These Parents And Children Looking For Alternatives After Virtual Instruction Failed Them

Schools’ poor pandemic performance has changed their relationship with parents and the public

Editor's note: This story was corrected. Ann Arbor Public Schools has said it will be open for in-school instruction for the 2021-22 school year. Dexter Public Schools is a schools-of-choice district with some limitations.

The COVID pandemic and measures taken by the government to contain it disrupted life for pretty much everyone everywhere. But few experienced it more immediately, personally and profoundly than school-age children and their parents.

Some of the changes that were forced upon them rankled. Others bordered on intolerable. Many led to creative solutions and newfound activism, and some of them may have lasting effects well after the pandemic is over.

One outcome could be to change the relationship between the people and their local public schools. Extensive school lockdowns caused many families to look past the usual debates over charter schools and vouchers. They focused instead on some very old and entirely new alternatives, such as homeschooling, private tutors, local education pods and cooperatives.

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the pandemic prompted parents and policymakers in Michigan and elsewhere to rethink long-accepted models of education.

Interest in developing public support for alternatives — including direct subsidies or favorable tax treatment through individual Educational Savings Accounts — has taken off in 2020-21, DeGrow said. ESAs are “relevant and timely because the pandemic has pushed parents to find alternatives” to virtual-only instruction that many public schools offered.

“They really meet the moment," DeGrow said.

This is illustrated by the experience of Michigan parents like Anna Hoffman, 38. She moved moved to Ann Arbor six years ago with her husband, Ben, in large part because the local public schools have a very good reputation.

Until 2020, their children (now ages 9,7 and 5) thrived. She and her husband were heavily involved in the neighborhood school.

The experience was “nothing but wonderful,” Hoffman said. Then came COVID. Ann Arbor Public Schools, like districts across the state, closed its doors in March 2020 and went entirely to virtual instruction.

It was a stressful and unsatisfying spring, Hoffman said, but she also thought the experience would be short-lived. Then, however, the district surveyed parents in the summer about options (virtual, hybrid or in-person instruction) for the 2020-21 school year. She thought, “Ann Arbor isn’t going to open back up.”

And as many neighboring school districts returned to classroom, the Ann Arbor school board resisted.

The Hoffmans scrambled to find an alternative. Their options were limited, she said, in part because the good local schools had limited the appeal of alternatives, including charter schools.

By late summer, she found a K-8 parochial school that planned to reopen in the fall with in-person learning. She enrolled all three of her kids, with the eldest spending a few weeks on a waiting list. “St. Francis was a good example of how to make (reopening during a pandemic) work,” Hoffman said.

The school had a plan in place by midsummer to safely manage classroom learning and deal with any outbreaks of infection, she said. The Ann Arbor district, on the other hand, seemed determined to avoid reopening as long as possible, she said. She became a co-founder of the parent group Ann Arbor Reasonable Return, which pressed the district to develop a plan for resuming classroom instruction.

The district did partially reopen late in the 2020-21 school year and has committed itself to opening its doors in the 2021-22 year. Hoffman still considers herself a fan of Ann Arbor Public Schools, and her kids may well return there in the future. But she’s not a fan of paying premium-level property taxes for a system that couldn’t serve her family in an emergency.

“We can’t give districts like Ann Arbor a blank check because we’ve seen what they do with a blank check. I’m very concerned about all the families that don’t have any other options,” Hoffman said.

Ann Arbor schools serves an affluent community with a high proportion of well-education professionals. Dawn Bayman, of Pennfield Township near Battle Creek, lives in a more typical Michigan community. She says the pandemic-era school experience has also been highly negative for her family.

Bayman is the mother of two children with special needs: a 14-year-old boy and 6-year old girl. She said Pennfield’s response to the pandemic “left my kids out in the cold.”

The district began the 2020-21 school year with its classrooms closed and instruction only online, she said. “But we’re rural. Access to the internet is limited,” Bayman said.

The district distributed laptop computers. “But what good are they if you can’t get online?” she asked. Pennfield resumed limited, in-person instruction midway through the school year, she said, but it required students of all ages wear masks at all times. Her six-year-old cannot physically tolerate a mask, Bayman said.

She asked repeatedly for assistance from the local school board and school administrators, to no avail. She tried to find spots for her kids in other schools. One alternative, a local Christian school, could only accommodate her kindergartner.

One public school that would offer in-person instruction had space for out-of-district students, but by the time Bayman found it, the enrollment window for 2020-21 had closed.

Eventually, Bayman relied on homeschool instruction.

“I did my best. But I’m not a teacher,” she said. Bayman is determined to return her kids to the classroom in 2021-22, even if it requires a significant financial sacrifice to enroll them in a private school. She and her husband are tired of financially supporting a public school system that gave them no good options, “telling us to take it or leave it.”

Bayman said she has long felt that government subsidies for education “should follow the child. When a parent chooses a school as a better option, the money should go there too.” But “the pandemic really put it more in my face.”

Beth Bailey of Pinckney, is the mother of a 4-year-old girl and 11-month-old boy. She is already thinking about family’s educational options, and formerly worked for a nonprofit, America’s Future Foundation, which hosted forums on school choice.

She and her husband, an engineer at GM, are a bit wary of the reputation of the local public school.

Nearby Dexter Schools would be better, she said, but the district has limitations on the students accepted from outside its geographic boundary. According to the district, "The Dexter Community Schools district is a limited schools of choice district. This means that we have two, two-week application windows during which families can apply to attend as school of choice students for the following fall. Each year, we look at our current enrollment and estimate the number of students we can accept for schools of choice slots.

Bailey said the nearest charter school is a half hour’s drive away, meaning she’d end up in the car with a toddler for two hours a day if they took that option. In 2020, the Baileys’ daughter was scheduled to start preschool at a local Catholic parish facility. 

Then, at the height of the pandemic, and with a newborn in the house, her daughter became violently ill with flu-like symptoms. It wasn’t COVID, but Bailey said the experience was gut-wrenching, and it made her reluctant to send the child into a classroom right away.

So she opted for a year of homeschooling. And was pleasantly surprised. Bailey said she found a multitude of curricular resources for homeschoolers, support groups and other helps.

“It has been amazing to see — all of the people involved. My own financial advisor stepped down from her job to homeschool.”

Bailey said she was pleased with how open-ended the process was, and with her daughter’s progress. She plans to continue for another year or two, at least.

“We’ll see how we do together,” she added. "We’re both very strong characters.”

Bailey said providing a classroom, supplies and a teacher for her daughter has not been a financial burden for her family.

But for others, it could be a real struggle, and tax credits or subsidies for at least school supplies could be easily justified, she said.

“We all have such different needs. People need to be able to decide what is best for their own situation,” Bailey said.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.