School is back in session as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the U.S.
Students are gearing up for another academic year while parents, school leaders and elected officials fight over pandemic politics, public health concerns, personal freedoms and contentious vaccine and masking policies.
For some districts, the new school year is already shaping up to be a bumpy one as educators navigate COVID-19 outbreaks, temporary school closures and coronavirus culture wars.
Religion also is in the mix. It’s a part of everything from the vaccine exemption requests to parent motivations and the very missions of the schools themselves.
The latest edition of ReligionLink looks at five ways to cover the school year amid the pandemic through a faith lens.
Religious exemptions for masks and vaccines
Religious exemptions have emerged as one way to circumvent mask and vaccine requirements, which vary from place to place. Faith leaders — even those within the same religious tradition — disagree as to whether such exemptions are appropriate or in keeping with their beliefs and teachings.
Mask guidance has evolved. Amid the threat of the delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention modified its advice and recommended every child over the age of 2 wear a mask in schools to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Will religious exemptions stay in the spotlight as the school year progresses?
- Read “Some Christian Leaders Advise Parents on COVID-19 Exemptions” from Christianity Today on Aug. 24, 2021.
- Read “Parents get coached on how to escape mask and vaccines rules” from The Associated Press on Aug. 21, 2021.
- Read “How Do Religious Vaccine Exemptions Really Work?” from Slate on Aug. 21, 2021.
- Read “GOP governors, school districts battle over mask mandates” from The Associated Press on Aug. 20, 2021.
- Read “The Topic Of Masks In Schools Is Polarizing Some Parents To The Point Of Violence” from NPR on Aug. 20, 2021.
- Read “Priests navigate Catholics’ fears and consciences in vaccine exemption pleas” from Religion News Service on Aug. 19, 2021.
- Read “As US bishops reject exemptions, Pope Francis dubs COVID-19 vaccine ‘act of love’” from Religion News Service on Aug. 18, 2021.
- Read “Vaccine mandates are here. What will happen to religious objectors?” from the Deseret News on Aug. 6, 2021.
- Read “Religious Exemptions to Vaccines and the Anti-Vax Movement” from Bill of Health on July 16, 2021.
- Read “States With Religious and Philosophical Exemptions From School Immunization Requirements” from the National Conference of State Legislatures on April 30, 2021.
Greg Fairrington founded and leads Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin, California, with his wife. He has offered to issue religious exemptions for vaccination requirements.
Robert McElroy is the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego. He issued a letter instructing priests in his diocese to decline to issue vaccine exemptions. Aida Bustos is the media contact.
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss is a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Reiss is an expert on vaccines and the law.
Alan Rogers is a history professor at Boston College and the author of The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children.
School choice debates amid the pandemic
Florida students faced with mask-wearing requirements now are eligible for the state’s school voucher program, The Washington Post reports.
This expansion of the taxpayer-funded program is one way that vouchers — and, more broadly, school choice — have popped up amid the pandemic. A report from The Pew Charitable Trusts said the school choice movement saw big wins in state legislatures this year.
But school choice remains a divisive issue. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts report, “by design, voucher programs divert students and money away from public schools and toward private and religious schools—including, in some cases, schools that discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation, or that teach alternative views on subjects such as American slavery and evolution.”
Will the school choice debate continue to simmer?
- Read “Florida offers school vouchers for families angry with mask mandates while judge temporarily blocks ban in Arkansas” from The Washington Post on Aug. 6, 2021.
- Read “Tennessee House speaker threatens districts that close school buildings or require masks with vouchers” from Chalkbeat on Aug. 2, 2021.
- Read “How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement” from EducationWeek on July 2, 2021.
- Read “School Choice Movement Celebrates Its ‘Best Year Ever’ Amid Pandemic” from The Pew Charitable Trusts on June 25, 2021.
- Read “Religious School Choice Case May Yield Landmark Supreme Court Decision” from The New York Times on Jan. 21, 2020.
- Read “K-12 Parents Remain Largely Satisfied With Child’s Education” from Gallup on Aug. 26, 2021.
- Read “States Make School Choice Part of COVID-Era Education Response” from the National Conference of State Legislatures on April, 19, 2021.
Derek Black is a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert in education policy. Black wrote Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.
Robert C. Enlow is the president and CEO of EdChoice, a nonprofit that supports school choice.
Ursula Hackett is a senior lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Hackett is the author of America’s Voucher Politics: How Elites Learned to Hide the State.
Jennifer Hawks is associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. She provides legal analysis on church-state issues. In May 2020, her opinion piece titled “School voucher proponents are using the COVID-19 crisis to push for taxpayer money for religious education” was published by Baptist News Global.
Claire Smrekar is an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. Her research includes studying the effects of private school markets and demographic trends on school voucher plans.
Moms, jobs and COVID-19
The pandemic hit working moms hard. Schools and child care centers closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, mothers had to juggle their work responsibilities while also guiding their children through virtual learning and the massive disruption the pandemic caused to their lives.
Many gave up their jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 1.6 million moms left the workforce in 2020 compared with 1.3 million dads, and moms were far more likely than dads to cite COVID-19 child care-related issues as reasons for leaving.
How are faith communities supporting working mothers? What long-term effects will these career disruptions have on women’s advancement in the workforce?
- Read “Survey: Religion a key topic for many millennial moms during pandemic” from Religion News Service on May 21, 2021.
