January 28, 2021
By Naomi Lopez
COVID-19 has resulted in massive upheaval in American education. In response to the pandemic, many schools across the country closed their doors, moving to virtual learning. This created unprecedented challenges for students, teachers, and families—all of whom were forced to adjust to a “new normal” with little warning. And for some families, this new normal was just not working.
Goldwater Institute Director of Healthcare Policy Naomi Lopez—a mother of two—knows that firsthand. Today, she tells her own family’s story of adjusting to new education realities during COVID-19:
This time last year, I was already monitoring the COVID-19 virus. As Goldwater Institute’s director of healthcare policy, I had the opportunity to listen into White House and interagency calls to state and local officials, business leaders, and policy experts across the country—and in the early weeks of the pandemic in the U.S., companies were being encouraged to stagger work schedules, limit business travel, and allow non-essential employees to work remotely. But as we all soon realized, COVID-19 would also have a huge effect on kids and families, too, creating an educational crisis. And I learned, through personal experience, that having more choice in education would be key to weathering this crisis.
It wouldn’t be until a few weeks later in March that my state, Illinois, would implement a stay-at-home order. Once the temporary order was extended past a couple of weeks, the impact of remote learning on my children was abrupt, harsh, and worrisome. Fortunately, I was able to move them into a learning situation that better answered their needs, but not every family is as lucky. But they should be: Everyone should have the same opportunity my kids had—to have the options that meet each child’s needs and preferences.
My two kids, a then-freshman son in public high school and a fourth-grade daughter in a private Montessori program, had always been strong academically and had good attitudes about their respective schools. But that enthusiasm quickly faded with remote learning. Both became despondent about school, lacked engagement, and developed negative attitudes about the value of attending classes.
I have enormous respect for my kids’ educators, and I don’t blame them for my kids’ shift in attitude. After all, the rules suddenly changed for everyone. What had been good programs for my kids suddenly weren’t. My family’s experience isn’t unique: Many families report their kids struggling with remote learning.
Unfortunately, it became clear over time that my children were not adapting well to this new learning environment—and that we needed to make a change.
Now, both kids are now enrolled in private, online programs—Expanse Online and the Academy of Thought and Industry (ATI)–that have successfully created strong communities, academic rigor, and restored their joy of learning. They’re both receiving educational experiences that I would measure against the best in the country. But what I truly value is that both kids love learning again.
One may be wondering how switching from one online approach to another could yield a different outcome. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about this, too. But I have seen, firsthand, that it is not only possible to create an enriching educational environment but that it is possible to do so online—and in a way that is superior to our previous educational experiences.
Michael Strong, a noted education thought leader who is an original co-founder of ATI and, more recently, founded Expanse Online, explains: “Everything we do at Expanse Online is based on the cultivation of respectful, civil, authentic intellectual dialogue. This includes daily efforts to build a strong community and direct, one-on-one engagement with every student. We regard intellectual engagement as more important than passively receiving information. Our goal is to uncover each child’s passions and cultivate them, igniting a joy of learning that will serve as the foundation for lifelong knowledge, skills, and sense of achievement.” That’s certainly consistent with what my kids are now going through: They both meet frequently with their teachers one-on-one, and their school experiences are living proof that remote learning can be engaging and rigorous.
My family is fortunate that we can access these programs, which are delivering high-quality and engaging options. To help make that possible for more children, every state should follow in the footsteps of Arizona and the five other states that offer education savings accounts and extend this kind of choice to their students. It is my wish that every child can find the option that best serves their academic and emotional needs. Educational opportunity shouldn’t be available to a lucky few.
Naomi Lopez is the Director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute. She lives in Springfield, IL with her 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.