Opinion: Betsy DeVos' back-to-school letter to America's parents
Dear moms and dads across America,
It’s back-to-school season, but it sure feels different than any other year. So, let’s talk about something that’s been weighing heavily on your minds, and on mine.
How can students — your daughter, your son — safely continue to learn and to grow this fall?
I know many of you feel overwhelmed or powerless. Frustrated or confused. Anxious or eager for clarity. And tired — really tired. All of those emotions are understandable. This has been hard on everyone.
You were disappointed last spring when your kids couldn’t finish the school year with their friends. Your heart broke when you saw your son crying because he was so frustrated with virtual learning that too often doesn’t seem to work quite right. You tried your best to step up to the plate by becoming a full-time teacher yourself, in addition to keeping your day job — all the while worrying about your family’s health and safety.
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Now, as we approach fall, you’re told that you may have to go it alone — again. It’s a lot. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I know many of you are now more attuned to what your child needs to learn and to thrive. So, some of you — with the time, means and resources — are getting creative. You’ve formed learning “pods,” hired tutors or made the decision to homeschool. You’ve converted a corner, a room or the basement into a makeshift one-room schoolhouse. Some of you are fortunate enough to be able to access a different school that is open, and you’re trying to enroll your children there and are stretching to pay for it.
You’re doing what’s best for your child. That’s what parents do.
But far too many of our nation’s parents — maybe you, or someone you know — are stuck with no options, no help, and no way out.
That’s why President Donald Trump and I are fighting every day for more options for every student and every family this fall. Every family needs to be able to do what’s right for their child. Their money should follow their student. Our schools exist because you pay for them, and you should be empowered to put your money to better use if your school isn’t meeting your needs.
That starts with schools being open. Let me clear at least one thing up right now: No one is suggesting that every single child must be behind a desk in a classroom, or that health realities on the ground won’t cause temporary disruptions. We do, however, believe that, as the rule, schools must be open for in-person learning as an option for the families who want or who need it.
More broadly, we believe families need more options than ever to find the right fit.
If you want or need to send your child to school in-person, we support you. We support additional emergency federal taxpayer funding to support schools that safely reopen and offer in-person instruction.
If virtual learning is best for your family, we support you. We have set aside significant taxpayer funding to support improvements in distance education and other innovative models.
If you want to attend a school other than your government-assigned public school, we support you. President Trump and I support Sen. Tim Scott’s School Choice Now Act, which would provide scholarships to families to choose the best educational setting for their child.
Teachers and educators, we support options for you as well.
If you want to teach in-person, we support you. We’ve provided $13 billion in emergency federal taxpayer funding for PPE, cleaning, training and coordination to ensure a safe learning environment.
If your health requires you to teach virtually, we support you. We have proposed more flexible and personalized funding for professional development to improve teacher preparation.
At the end of the day, we want everyone to have the choices to make the best decision for them. Some may choose to learn at home. Some may choose to return to their school. Some may choose to do a combination of both. Each of you needs to be able to choose what’s best for your own families, because you know your children and their circumstance better than anyone.
Your child. Your school. Your way.
No matter what you choose for your children, we all want it to be effective and safe.
Let’s look at the facts. Here’s what doctors, scientists, data and common sense tell us.
Dr. Robert Redfield heads up the Centers for Disease Control. He recently testified that “it is in the public health interest of these K-12 students to get these schools back open for face-to-face learning.” And by now, we all know Dr. Anthony Fauci. He said that in-person learning this fall is important for children “because of the psychological benefit.”
Researchers from the University of Virginia and Brown University found an alarming projection: Students are likely to return this fall with only two-thirds of the gains in reading and less than half the gains in math we would normally expect. And projections from a leading consulting firm show that will only worsen — months and months of learning lost — without access to high-quality, full-time instruction. That translates to a lifetime of negative impacts. The study further predicts annual income potential loss of 3% for African Americans and Hispanic youth, and 4% for low-income students due to learning loss.
I consider all of these data in my role as secretary of education. But I mostly look at it as a human being with a love for all children. I’ve fought the last 30 years of my life for every mom and dad, every daughter and son across America.
My husband, Dick, and I are parents, too. I’m a mom, too. I’m a grandmother, too. I want each and every child in America to have the same opportunities — and more — that my own kids had.
If my children were still school-aged, I would send them back to school. In fact, my children are sending their own little ones — my precious grandchildren — back to school this fall, in-person.
That’s their choice as parents. You can agree with them or disagree with them, do the same, or do something different. I’m not suggesting it’s the right choice for you, too. I just want you to have the power, the resources and the freedom to make your call.
That’s what parents do for and with their kids every day.
Answering that call is hard work. Being a parent is fulfilling. It’s exhilarating. It can also be exhausting and, at times, heartbreaking.
But, no matter how tough it can get, moms and dads get tougher. And if someone puts something in our way, we find a way around it — or we just plow right through it.
I still remember the first time I brought our oldest son, Rick, to school for his first day. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I couldn’t think about anything or anyone else but him the entire day. To this day, whenever I miss a phone call from any one of my children, I instinctively ask myself, “Are they OK?”
This COVID-19 crisis intensifies feelings and fears like never before.
But let me suggest to you something greater than fear: faith. And we parents know that tension between faith and fear all too well. That first day of school is a leap of faith in our kids and in each other: faith in our kids to remember all that we teach them; faith in adults to be good stewards of our children’s formative years; faith in ourselves to trust that our children will do the right thing when we’re not around, and fess up when they don’t.
We parents can be fearful, but we can be faithful, too.
We certainly didn’t ask for this pandemic, but generally no challenge is invited — we meet this head on because we’re parents. It’s what we do.
We parents know and love our children, and that love pushes fear aside. So, let’s commit to do what’s right for our children — for all students — this fall.
Before we know it, our children will be grown, but today is their only chance to be 5, or 9, or 15, or 18. Let’s not deprive them of all the wonderful things that can only come from a full-time, challenging, world-class education.
I know we can do this.
Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education. She is a resident of Grand Rapids.
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