COVID-19 has reminded us all of one of the great truths about human existence. When things get tough families are still the center of life for most of us. When schools are forced to shut down or roll back instruction for students, the education of children defaults to parents, guardians and other trusted family members and friends. Life goes on.
Noting the primacy of the family in a crisis does not diminish the importance of schools or formal education. In fact, COVID-19 has also reminded us that education works best when families and schools work together. I’ve seen this firsthand with a number of the K-12 public charter schools my organization supports as a funder and as an advocate.
The schools that have navigated the current challenges with the most success have been the ones that have communicated really well with their parents. What’s more, they have drawn their parents into their school’s decision-making process and treat their parents as the valued partners that they are.
Conversely, those schools and school districts (mostly large districts with multiple buildings and thousands of students and parents) that have struggled communicating with their parents have had a challenging time of it. Bigness and scale have actually been a disadvantage during this pandemic. Smaller, personal and nimble has worked better. Size matters. Trust is harder to build and keep over larger numbers of people.
If you ask parents who have spent the last nine months helping their children do school many will likely tell you that COVID-19 has increased their respect and admiration for teachers. Parents have come to better appreciate how challenging it is to help children and teenagers really learn, especially online. It’s hard, and certainly at times, frustrating work.
It’s also rewarding work. Have you heard a friend or a family member in recent months say something like “I didn’t know my daughter was so good in math,” or “I didn’t know my son was so interested in graphic design?” One of the few bright spots of the pandemic for many of us is that we have gotten to know our children, or grandchildren, better!
Some believe that when we get a vaccine into enough people’s arms and students can go back to school like it was 2019 that things will return to normal. Education will again become something schools do and parents kind of participate in from the sidelines. Republican pollster and pundit Frank Luntz sees it very differently. Based on his conversations with parents across the country he reasons, “Parents don’t want a ‘return to normal.’ On the contrary, they want to ‘rethink’ education and explore new ways of teaching. They’re asking…to reimagine everything.”
Luntz goes on, “It’s not about ‘education’ or even ‘schools.’ It’s about trusting ‘parents’ to decide ‘the right’ school/program for their children.”
We have evidence in Idaho that parents are engaged and invested in the process of their childrens’ education. The state’s Strong Families, Strong Students program to distribute $50 million in microgrants and reimbursements of $1500 a child was oversubscribed in days. Fact is more families will probably not get funded using these one-time federal CARES Act dollars than those that will. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement of how hungry parents are to add some level of control and personalization to their children’s learning. Parents aren’t passive when it comes to their children.
COVID-19 has forced a lot of change on Idaho families and Idaho schools. It is unlikely that education, learning and schooling will simply default back to what it was pre-COVID. Parents better understand that they play a critical (maybe the most critical) role in the education of their children. As we move into 2021 and beyond, it would be wise for policy makers, lawmakers, and educators to look closely at how best to support not only our schools and educators, but also our families.