As many school kids settle into e-learning, parents are paying attention to news from the Columbia School Board meetings more than ever before.

This summer, the news was the three possible options: all in person, all online or a hybrid of in person two days a week and at home the rest. Then the local Health Department numbers bumped up and the district went to all online temporarily.

These technocratic statistics from the health department — and their interpretation — sure seem to determine a lot of decisions locally. The school board primarily cites the trends in these numbers in how it feels it can approve reintegration of on-site learning opportunities.

It sounds like School Board members and the administration office have been hearing from parents at an unprecedented rate because of this disruption.

Many parents are having difficulty adjusting to in-home learning, which they find less than user-friendly or relevant. Parents of young children can find hours of Zoom school for a second-grader to be absurd.

A mom I talked to said her social circle has become beset with a collective gloom that e-learning will likely be the norm for longer than originally expected. Perhaps the entire school year; or longer, off and on, as epidemiologists say COVID-19 could linger for another two or three years.

I am not even sure what working-class single parents of young school kids are doing or those with disabilities.

Many are frustrated at the school district, which seems prone to lockouts. But frankly, in this community, what choice do public schools tangibly have? The Columbia ethos, from the City Council and beyond, is that of dedicated masks, distancing and limited, if not expanded, business closures. Soft curfews could be next.

From a risk management standpoint, if public schools opened their doors and some student got COVID-19, the pendulum would swing hard back toward lockouts. And, heaven forbid, a student would get the virus from school and pass away from it, it’s hard to imagine the institutional repercussions. Therefore, there is a good argument that because of the gravity of perspective from local stakeholders, the decision-makers at our public school district are not practically able to reopen as fast as many parents would like.

And many families are finding this unacceptable. Public schools can’t open, so parents need something else. It’s time to declare a school choice emergency.

With necessity being the mother of invention, moms and dads are getting creative.

I hear some parents are tag-teaming between work and being their kids’ home learning supervisor. Some are looking to hire a tutor, or something — anything!

The Missourian reported that a few local organizations are opening their doors to kids during the day as a surrogate study hall because the public schools won’t even allow that at their facilities — a smart, inspiring innovation.

The state legislature recently had a special session to address public safety, but perhaps it would have been more useful to liberalize school policies and funding streams to support Missouri families with schoolchildren; perhaps let willing public school teachers shift to reformulated classes of willing students.

Or let the school funding follow the student, wherever a parent determines is safe and practical to go; allow a stipend for a parent acting as home-learning teacher’s aide, in lieu of lost hours from a job they can’t work. Perhaps even consider it a sort of Universal Basic Income.

Funds could allow parents to hire a tutor, or a tutor/teacher/facilitator for a pod school of several families.

Or funds follow the student to a different institution, such as a neighboring public school district that is open, or Columbia Independent School, or a Montessori school or to a faith-based academy. This is no time to discriminate. Learning is essential, child care is essential and we’re in a state of emergency — it’s all hands on deck and all ideas on the table.

New forms of learning delivery could bloom around us. Employers, particularly of service-based jobs that can’t be performed from home, could host learning centers for their employees’ kids regardless their residential geography, with public school resources temporarily reallocated to serve those students and families in the most need.

Then when COVID-19 finally shakes out, perhaps we revisit the more liberalized programs and focus on reimagining what role a public school should take.

The usual anti-school-choice arguments are currently out the window. The tired-old establishment anti-reform mantras sound so irrelevant in light of what many parents are living with day to day now. With such imminent needs, in the case of school flexibility, the shoe is now on the other foot.

Human creativity can solve these burning problems to fulfill the needs of students, parents, teachers and all of us.

About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

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