Every fall, just as kids across the nation return to school, parents in Colorado begin the task of trying to figure out the best school options for their children for the following year. Some of them are choosing a kindergarten or high school. Others need to find new schools as they relocate to new neighborhoods. And still others are merely weighing their options after having negative experiences at their neighborhood schools. They sign up for open house nights, meet with principals and teachers from prospective schools, and even go on tours with their kids to explore their future houses of learning.
But amid a worldwide pandemic, Coloradans are facing a much more complex experience in regard to school choice. Just as COVID-19 has completely altered our kids’ education, so too has it changed the ways in which families research prospective schools, leaving them with even more challenges. Here are some things that parents should consider as they contemplate learning options for next year.
Can We Visit?
The SchoolChoice application is still expected to open on January 15th, but, says Laurie Premer, Director of Choice and Enrollments at Denver Public Schools (DPS), they’ll continue “monitoring influences that could negatively impact participation.”
“As of now, we don’t anticipate any changes to our SchoolChoice application process for the 2021-22 school year,” says Premer. There will, however, be some changes in how parents are able to research prospective schools.
“Most notably, we normally host a series of school expos in mid-January as a way for families to meet and talk to school leaders in person. We have canceled the expos for this year,” says Premer. However, DPS is currently working on alternatives to the expos.
Keely Buchanan, owner of Preparing for Denver Kindergarten, bridges the gap between prospective families and the school choice process across Colorado. She helps navigate the school search at all grade levels, for both public and private schools. While she is an expert for DPS, she has completed consultations for almost every district in Colorado.
“This is a difficult time to navigate an already overwhelming process,” Buchanan, who has already begun exploring the changes COVID-19 has prompted among schools around the state, says. “First and foremost, touring is up in the air, and parents may have to complete Round 1 choice without touring any of the schools on their choice form in person.”
Buchanan thinks public school may begin to offer virtual tours via their websites, and that some may even opt to allow cautious in-person tours if early childhood education (ECE) through fifth-grade students, who returned in DPS Oct. 21, stay in person without a lot of quarantine breaks. She has noticed that some private schools already created virtual tours, though in-person options are not available.
“Overall, I am seeing very few (if any) in-person tours offered at elementary schools. Private schools typically have school overview videos available on their websites (even before the coronavirus), and many have responded to COVID-19 by creating virtual tour videos, as well,” says Buchanan.
One public school that’s working on providing more information virtually is Swigert International School, in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. According to Amy Beltzer, Swigert’s community liaison, Swigert will offer virtual open houses, where school administrators will give a detailed presentation of the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, as well as curriculum, electives, gifted and talented, special education, homework philosophy, and more. The school will also provide a fact sheet that contains much of the same information, “but serves more as a way for prospective families to compare basic information on each school,” Beltzer says.
Choosing an Entirely New Path
Due to the pandemic, thousands of families have also opted to pull their kids and turn to homeschooling or unschooling in hopes of finding themselves in a better situation for the 2021-22 school year. In the local Facebook group, Colorado Secular Homeschoolers, many parents new to the community report that while they never planned to attempt it, they’re choosing to stick with it even after the pandemic. But others say they’re still looking into school choice for next year.
“We do have concerns over not seeing a school in its ‘normal’ state of operation and not being able to see how they are handling COVID-19,” says Tamara Haverty, a Denver-area mom whose daughter will be entering middle school next year. Haverty pulled her daughter out of DPS and is homeschooling due to the pandemic, but may re-enroll her next year if the pandemic is waning.
“We have spoken about still entering the school choice lottery since she would be going to a new school in sixth grade anyway. Virtual school was absolutely not working for her,” she says.
Beltzer reminds families that have opted to homeschool their kids this year with hopes of returning to their choice schools that they’ll need to choice in once more (by submitting a SchoolChoice application during round 1).
New Selection Criteria
“During the pandemic, it is very important to us that our school has a clear plan for student safety and has a high quality remote learning program to support students while they are not able to attend in person,” says Ariel Taylor Smith, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Transform Education Now (TEN), a parent-run organization that provides data about school performance and seeks to create more equity around education. TEN also runs a school choice counseling program.
For this school year, Smith says she opted to send her four-year-old son to Rocky Mountain Prep, a public charter school in Denver Public Schools, due to their strong academic program and community involvement. Smith says the pandemic has altered the way she looks at school choice now and in the future.
“We want a school with clear procedures, responsive staff and a commitment to creatively adapting to ensure that students are not falling behind during COVID-19 learning disruptions,” she adds.
A strong virtual option also seems to be tantamount for many families looking into schools right now. Some parents report having technical issues, others share concerns over the amount of screen time involved, while others are simply struggling to make it all work for them—and these worries will carry over into the school choice process until the pandemic is officially behind us.
“Having an organized, communicative, transparent, and collaborative school leadership team and a committed staff have been crucial during the pandemic,” Beltzer says. “We don’t typically have many questions about strength of leadership during tours, but based on the many adaptations schools have made this year, it should be given greater consideration.”
In that vein, families should do their best to ask prospective schools about their overall policies regarding the pandemic and make their choices accordingly. National School Choice Week has partnered with MCH Strategic Data to offer additional insight into these matters, broken down by school districts.
Not Entirely Different
Amanda Thompson is a Park Hill mother of two searching for a new school for her daughter, who will be entering middle school next year. She is looking for a school that reduces their morning commute, as well as one with at least a 6 out of 10 rating on Great Schools, a nonprofit that helps families review and learn more about local schools. She is also seeking a “Blue” School via the local School Performance Framework, a rating system created by Denver Public Schools. While the coronavirus is on Thompson’s mind, it’s not her main concern.
“The COVID-19 protocols used in each school will certainly be an aspect of my decision if we have to continue these protocols in the fall of 2021,” she says, however, her greatest concern overall is school safety. “We had numerous school shootings and lockdown procedures prior to COVID-19…Seeing as (shootings) are a real threat here in Denver, how each school handles these threats is going to be very important to my decision.”
Overall, parents need to keep more than just the usual academics and activities in mind when researching schools for this year’s choice. And with more options than ever before thanks to the addition of virtual programs as well as the popularization of alternatives like homeschooling and unschooling, it’s clear families have their work cut out for them. Just remember as you research, be flexible when it comes to gathering information from the schools. All this is new to school faculty and staff as well, and they, too, are learning as they go.
Priscilla Blossom is a freelance writer specializing in travel, parenting, pop culture, and wellness, who enjoys exploring Colorado with her small family.