Across Missouri key COVID-19 statistics, ranging from the number of daily cases to hospitalizations, are on a rapid and troublesome rise.
These increases are forcing school districts across the state to reevaluate their current instructional models as more classrooms, schools, and instructors are being forced into temporary quarantines and school administrators worry about having the staff needed to continue operating in-person instruction.
Districts that have offered in-person learning, like Wentzville and Columbia, are voting to switch to distance education for the remainder of the year while districts that were considering transitioning to in-person learning, like Kansas City, may end up putting those plans on hold.
While well designed virtual instruction can be very effective for the right students, many parents forced into district designed distance education plans this fall have found it very difficult for their children to navigate multiple Zoom meetings and various learning platforms.
This has resulted in reduced student engagement and learning success.
These issues have led to mass protests and complaints from parents, particularly in high-performing school districts like Rockwood and Parkway.
These are districts where many families chose to live specifically for the qaulity of the schools but are now discovering what it is like to live in a district that is not responsive to parent and student needs.
The problems are even worse for working families or single parent families that do not have the means to have a parent constantly monitoring their child’s engagement with distance education.
As one member of the state legislature, Rep. Joshua Hill, put it this week, “We have children sitting at home and their parents are at work, the children are playing fricking Minecraft or whatever at home, and they’re not getting an education.”
When the pandemic first hit last spring, students in poor-performing and low-income districts, where learning was reduced to printed worksheets if anything at all, faced dramatic inequities compared to better performing districts that were able to transition to some form of online learning.
When districts returned to school this fall, a different inequity became apparent. Many affluent families who wanted to ensure in-person learning for their children were able to do so by moving them to private schools or switching to homeschooling or a learning pod model.
In fact, a recent report from the St. Louis Post Dispatch reveals that over 27,000 Missouri students have either left or decided not to enroll in public schools this year.
Nationwide the number of families choosing to homeschool has increased by 9 percent this year, with the majority of those having previously attended public schools.
While many private schools offer scholarships, the demand for in-person learning and decreases in fundraising opportunities caused by the pandemic have limited their ability to provide tuition assistance to low-income families this fall.
Succesful homeschooling requires constant engagement and planning from a parent, something that is virtually impossible in a single-parent home or a household where both parents work.
And, depending on how they are designed, learning pods can be amazingly expensive (one report at the beginning of the school year estimated participating in a pod could cost between $250 to $1,150 per week).
We have long argued that Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, could play a big role in leveling educational inequities in Missouri by giving families and students the freedom and financing to find and education that meets their specific needs.
This is more true as a result of the pandemic than ever before.
Proposed ESA legislation in Missouri would create scholarships for low-income students that the families could use to create a learning path specifically tailored to their children’s needs.
Families could use the scholarship to send their child to a different public school district that may offer in-person learning or have better learning outcomes, they could use it to pay private school tuition, they could use it to pay for homeschooling curriculum, or they could even use it to cover the costs of a learning pod.
It is time for the Missouri legislature to step in and insure that every Missouri student has the opportunity to succeed during this pandemic by enacting the state’s first Empowerment Scholarship Account program.