Dec. 22, 2020

In the age of COVID, give parents ‘school choice’ on best way to educate their children

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Department of Education rightly have continued to urge, and require, all public schools to provide the choice of live in-person instruction for all students. Plenty of attention has been paid — correctly — to the public-health issues involved in opening public schools safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but one aspect has been mostly overlooked: The question of keeping schools open, like other matters of educational opportunity, is also a civil-rights issue.

In the latest directive from the state, Florida has held steadfast on keeping schools open, offering parents the right to choose how their children would be educated during the pandemic. Parents, not the government, should choose what is best for their children — whether live instruction or virtual instruction (or some blended model) is best. Support for Florida’s strong position to keep schools open adheres to the unwavering constitutional principle provided by the U.S. Supreme Court 66 years ago in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education: equal access to all to a quality education.

While some Florida public schools struggled to open, charter schools and private schools were able to figure out how to open with appropriate COVID protocols. Upon opening this fall, traditional public schools struggled to move to blended or virtual alternatives. 

While certain districts across Florida opened with live in-person instruction, others were slower to provide the same. Indeed, the quality of the virtual education varied greatly. Charter schools, which have historically outperformed their traditional counterparts in narrowing the achievement gap again were quicker to offer live in- person instruction as well as innovative delivery models of blended and virtual alternatives.

The most impacted students were students from minority communities. From a civil-rights perspective, achievement gaps between advantaged and high-risk students continue to widen during the pandemic.

A recent McKinsey & Company report entitled “COVID-19 and students learning in the United States: The Hurt Could Last a Lifetime,” concluded that there were “ persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of Black and Hispanic heritage.” The McKinsey report went on to say that, “School shutdowns could only cause disproportionate learning losses for these students — compounding existing gaps — but also lead more of them to drop out. This could have long-term effects on these children’s long-term economic well-being and on the U.S. economy as a whole.”

The McKinsey report estimated that, during COVID school closures, 46 percent of African-American students and 60 percent of socioeconomically disadvantaged students likely received low-quality instruction — and that 40 percent likely received no instruction at all. These are shocking statistics.

There are long-term impacts as well. McKinsey believes dropout rates will rise — a phenomenon already being reported for some minority students — and average earnings could be reduced for Black students by $2,186 per year and $1,642 per year for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These are large numbers that negatively impact these students’ lifetime earnings.

McKinsey further calculated that if schools nationwide don’t reopen en masse for in-person instruction until January 2021, African-American students would lose 10.3 months of learning and economically disadvantaged students 12.4 months — compared to an average of 6.8 months lost for all students. Clearly, any schools reclosures would have a similar effect.

Not to mention that school attendance, according to the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics, is key not only to educational progress but also to socialization, mental health, fitness and, with 34 percent of Florida students in the 2019-20 school-year eligible for school lunches, delivery of key social services. And — most important — per another group of influential authorities at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, school reopenings are fully supportable by the science given appropriate precautions.

The key holding in Brown, overturning the previous precedent of “separate but equal,” was this: “Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal.” But what’s even worse is where physical and other factors are not equal — a reality apparently being worsened by coronavirus closures.

In the early days of the epidemic, we all understood the reasons to be “together — apart” to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. But, by now, it’s clear that keeping kids separate — from physical school, from their teachers and from each other — will arguably to make them unconstitutionally unequal.

The learning slowdowns and losses due to COVID shutdowns would clearly disproportionately impact low-income, black and Hispanic students. This loss of learning will directly lead to loss of earning. Again, disproportionately impacting students of color.

This impact is an unacceptable reversal of long-time legal precedent and hard fought civil-rights victories.

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