Back to school: Five ways to cover the new academic year

An array of colored pencils. (Photo courtesy of Chevre via Creative Commons)

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?

Background information

Related research

Potential sources

  • Greg Fairrington

    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

    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

    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

    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?

Background information

Related research

Potential sources

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?

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • C. Nicole Mason

    C. Nicole Mason is the CEO of Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Erin Weber is the media contact.

  • Joya Misra

    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

    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?

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • Cheryl Fields-Smith

    Cheryl Fields-Smith is an educational theory and practice professor at the University of Georgia. Fields-Smith studies homeschooling among Black families.

  • Emma García

    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

    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

    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?

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • Michael Barbour

    Michael Barbour is an expert on virtual education and a professor at Touro University California.

  • Ed Fuller

    Ed Fuller is an associate professor and the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis.

  • Donna Orem

    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.

    Contact: 202-973-9700.
  • Lincoln Snyder

    Lincoln Snyder is president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.