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In uncertain times, parents need online options

Amid the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic, parents continue to face new challenges when it comes to their child’s education. In a time where stay-at-home orders, social distancing and travel restrictions have become the new norm, parents have to make important — and potentially tough — decisions about their child’s education in the fall.

Local school districts have started unveiling their plans for reopening in the new school year. And for most, school is going to look vastly different than it did in March with reduced class sizes, mandatory face masks and temperature checks. There is also the looming threat of additional closures in the fall or winter when public health officials anticipate a second wave of the virus to emerge.

During these unsettling times, it comes as no surprise that parents want to be extra cautious when it comes to the health and safety of their children. For some families, this may mean pulling their child out of a traditional brick-and-mortar school and keeping them at home.

A national new study of 2,000 parents with children in traditional elementary and secondary schools reveals that nearly one in five students who were attending a brick and mortar school in March of this year are unlikely to return this fall.

Applying this percentage to the 56 million school-aged children in the United States, that means nearly 10 million K-12 students will be displaced from classrooms and need other educational options.

The survey confirms that many parents share the same concerns about school safety expressed by education leaders and public health experts. Even with stringent preventative measures in place, including reducing class sizes to encourage social distancing, requiring students, teachers and staff to wear face masks and regular cleaning, nearly a quarter of parents believe it may be too risky for their children to go back to their brick and mortar school.

A significant number of these families are considering full-time online public schools for their children.

In addition to being a safer option for children, mandatory lockdowns have forced many schools to shift education online, and as a result, many families are seeing the value in online education. According to the survey 80 percent reporting they were satisfied with their child’s transition to online learning this spring.

Thanks to this positive experience more than 40 percent of parents are considering continuing online learning for their child next year, with 17 percent highly considering enrolling their child in a full-time online public school in the fall.

Putting that number into perspective, that’s about 8.7 million students.

We are on the crux of an educational crisis. In a matter of months, millions of children will not be returning to traditional classrooms as their parents search for a better — and safer — option.

Unfortunately, thanks to outdated public policies and artificial barriers designed to prevent parents from exercising their right to choose the best education for their child, the number of “online seats” available simply won’t be able to meet the increased demand.

Policymakers at the federal and state level, and on both sides of the aisle, must come together to ensure online public schools have what they need to meet the demand. That means lifting the enrollment cap on online schools, removing prior public requirements and ensuring these programs have adequate funding.

No parent should be forced to choose between their child’s health and their education, which is exactly what these barriers to online education do.

Policymakers must do what’s right, and put the needs of students and families first by supporting policies that allow families to choose online learning. This is not the time to deny parents’ choice over their child’s education. The solution for many parents will be online education because virtual schools kept teaching when the pandemic forced traditional public schools to close.

Colleen Cook is a parent and board president of the National Coalition for Public School Options, a national alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children.

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