Communities around the world are taking social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has already infected over 700 people in California. Schools have been closed for at least 42.1 million students, or around 74 percent of the K-12 student population in the United States. In California, about 99 percent of the public school population has already been affected by closures, and the governor expects that most schools in the state will remain closed for the rest of the school year.
These school closures will undoubtedly create hardships for families across the state. But the good news is that California can adapt to the crisis and help families while empowering them at the same time.
This pandemic is a shock to everyone, including the public education system. It has already pressured school districts to adjust by providing educational services virtually. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, plans to partner with two public television stations to broadcast educational programming during the shutdown.
But what if a child’s school district is not coming up with innovative solutions?
There are many virtual charter schools throughout the country and the across California that have been providing tuition-free online learning to children for decades. These schools already have the infrastructure in place to serve students virtually, so the state should do what it can to allow families to access these options in this time of need.
For example, California could make one-time exceptions to rules on enrollment deadlines, standardized testing requirements, and the maximum allowable student-to-teacher ratios for these schools. This pandemic might also make the state want to reconsider its recently imposed two-year moratorium on all new virtual charter schools.
Getting educational services from providers to students is only one part of the problem, however. Most families in the state have organized their lives around the public school calendar. The school closures have hit many families twice as hard financially by disrupting their work schedules and increasing child care costs simultaneously. Although unemployment benefits could help curb financial difficulties caused by the pandemic, the benefits are uncertain and could arguably create additional pressure on the already strained economy.
Whether we like it or not, California’s homeschool population essentially jumped from 2.4 percent to almost 100 percent of school-aged children in a matter of weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the most recent federal data, California citizens spend around $13,000 per year per child getting a K-12 public education in the state. Given the current situation, California could give some portion of that funding to parents to cover educational expenses during the shutdown. The state could allow school districts and families to split K-12 education funding 50-50. That could be a win for both groups. School districts would get to keep half of the funding for students who no longer attend them. Families would get to use half of their children’s education dollars to find a school or program that fits their current needs.
Of course, public schools would still have to cover some of their operating costs even though they are closed. California’s public schools are funded based on student enrollment counts, meaning they are already required to financially adjust to reductions in student attendance.
Although the California Department of Education recently noted that school districts can seek emergency average daily attendance credits to adjust for closures caused by the pandemic, they also reported that precautionary closures may not qualify for these waivers. The department also stated that “students cannot generate attendance through independent study while school is closed,” so this will need to be addressed.
Thankfully, some public school districts are working hard to adapt and many virtual schools already have the infrastructure necessary to provide quality education from afar. Hopefully, California will work hard to help schools and families adjust by granting regulatory exemptions and distributing education funding equitably to reflect the current challenges.
A version of this column first appeared in The Orange County Register.