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Jacques: As schools move online, parents seek other options

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

While school choice may not have been a huge concern for some Michigan families in the past, I’m guessing that many more parents and students are paying greater attention to their educational options.

COVID-19 has created significant disruptions to both schools and the families who depend on them. As more traditional public school districts around the state announce plans to move online only this fall, parents and students deserve as many choices as possible to meet their individual needs. 

COVID-19 has created significant disruptions to both schools and the families who depend on them.

Private and charter schools are reporting higher interest levels, boosted enrollment and waiting lists as more of these schools pursue in-person learning. The state's 14 virtual charters are experiencing a similar trend, and they can't keep up with the demand given enrollment limits, self-imposed or set by their authorizers. Parents are also turning more toward homeschooling, after getting a feel for it this spring.

“We’re seeing a lot of movement in our enrollment,” says Wendy Hofman, head of school at Lansing Christian School. “We anticipate seeing more movement than we’ve ever seen. People are voting with their feet.” 

This makes sense, given that the Lansing School District, along with others nearby, have either announced or are considering going online only this fall. Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor are making similar plans, and the Detroit teachers union is pushing against face-to-face instruction for the Detroit Public Schools Community District if safety cannot be guaranteed.

“If teachers and union leaders do not feel it is safe to go back to work, we won’t go back to work,” Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said recently.

Another group of school officials, the Michigan Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators, has called on state leaders to wait for a period of 14 days without new COVID cases in a region before reopening schools. 

So you can see why parents who want their children to return to a classroom this fall may be searching for alternatives. Many parents and students did not enjoy the online learning experience earlier this year, when schools had to shut down suddenly in response to the virus. 

Hofman’s school, which enrolls about 525 students, is moving to in-person learning with a back-to-school date of Aug. 25. She says her staff worked diligently all summer to create a safe learning environment and has included input from the community and teachers. 

Flexibility is key, she says, and that includes having hybrid learning plans ready to roll out if the school should need to transition to a more online format depending on virus rates in the region.

To maintain social distancing guidelines and to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention benchmarks, Hofman says the school has capped classes and that some have “wait pools” because of demand.  

What shouldn’t happen in Michigan is what’s going on in places like New Jersey, California, and Milwaukee, where governors and other leaders are blocking private schools from opening to in-person learning if district public schools are not. Similarly, teachers unions around the country this week made a series of demands, such as limiting charter expansion and voucher programs. 

Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, has heard some rumblings about forcing conformity in regard to online learning. Yet Broderick says the governor’s office has told him it has no intention of doing that. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer confirmed that decision is "up to the districts" if they follow the governor's school reopening plan.

In the meantime, parents choosing private schools should question why Attorney General Dana Nessel, Whitmer and our state’s congressional Democrats are fighting against a U.S. Education Department rule that seeks to distribute CARES Act education funding more evenly among all students, including those in private schools. That funding was meant to help all students and ensure a safe environment at schools. School choice proponents are fighting back.

Contrary to some perceptions, Broderick says the bulk of private school students attend neighborhood faith-based schools, serving kids from middle-class to low-income households. And even if enrollment is up at some of these schools, donations and other fundraisers that help keep them afloat have suffered during the pandemic. That makes the federal aid even more vital. 

“It’s extremely important — a lot of schools are struggling right now,” Broderick says. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques