“Open the schools,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier this month, speaking with a concurring Gov. Jared Polis, echoing what so many of us are pleading. Yet as things stand now, some Colorado school districts still are planning to mandate remote learning when instruction resumes in 2021, at least in early January.

We’re all trying to make this work. And while Polis is urging schools to open, he’s added complexity and confusion with fluctuating guidelines. 

I’m concerned that our kids could suffer long-term academic harm as well as mental and emotional damage from continued remote learning. I also believe we need to broaden educational choice.                           

Will Johnson

There are signs that children’s academic performance deteriorates with remote learning. Districts across Colorado and the country are seeing a significant drop in attendance and more failing grades. Just one in five teachers say they’re teaching the same amount of content as last year. And once kids get behind, it’s very hard for them to catch up, risking long-lasting harm.

Alarmingly, remote learning may also be widening the achievement gap. There are indications that academic deterioration has been most pronounced among low-income and struggling learners, setting these children back even further.

This comes as mental health-related emergency room visits by children have soared during the pandemic. We all hear stories of kids breaking down crying after hours of staring frustratingly at the screen. 

International studies show no consistent link between in-person schooling and the spread of the coronavirus. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Nov. 20: “The truth is, for kids K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school.” 

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Focused protection for teachers is important, especially for those in more vulnerable categories. So can the more vulnerable teach remotely to families who choose that option, while the rest teach in person? Can we increase the number of substitute teachers by jumpstarting the careers of teachers-in-training?

Research shows that our kids desperately need in-person learning, and that it can be offered responsibly. If our school boards refuse, then it’s one more reason to broaden educational choice and ensure our tax dollars fund the student, not the institution.

What’s abundantly clear to me is that a “one size fits all” education approach doesn’t serve families well, especially when schools are unnecessarily shut down. Indeed, a RealClear Opinion Research survey shows that, since April, support for school choice has risen by 10 percentage points, from 67% to 77%, among parents with children in public schools. 

Regardless of when public schools re-open for in-person instruction, I believe that broader educational choice will benefit students, families, and the community.

In Colorado, public-school choice is not the problem. We already have healthy charter-school and open-enrollment policies. However, this is only a portion of what educational choice should be.

True educational choice means parents could choose the type of school and learning format that works best for their children. To achieve that, I believe that public funds earmarked for education need to follow the student.

Vouchers and tax credits are examples of this — giving funds that would’ve been spent on kids’ public education back to the parents and empowering them to use those for private school and tutors.

After witnessing the devastating impact of these classroom shutdowns, Colorado school boards and government officials should be more willing to transfer choice to families. And Colorado should adopt a funding mechanism that can supercharge true educational choice. 

Five states currently employ a system of Education Savings Accounts (not to be confused with Coverdell or 529 college savings accounts) in which a child can opt out of full-time public school and the state deposits a portion of the funds allocated to the child’s public education into a private account.

Parents can then use these funds to pay for private school tuition, curriculum for home-schooling or learning pods, online classes, tutors, and other education-related services. 

This system empowers parents to tailor their children’s education to their unique learning style, academic needs and education goals.

We need to reopen public-school classrooms to minimize long-lasting damage to our children. But whether it’s because of shutdowns or parents unhappy with public-school curriculum and quality, more educational choice is essential for our children to thrive. 

Will Johnson of Highlands Ranch is a father of three young sons.

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