The COVID-19 pandemic brought the problems of the modern education system home to families—literally.
Traditional brick-and-mortar school buildings were abruptly emptied, and parents found themselves adjusting to a return to home education, in which children learned from Mom and Dad around the kitchen table.
Three months ago, only 3% of families educated their children at home, and no one could have imagined a scenario in which all families would be participating in home education.
>>> When can America reopen? The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, a project of The Heritage Foundation, is gathering America’s top thinkers together to figure that out. Learn more here.
Yet, with the exception of Montana, all states have closed schools for the remainder of the academic year.
Some schools have tried to recreate their traditional classrooms through virtual experiences. Bethany Mandel, a homeschooling mom and editor at Ricochet, noted that this one-size-fits-all model is a struggle for some students and parents:
As a homeschool mother, I’ve spent recent weeks giving pep talks to girlfriends. These friends tell me they’re spending their day troubleshooting lessons given over .
When they aren’t standing over their kids’ shoulders showing them which math problem to do, they’re printing their worksheets or scanning them to send back to the teacher. It’s exhausting for parents with one kid, but with three or four, it’s practically impossible.
One mother described her new role as becoming the “administrative assistant to the busiest, and tiniest, CEOs.”
As Karol Markowicz noted in the New York Post: “We get messages from their music teachers, their art teachers, librarians, even their gym teachers. They take attendance strictly.”
The problem that leaves parents in tears, however, is not virtual learning. It’s the fact that the current education system is inflexible. The rigidity—perhaps seen as necessary in traditional classrooms—is cumbersome and sometimes has become an impediment to home education.
Mandel argued that parents and students would be happier and learning more if schools worked with families to create more flexible learning experiences:
Home education involves an understanding that children can learn while doing everyday tasks; baking can teach math, science, and home economics. Sitting on the couch reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to kids in grades five and three and kindergarten counts as ‘school.’ So does taking a nature walk and creating a nature journal.
Yet, frustrated by the lack of flexibility that families are experiencing, some parents already have opted out of their school’s online learning programs, preferring instead to adopt more flexible schedules, working at their child’s pace and focusing on subjects that interest them.
For instance, Christine Tyler, a career teacher, lets her sons engage in exploratory studies and “take ownership of their education.” She commented to Insider: “It’s a time to think about what they are interested in learning and doing. The best learning happens when you just give kids some time to go outside and build a fort.”
A flexible learning environment is often a key component of successful home education. It should allow children to learn at their own pace and create an educational experience tailored to the children’s interests.
As parents, teachers, and children adjust to “life after COVID-19,” they should collaborate to create learning experiences that match the flexibility that families need.
These unprecedented times have illustrated more poignantly than ever the importance of flexible education options.
Looking forward, state policymakers could expand access to more education alternatives, such as virtual schools, education savings accounts, and 529 savings accounts.
For example, states should provide emergency education savings accounts to families for the remainder of the school year. States should shift a portion of the funds that would have been spent on students in public schools for the remainder of the year to their education savings accounts.
Families could use education savings accounts to pay for a variety of education expenses, such as private tutoring, online resources, or tuition at a virtual private school.
Similarly, Congress should allow families to access their 529 savings accounts for homeschooling expenses.
Although the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act allowed K-12 tuition to become an allowable 529 plan expenditure, homeschooling expenses are still not permitted. Yet, the nearly universal school closures are an unprecedented circumstance, and families should be able to use their own savings for their unexpected education expenses at home.
With greater education options, parents can find the schooling option that works best for them and their children. And that extends to the home classroom as well.
Although “we’re all homeschoolers now,” what has happened over the past two months is not homeschooling as traditionally conceived. Families were made to become homeschoolers whether they wanted to pursue that learning option or not.
School districts, well-meaning in their efforts to move content and instruction online, should be applauded for doing so. But they should not push families to replicate the K-12 classroom in total.
Parents and children should be able to use this time to delve into reading material that they love and to explore new avenues for learning, be they online or outside, and should enjoy the time to learn together as a family.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal