One is thriving after switching from online public school to in-person private education. The other is struggling, stuck in her virtual classroom.
The lives of these two girls, Ella Pierick and Afiya Harris, encapsulate the growing divide in U.S. education as more affluent parents flee public schools.
In Connecticut, enrollment fell 3%. Colorado reported a similar decline, with the steepest losses in one of its wealthiest counties. Chicago’s rosters dipped 4.1%, the most in 20 years.
Parents with means are instead homeschooling; joining with other families to hire teachers in so-called pandemic pods; or signing up for private schools. Poor and minority children often have no choice but to attend inferior virtual classrooms, and some are just giving up entirely.
“The pandemic has exposed so many things,” said Amanda Thompson-Rice, a math support specialist in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools. “Our affluent parents, they’ve got what they call pods, they’ve hired teachers or workers to support their kids for the day. They’re paying them like $20 or $30 an hour. Black families are trying to just live.”
A December study by consultant McKinsey & Co. found that students of color in U.S. schools had fallen behind in math by three to five months because of the pandemic; white students trailed by only one to three months. A quarter of kids do not have access to any kind of web-enabled device or broadband at home.
A quarter of kids do not have access to any kind of web-enabled device or broadband at home
Other disadvantaged groups are floundering, too. In Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, the number of middle and high school students earning failing grades in at least two classes nearly doubled to 11% of students, with steeper rises among children with disabilities and those for whom English isn’t their first language.
U.S. public schools educate more than 50 million children, so even modest enrollment declines could add up to hundreds of thousands of kids. National figures won’t be available for a couple of years and class sizes could recover after the pandemic. If a significant number don’t return -- or if there’s a lag -- it could have an impact on school budgets, which are based on the previous year’s enrollment.
Public schools spent $739 billion in the 2016-2017 school year, or $14,000 per student, 90% from local and state money and most of the rest from the federal government. So schools face a potential challenge: less money to treat students who demand more attention because they’ve fallen behind in virtual classrooms.
“Kids are very likely to return to school needing a great deal of enrichment,” said Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “That educational issue runs smack into the school finance issue.”
In the village of Oregon, Wisconsin, near the state’s capital, Jessica Pierick did what she could to make sure her daughter Ella didn’t fall behind in third grade. She and her husband work for a small construction company, so they could afford to switch from public to nearby Saint Ann School, a Catholic institution that charges $5,000 a year tuition.
“I really like it there because there’s a lot of new people I get to meet,” Ella said.
In the New York City borough of the Bronx, Afiya Harris, who is 10, still logs on for school on a laptop. Her father is an elevator mechanic. Her mother recently lost her job an administrative assistant at a law firm. Afiya attends Tag Young Scholars, a magnet school for the gifted and talented in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood.
Her parents spend nights tutoring Afiya, and she recently started meeting weekly with a social worker to address her difficulties in concentrating amid computer glitches.
“I have breakdowns because I can’t believe I spent so much time going over this with her,” said her mother, Rasheedah Harris. “I get emotional, because most parents, I know, aren’t able to put in that time.”
Elsewhere in the Bronx, some students are barely showing up. Leton Hall, a science teacher at predominantly Black and Hispanic Pelham Gardens Middle School, said 10 out of 25 students don’t log-in at all on a typical day. Many who do lose connections because of Wi-Fi problems or don’t turn on their cameras, suggesting they may not be participating.Hall records a video of himself teaching for students who missed live instruction but knows some will fall many grade levels behind. More than the three quarters of students at the school are considered economically disadvantaged and 7% are homeless.
“We always have contact with students and with parents that are absent, but it’s just different now,” Hall said. “You can call, but there is not much you can really do.”
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