New Wrinkles in Pandemic Learning

Earlier this week, as I was scrolling through news articles looking for what to highlight in our weekly newsletter, I came across a very interesting piece detailing how the sons of a single father in upstate New York were about to be “exited” from their NY school district because they had been doing their distance learning for an extended period of time from their aunt’s house in Missouri while the family was staying safe and relatively isolated from the pandemic.

Now, here at Cardinal, we’ve long been highlighting the absurdity that students are residentially assigned to schools. Elsewhere in our lives, we’re not residentially assigned to grocery stores or gas stations. We’re free to patronize the establishment or multiple establishments that fit our needs. Further, if we can’t find the things on our shopping lists when we physically visit the stores, we’re free to hop on Amazon or any other online shopping venue to get what we need.

Nonetheless, with K-12 schooling, unless a family is able to afford another alternative, the student goes where they are residentially assigned. In most years, this is a fairly “cut-and-dried” proposition. But with everyone having to make alternative plans and many more families opting for fully virtual learning in light of the pandemic, it seems there are new questions about the ties that bind students and districts together.

Particularly — if a student is enrolled in a district but the family opts into the district’s completely virtual offering, does it matter exactly where the child is learning from? And if so, how long is the family “allowed” to be out of the district while the child completes his or her virtual learning?

In the case of this family and district in upstate New York, it does seem that these questions are relevant beyond a certain point. For context, the family originally planned to return to New York after Labor Day, but then decided to stay in Missouri through the end of September to attend a family wedding. This stretch was deemed acceptable by the local district. However, as the family decided to overstay that “approved” distance learning stretch into October and the father listed the NY home on AirBnB, the district took umbrage. The districtinformed the father that his boys would be exited from the school system despite the fact that the family had not moved, and the father was still paying the mortgage and property taxes on the home in the district.

It seems pretty absurd, no? On top of that, it’s not too hard to imagine a generally similar situation arising in West Virginia.

Let’s imagine for a moment a hypothetical “my family” in 2020. Together, Mr. Jessi, and Jessi Jr., and I all live in Kanawha County. Because the hybrid schedule doesn’t seem like a fit for our family, we decide to enroll Jessi Jr. in virtual school for the year. We also have a modest cabin in the Canaan Valley area of Tucker County. With concerns of the virus spreading here in Kanawha County and the fact that Mr. Jessi and I can work remotely, we decide to isolate ourselves in the mountains and ride out the pandemic elsewhere.

Given the story from upstate New York, does it matter that Jessi Jr. is enrolled in KCS virtual school for the 2020-21 school year, but is logging on and completing schoolwork from Tucker County? More importantly, should it matter? Assuming that it does matter, what determines whether or not we’re Kanawha County residents and/or that Jessi Jr. is still entitled to public education services from the county?

The answers are unclear. However, it is clear that as things currently exist, this is a question that districts should be providing clear answers for to families.

…because this isn’t a question exclusive to upstate New York.



Jessi Troyan is an economist and the Development Director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. 

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