November 17, 2020

By Jennifer Wagner 

The pandemic has changed schooling as we know it - for now. 

You can't throw a stick without hitting an article about how families have been adapting since March. Some are choosing P-andemic P-Ods. Others have turned to homeschooling. Many are sending their kids back to the classroom either part-time or full-time. Traditional schools are sounding the alarm as their enrollment declines. Parents, especially those at lower income levels, are worried about learning loss. 

Our research shows public opinion is all over the place, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to read the tea leaves as we look to the future. 

Right now, a little over half of parents report being very or somewhat comfortable sending their kids back to the school: 


Yet 69 percent of parents are supportive of having the rest of this school year conducted completely online:

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In our latest round of polling data, we dove deeper into the concept of pandemic pods, which are small groups of students learning together while schools are closed. We had seen in prior months that almost one third of families were participating in pods, but we wondered if that was in addition to regular learning or as a replacement for it.

Turns out, only 15 percent of families have made the complete leap, while 85 percent of families are using pods to supplement:

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Taken alongside the pandemic pod results, perhaps the most telling slide — albeit still viewed through the lockdown lens — is this one:

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The pandemic has forced families to balance their health and safety risk tolerance with their preference to have their children educated in a traditional setting. The question on everyone’s mind: Are these trend lines a recipe for revolution or just another sign of these strange times?

Put another way: What can we do as advocates to continue the conversation and keep families open to options most of us would never have considered before the pandemic?

If we return to polling from the before times, we see a striking similarity between responses to pandemic-related changes and the level of support for education savings accounts or ESAs, the most flexible form of school choice.

ESAs allow families to spend their allocated K-12 funding on far more than just private school tuition. Covered services can also include tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, textbooks, other instructional materials and saving for future college expenses.

Though awareness for ESAs starts out low (only a handful of states have enacted ESA programs), support goes through the roof when parents are given a description:

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Clearly, parents were enthusiastic about the idea of flexibility and options before the pandemic (once they found out what ESAs are). Now that they’re experiencing K-12 education in new and ever-changing ways, parents prefer schools that provide multiple learning options.

The big question we face as school choice advocates is what happens after the pandemic.

How do families and students approach learning after the pandemic?

Do families still want pods or hybrid homeschooling if they can send their kids back to their neighborhood school and resume their regular pre-pandemic routines? Are they going to want to pay tuition to attend a school in-person once all schools are back operating that way? Will they see — and fight for — the continued benefits of choice, or will they yearn for the comfort of the way things were?

We’re planning to ask some of these questions in our regular survey work over the coming months, but the answers will all be hypothetical until the pandemic actually ends.

As we prepare for that transition, here are three pieces of advice for reformers in this space:

  1. Be gentle. Don’t come at parents with your thoughts on how they should be educating their kids. If they don’t want to pod, that’s cool. If they want to homeschool, point them to the tools they need. And if they decide they want to go back to their neighborhood public school, for heaven’s sake, be supportive. Our job is to promote and preserve options, not step into families and tell them how to raise their kids. These past eight months have challenged parents and students in ways we never imagined. There’s never been a better time for grace and empathy.
  2. Show how options can work. I can’t speak for you, but I’m a lot more likely to embrace something I’ve never tried before if someone I trust tells me about it or shows me how it works. We can preach about choice until we’re weak of voice, but the folks using different options are always going to be our best messengers. That’s why we need to support outreach efforts by organizations like the National Parents Union to build grassroots support on the ground.
  3. Remember that we’ll be recovering from a pandemic. When you eat, breathe and sleep an issue as an advocate, it can be really easy to develop tunnel vision. It feels like there’s nothing more important than what you’re working on. K-12 education will undoubtedly be front and center for policymakers as we emerge from this crisis, but they’ll also be grappling with potential budget shortfalls, economic uncertainty and an overburdened health care system. We have to be cognizant of the big picture as we continue to promote expanded options for families.

Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.