. “There’s been a lot of late activity in terms of people … panicking and wanting to apply right now for 2020 when all the schools are full.” Parents either don’t want their kids online the whole day and believe private schools have the ability to at least offer hybrid learning, Day explained, or they want to keep their kids at home and believe private schools will provide better online instruction.

Admissions directors in the Boston area have told Day that many wealthy parents who have always been committed to public education are worried because school districts are laying off teachers. Because of the decrease in tax revenue, which is likely to get worse, parents are looking ahead to the 2021-2022 school year and thinking, “When the pandemic’s over, will my child’s class size have gone from 20 to 30? Will support for my child on an IEP be less? Will it be just barely what the law requires?” 

These parents are worried about the competition to get into private school for next fall and want to get their kids in, Day said, “before 2021, when the shit hits the fan [with] the budget shortfall.”

RELATED: Nearly 1 Million Jobs Will Be Lost if Congress Doesn’t Approve More Money for Schools, Report Says

And then there are the parents who simply can’t supervise their children’s distance learning, either because they work and/or because the interpersonal dynamics are too difficult.

Nicole Roder, based in Bowie, Maryland, has four children ranging from seventh grade to kindergarten. She has homeschooled her three oldest kids in the past, when she was primarily freelance writing and had a flexible schedule. Now she’s transitioning to a new job as a therapist. “I absolutely cannot be interrupted in the middle of a session with a client, and I can’t conduct sessions in the middle of the night,” she explained. So, she’s sending her kids to Catholic schools, which are opening this fall. “I’m a Catholic and … we need childcare and in-person instruction, so this was a no-brainer for me.”

'Everyone’s Freaked Out': Parents Across the U.S. Are Agonizing About the Fate of Public Schools
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Beyond her work, distance learning was a nightmare for her middle child, Roder said. When homeschooling proved to be too difficult she enrolled him in public school last year. “When he was in 2nd grade, he fought with me about every single assignment. I was spending my entire day trying to force him to do school work, and I couldn’t do anything else at all, including homeschooling the other kids and working.” The switch to public school was great for her son: “He just understood that work was required and there was no fighting [with the teachers] about it.”  

But when schools shut down in the spring, “he went right back to his old ways,” she said. “If I wasn’t sitting right next to him, he’d click onto YouTube instead of his Zoom classes. He fought over every single assignment. It was hell.” 

She added that he also didn’t learn anything: “He just wasn’t absorbing the information when it came through a screen,” and almost failed third grade.

Personal Beliefs vs. What’s Best for Your Kids

Many politically progressive parents committed to public education are struggling to reconcile their politics—and their knowledge that switching their kids to private school means diverting funds away from public schools and leaving poor families behind—with doing what’s best for their kids. This is especially fraught because of the agenda of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has long fought to expand “school choice” by channelling funding into charter and private schools, particularly religious ones.

RELATED: DeVos Slammed After Doubling Down on Reopening Schools

Day said that some of her clients are fearful of DeVos’s plans to decimate public education, and that’s what’s motivating their move to private. Day herself expressed contempt for DeVos’s agenda, adding, “Do I feel guilt about being an instrument of private school enrollment? Well, sure I do … I have a real kind of self-loathing about the fact that I serve wealthy clients.” Nonetheless, it’s how she pays the bills.

Korbel is also conflicted. Parents shouldn’t be pitted against teachers, she said, which is a major trend on social media these days. “Lots of teachers are parents. What are they supposed to do? … I think it is 100% on the seat of the policymakers that any of us are having to make such horrible decisions.”

Nonetheless, she can’t prioritize her political beliefs over her child’s wellbeing. “How do I explain to [my daughter] that we had the option to send her to in-person school with people she knows and loves and have interaction with teachers and learn, but because of my politics and because I don’t think it’s fair, I won’t do it?” She added: “Am I not supposed to use the privilege I have for my own child’s betterment? … It would 100% be for my own ego … as opposed to doing what’s best for her.” 

At the end of the day, she concluded, “That’s my job because I’m her mom.”

Not Just Wealthy Parents 

Day said the hotly debated issue of public versus private schooling needs a lot more nuance than what she’s currently seeing: “Maybe you’re not just some elitist scumbag because you put your kid in private school, but you do it because the class size is smaller and your kid really needs it.” 

To that point, Day herself was a public school parent until her daughter, who got straight A’s in every subject except math, reached the end of eighth grade. Worried that her unique learning disability would impede her from graduating high school, they switched to private school where standardized testing wouldn’t be a barrier. As it so happens, Day’s daughter went on to graduate school and is now a college professor.

That decision came with sacrifices for Day, including taking a loan out on her house. “Having been an admissions director, I know that there are families that sacrifice everything … they live in an apartment and they drive a shitbox car and they don’t take vacations.” She added, “There are other parents that make exactly the same amount of money and say, ‘I could never afford private school, that’s for the wealthy,’ and the truth is they could, but they choose to have a vacation house.” 

In fact, this was the situation of Wendy, a mother based in Trumbull, Connecticut, who is being given a pseudonym because of her son’s privacy concerns. “My son isn’t a very highly motivated student,” she said. So she decided to apply to private school because of how poorly he handled distance learning in the spring; she felt he would get lost with no personal interaction. 

“Was it in our budget? No, but after waking up in the middle of the night for three months straight riddled with anxiety, I knew we had to figure something different out.”

RELATED: Biden vs Trump: How to Reopen Schools

'Everyone’s Freaked Out': Parents Across the U.S. Are Agonizing About the Fate of Public Schools


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