At the risk of understating what will likely be a painful long-term problem, America’s K-12 education system did not adequately meet families’ and students’ needs over the past nearly two years of COVID. We now have strong evidence that this is the case for many reasons.
Pulling from a variety of data sources, in August Bellwether Education Partners published an excellent piece on some of the repercussions of schooling during COVID. The report, which is called “The Overlooked,” describes three types of students:
- The Movers: Those who changed schools from 2019-20 to 2020-21, whether within the same schooling sector, or into another;
- The Missed: Those who did not enroll in formal schooling at all during 2020-21;
- The Muted: Those who are frustrated with their available options but lack the ability to make the changes they would like.
The Movers, the Missed, and the Muted together are called “the Overlooked,” and Bellwether’s piece does an excellent job of estimating and describing these 11.3 million students. A spontaneous order is developing, however, to serve many of these students, called “hybrid homeschools.” Many of these students are likely to now be found in hybrid homeschools, especially if their families are middle class.
In hybrid homeschools, students attend class a few days per week, with teachers, classmates, etc., and are homeschooled on the other days. This setup can take a variety of forms, but typically the school will guide the assignments, the pacing, the grading, etc., and most of the instruction. Parents work with their children on the home days, either completing assignments, providing some instruction, or working on some form of enrichment.
While many new hybrid schools are starting up in the wake of COVID, this type of schooling has been happening around the US for several decades. Many of Bellwether’s Movers likely ended up in hybrid schools this year; a recent survey I conducted found that most of these schools have waitlists. Because of hybrid homeschools’ part-time nature, and because of varying state homeschool laws, some of the Movers are probably formally classified as being in private schools while others are classified as homeschoolers. Some charter schools and other public school programs also operate with similar formats.
It is impossible for anyone to say where exactly the Missed are. Certainly, as Bellwether argues, some number of these students are very young and were kept home in order to avoid having their first school experiences be online, or in other onerous pandemic-inspired situations. But as these COVID measures linger, families will eventually need to make a choice about what to do with their children. Normally during economic recessions, private school enrollments plummet, but private schools appear to have gained students last year, when public schools were virtual-only. If a conventional, zoned public school’s situation is not much different in September of 2021 (or September of 2022) than it was in May of 2020, the families of the Missed seem unlikely to send their children there, and they may be open to hybrid homeschooling.
Once they learn of these schools as a possibility, some of the Muted may end up in hybrid homeschools too. Bellwether notes that the Muted have various and hard to quantify frustrations. Their report focuses on families who would like better online instruction. I would like to offer another probable subset of the Muted: many of them are probably middle class families who moved into particular school districts they liked, but are now frustrated and stuck. They make too much money to qualify for state or local school choice funding programs, and there are likely few charter schools in their immediate area. But, though they may have moved into the best district they could, they are also not wealthy enough to suddenly pay private school tuition. Because hybrid homeschools only offer instruction a few days per week, and most of their staff are part time, their personnel costs can be much lower than those of conventional schools. Tuition at these schools is often in the range of $5,000 per student per year, much less than nearby five-day conventional private school options.
The hard reality is that by their very nature as Movers, Missed, or Muted, millions of families no longer trust their local schools, or their school district leaders.
In his 2008 book On Thinking Institutionally, political scientist Hugh Heclo wrote that, “In recent decades we modern people have grown more suspicious of almost all our society’s major institutions. That includes business, unions, public schools, the legal and medical professions, religious institutions, journalism, and nonprofit organizations. With a few exceptions, growing distrust in the modern mind is directed toward the entire apparatus of modern society. If you imagine that apparatus as a sort of bank, the overall picture is one of many withdrawals, few deposits, and a continuous depletion of reserves.”
A large part of the reason many families have moved schools, or avoided them altogether, or stayed with them, but grudgingly, is that schools have squandered so much of their reputations, legitimacy, and goodwill, just as so many other institutions have. Families have experienced their schools’ responses to the virus – poor online teaching, overzealous distancing and masking policies, ongoing and seemingly random quarantine rules – and they have decided they do not trust them anymore. This distrust has led many families to work together to populate or to found hybrid schools.
Even before COVID, most middle-class families were overlooked by school choice programs and discussions. And America’s current K-12 education system has not been resilient enough in the face of COVID-19. Hybrid schools may be able to meet the needs of many of the Overlooked in a low-cost manner, and may enable families to rebuild trust by turning to newer, smaller institutions.