Kids across the K-12 spectrum groan at the realization that they will be back at school within a matter of weeks. Parents, stir crazy and exhausted from a few months of distance learning before the summer even began, feel a cautious glimmer of hope. And state education agencies and school district administrations wrestle with big decisions that will go down as another chapter in the COVID-19 saga.
There are precious few days to implement the necessary measures and apparatus to give all parents the appropriate options when it comes to the way their child will start the school year. School re-entry plans are rolling out daily across the country, with online instruction playing a prominent role either as the primary vehicle or as the backup plan in the event of future closures. And as parents weigh their options — the risk of exposure against rewards of a high-quality education that prepares their students for success in life — more and more are considering a switch to virtual schools in an attempt to have it all.
This fall, school districts will have their hands full navigating the new world of hybrid models: nonstop contingency planning, new protocols like temperature checks and social distancing, budgeting for needs that could switch from face masks to Chromebooks on a day’s notice, support for educators who were trained in the classroom but may need to teach from a computer. While it is necessary to keep our educators and students safe as they strive to achieve, it will likely be a bumpy road of trial and error.
But established virtual schools, like the one my children have attended, have been around for years.They have the infrastructure, the staff trained to engage students from a distance, and curriculum optimized for remote instruction. For many parents, the choice is a simple one – in my case, we enrolled in an online program because it was just the right fit for my children’s learning style.
More parents than ever want options like this. A June poll by the National Coalition for Public School Options showed that 21% of parents do not feel comfortable with their students returning to brick and mortar schools for instruction.
In that same survey, 80% of parents shared that they were happy with their student’s transition to online learning this spring. Another 40% of parents responded that they would be open to continuing online learning — and 70% believe closures will happen sometime in the next school year, potentially forcing the issue.
There is clearly an appetite for online learning in these unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances. But for parents who are now setting their hearts on virtual school, there is just one problem – many rural and underserved regions of Arizona leave families without broadband internet access. The Arizona Capitol Times reported a superintendent survey estimate asserting only 80% of urban districts and close to 60% of rural areas have access to broadband internet. The lack of broadband internet access was a barrier for many parents to exercise their public-school options and some parents need those options now more than ever.
The state and schools scrambled in the spring to provide hotspots to some of these areas. More recently, the Governor’s Office has proposed a plan to expand broadband internet across the state by 2022, if approved. This is a great long-term plan, but parents need options for flexibility now. The Arizona Department of Education has also identified the school districts and charter schools that were hardest hit by the spring closures to give funding assistance but it is unclear how or if the schools will be able to address this digital divide. Parents need options whether their school is only offering online classes to start the school year, or the parents feel the best option for their situation is their school’s online program or transferring to a full-time online school. The lack of broadband internet access leaves parents without options.
Every family deserves the freedom to choose what works best for their student and their family at a time when there should be more options, so parents do not have to choose between their students’ health and their education. It is incumbent on our federal and state policymakers to address this, and quickly, to ensure every family interested in online learning can access it this fall when they need it.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Kids across the country are counting on our leaders to make opportunities like virtual school possible so they can learn no matter what this school year brings.
Mara Benson is president of AZ Parents for Education.