As Public School Questions Loom, Parents Consider Options That Could Leave Districts Scrambling

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This week, school districts across D.C., Maryland and Virginia committed to plans for the coming school year with a variety of online and in-person options. But the News4 I-Team found some parents lacking confidence in whether public schools can deliver a smooth start to the year, and they're looking elsewhere.

"I mean, pretty much everybody I know is considering it," said Colleen Ganjian, an education consultant who just enrolled her third grader in private school.

The family is opting to leave behind Colvin Run Elementary in Fairfax County, where 8-year-old Caroline loves her teachers and friends.

"She was not happy about it," said Ganjian. "But what breaks my heart is that I don't think she can conceptualize that the school she left is not the school she'd be coming back to."

For school districts trying to plan an online platform or in-person learning, the number of students is critically important. How many teachers are willing to work in a traditional classroom? How many students will fit with social distancing? How many students will actually show up?

"I think that my biggest fear is that they are not agile enough to make the right decisions at the right times and to move things around and make sure that these kids are actually learning," said Ganjian.

Through her job, Ganjian had the opportunity to watch how public and private schools in various areas handled online classes at the end of the last school year. Some were plagued with technical problems and learning loss.

"Just from a parent's perspective, it was hard to watch this happening and then go home and say, you know, what is Fairfax doing and why are we a part of this?" Ganjian said, adding that even when Fairfax County got its online system working, teacher instruction was minimal.

She said she found her daughter's assignments to be largely remedial, likely because of the size and bureaucracy of the public school district. She found some private schools to be more agile and attentive.

"There was a teacher on the other end of the screen providing live instruction to students," Ganjian said. "And kids couldn't fall behind."

After a national review of remote learning, the Center on Reinventing Public Education issued a report stating too many schools were leaving learning to chance during the pandemic.

"The bottom line was they're doing very different things," said CRPE Director Robin Lake, pointing out that only one in three districts they studied kept up with basic things like attendance and student progress.

One in five mandated face-to-face interaction between student and teacher, which Lake calls critical.

"That's pretty disheartening," Lake said. "And on the other hand, it's not all that surprising; this is all brand new."

Lake said some school districts proved seamless learning possible and can be an example for others that struggled. She says there can be flexibility in how students learn, but not in what they learn.

"I'm worried about that for a lot of school districts. I'm not seeing a lot of reflection on what worked well, what didn't over the spring, and then figuring out how they're going to change things up for the fall," said Lake. 

CRPE is continuing to study how schools are responding to the pandemic and what their plans are for the coming year. She is not surprised by parents seeking other options.

"I think there are a lot of really interesting kind of hybrid homeschool models that families are playing with, where a small group of families join together as a co-op," she said.

Ganjian says many private schools she contacted were already full. The National Association of Independent Schools says enrollment is usually set by summer, but many private schools have made exceptions to add students now. Some have also increased financial aid to help struggling families.

Fairfax County says more than 400 students have already withdrawn this summer, heading to home school or private schools options within Virginia.

"I feel very privileged that we're able to consider it," Ganjian said. "And I really do, I feel like it's a major equity issue for the people who can't."

The News4 I-Team found another possible differentiator. More than 460 private, religious and charter schools across D.C., Maryland and Virginia got at least $245 million from the federal government's Payroll Protection Program. The low-interest loans will be forgiven if the schools comply with the program and retain their employees.

The prestigious Sidwell Friends in D.C. and McDonogh School in Maryland got about $5 million each.

"Budgets will be very tight next year," said Lake. "I think most states are expecting to have to make cuts to education budgets, and that can't be an excuse."

Lake says independent schools are used to innovating and adapting quickly; students are paying customers who could go elsewhere. She worries the pandemic will widen an existing financial disparity in education.

"I guarantee you, a lot of families were hiring private tutors and doing virtual tutoring, finding ways to get online and get accelerated instruction for their kid," Lake said.

Ganjian hasn't withdrawn Caroline from public school yet. She's waiting to see what the district delivers.

A Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson said accurate counts are important for student schedules, staffing and bus routes. The district is constantly reviewing those numbers and making adjustments as needed but would like to know about student withdrawals as soon as possible.

"If they get their act together and turn things around and make parents feel confident, then maybe everybody will go back," Ganjian said. 

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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