Teachers, parents, students, and everyone in between are gearing up for some kind of start to the 2020-21 school year. There’s no denying that uncertainty is the prevailing theme this school year.
Will the year start in person or virtually?
Can the spread of the coronavirus be contained?
What will enrollments look like?
Is social distancing at school even possible?
How many teachers will retire early because of this new stress?
How many families are going to dip out of their local public school for the year?
How long will things last before we get sent home for a virtual stretch?
How many families won’t be coming back to their old public schools at all after all this is over with?
How many teachers might get laid off as a result of declining enrollment?
If things jump back and forth between in-person and virtual, how will working parents juggle everything?
I’m sure that litany of questions only scratches the surface. All of the decisions this year are difficult. All of the possible solutions are vastly imperfect. None of the possible options satisfy everyone.
However, it didn’t have to be this way.
Though 18 months ago feels like part of a whole different lifetime since the pandemic has messed with everyone’s sense of time, there was a set of policy ideas up for discussion that would have left West Virginia in a better place to handle pandemic-education. Despite loud opposition in early 2019, it’s time to face the music – Senate Bill 451 would have provided a lot of answers, relief, and stability in the situation we currently find ourselves in.
There are 2 particular provisions from the bill worthy of highlighting for their capacity to calm the stormy seas of this 2020-21 school year:
- Education Savings Accounts
- 1400 Student Enrollment Floor
Through research, advocacy, communications, and so much more we’ve been making the case for education savings accounts for 4+ years now. In short, implementing these would have allowed educational funding to follow students to a variety of alternatives if the family decided that traditional public schooling was not the best option to pursue for one or more years. This would’ve alleviated much of the stress and uncertainty currently surrounding the start of the school year.
To illustrate in the 2020 context, that money could have provided:
- Tuition to a local private school that has committed to a 5-day, in-person educational routine
- Materials and curriculum to engage in homeschooling
- Funds for families of ALL income levels to band together and pool resources to start up a pandemic learning pod under the guidance of a trusted community educator, thereby also giving educators additional, and possibly safer, options for practicing their profession
- Smaller class sizes in the traditional public schools, meaning that in-person instruction would be safer, and more compliant with social distancing precautions
- And so much more!
Not only that, but the traditional public school system would have kept a portion of the money formerly allocated toward educating that student. This would have been helpful to administrators who are likely looking at fairly serious budget fluctuations in coming years as a result of enrollment variations.
Building off the funding discussion related to ESAs, SB 451 also included a provision that would have stabilized budgets for low-population counties by ensuring that funding would not fall below the level allocated for 1400 students in the county system. Such a provision is even more important in a year such as this where more families than usual are contemplating education outside of their traditional public schools, since the marginal student’s enrollment or dis-enrollment has a greater impact on school system budgets.
This funding stabilization would come to mean more teachers, associated service personnel and wraparound services, diversity of course offerings, and resources available for students in rural counties. It would mean better job security for the educators in those counties.
Instead, it’s late 2020. We’re six months into a pandemic. Students are supposed to start school in a couple of weeks. Every passing day raises more questions about what to do with few satisfactory answers in sight. Virtually no one is happy with the way things are slated to unfold.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Jessi Troyan is the Development Director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.