- Read “‘Exhausted.’ A year into pandemic, working moms see help on horizon.” from The Christian Science Monitor on March 3, 2021.
- Read “‘I don’t know if I can do this’: Parents brace for school year juggling jobs, remote learning amid COVID-19 pandemic” from USA Today on Aug. 18, 2020.
- Read “How these strong Jewish women survive the Covid-19 pandemic” from The Forward on Aug. 4, 2020.
- Read “5 Facts on Moms, Work and COVID-19” from the U.S. Department of Labor on May 6, 2021.
- Read “Tracking Job Losses for Mothers of School-Age Children During a Health Crisis” from the U.S. Census on March 3, 2021.
- Read “Nearly 3 in 4 US moms were in the workforce before the COVID-19 pandemic – is that changing?” from The Conversation.
- Read “Moms of Color: Working & Being a Mom During the Pandemic” from WerkLabs on February 2021.
C. Nicole Mason is the CEO of Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Erin Weber is the media contact.
Joya Misra is a sociology and public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Misra also is the director of the Institute for Social Science Research. Her area of expertise includes social inequality.
Mary Zamore is a rabbi and the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She co-authored “Jewish Organizations Must Address the Pandemic Parenting Gender Gap,” published in September 2020 by eJewish Philanthropy.
Homeschooling as the pandemic drags on
Last year, more families turned to homeschooling as the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks disrupted the academic year. Religion played a part, with some parents picking faith-based curriculum for at-home instruction.
A U.S. Census Bureau survey found the percentage of homeschooling households about doubled in 2020. In the spring, 5.4% of households reported homeschooling compared with 11.1% of households in the fall.
Will homeschooling numbers keep growing?
- Read “Homeschooling reaches critical mass” from Axios on Aug. 31, 2021.
- Read “Interest in homeschooling increases as uncertainty around new school year abounds” from The Dallas Morning News on Aug. 16, 2021.
- Read “The pandemic marked the largest recorded rise in homeschooling, as enrollment dropped at public and private schools” from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 6, 2021.
- Read “Sparked by pandemic fallout, homeschooling surges across US” from The Associated Press on July 26, 2021.
- Read “They Rage-Quit the School System—and They’re Not Going Back” from Wired on June 3, 2021.
- Read “The pandemic has parents fleeing from schools — maybe forever” from The Atlantic on Sept. 13, 2020.
- Read “COVID-19 Concerns Accelerate Homeschool Movement’s Growth” from Christianity Today on Aug. 17, 2020.
- Read “Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey Shows Significant Increase in Homeschooling Rates in Fall 2020” from the U.S. Census Bureau on March 22, 2021.
- Read “COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy” from the Economic Policy Institute on Sept. 10, 2020.
Cheryl Fields-Smith is an educational theory and practice professor at the University of Georgia. Fields-Smith studies homeschooling among Black families.
Emma García is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. She specializes in the economics of education and education policy and co-authored an opinion column, “Why homeschooling in pandemic has failed for many families,” published by USA Today in February 2021.
Shawna J. Lee is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the director of the Parenting in Context Research Lab. Lee is one of the authors of a study titled “Parenting activities and the transition to home-based education during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
J. Mike Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Christian-based organization. The media contact is Sandra Kim.
Long-lasting pandemic changes at religious schools
As the pandemic disrupted in-person learning, some parents pulled their children from public schools, choosing instead to enroll them in private ones offering on-campus instruction.
Other families want to continue with remote learning and some private schools are trying to meet that demand. In America, several Roman Catholic dioceses have started permanent online schools, Religion News Service reports.
What other long-lasting changes will private schools make as a result of the pandemic?
- Read “Facing enrollment declines, some Catholic dioceses are betting on online schools” from Religion News Service on June 9, 2021.
- Read “Full-Time Virtual Schools: Still Growing, Still Struggling, Still Resisting Oversight” from Education Week on May 6, 2021.
- Read “Feds side with Michigan religious schools in suit over COVID restrictions” from The Detroit News on Dec. 11, 2020.
- Read “Judge: Beshear can’t halt in-person instruction at private religious schools in Kentucky” from the Courier Journal on Nov. 25, 2020.
- Read “Long ignored, private online schools see golden opportunity in pandemic” from WHYY on Dec. 25, 2020.
- Read “Families jump to private schools as coronavirus drags on” from CNBC on Nov. 8, 2020.
- Read “Public Schools Will Struggle Even More as Parents Move Kids to Private Ones During the Pandemic” from Time on Aug. 31, 2020.
- Read “For parents who can afford it, a solution for fall: Bring the teachers to them” from The Washington Post on July 20, 2020.
- Read “Stanford study reveals how public schools’ reopening decisions during the pandemic influenced a drop in enrollment” from Stanford News on Aug. 9, 2021.
- Read “Private school enrollment (in Wisconsin) fell during pandemic; homeschool, virtual charters grew” from the Wisconsin Policy Forum on August 2021.
- Read “Private school enrollment (in Pennsylvania) continues decline during pandemic” from Penn State News on July 30, 2021.
- Read “Parents welcome additional, post-COVID educational support for their kids” from NPR/Ipsos on March 5, 2021.
Michael Barbour is an expert on virtual education and a professor at Touro University California.
Ed Fuller is an associate professor and the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis.
Donna Orem is president of the National Association of Independent Schools. The association includes more than 1,600 independent private K-12 schools in the U.S.
Lincoln Snyder is president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.