To begin, it is important to recognize that public school districts are working very hard to create some certainty for parents and teachers in a very uncertain time. This is a very heavy lift, and most schools are walking a tightrope to deliver on the promise of education in 2020-2021. So, please be patient with your school district, as most are doing the absolute best they can.
Nonetheless, because of the risks related to COVID-19, some parents are hesitant to send their children back to in-person classes this fall. As one solution to this, many school districts in Ohio are offering a purely online option for the 2020-2021 school year. This usually consists of the school contracting with an independent online school for the content and/or curriculum. The school district might also designate a “point person,” usually someone employed by the local school district, to oversee or coordinate the online learning for the students who elect this option. (This person might be referred to as the “Director of Virtual Learning” or something similar.) With this option, parents could avoid withdrawing their children from the local school district altogether, even though the classes will be held online and directed by an outside contractor/school.
The rub is that, with this option, many school districts are asking parents to commit to online learning for at least a full semester, sometimes even a full school year. On one hand, this is an absolutely understandable request because schools are trying to firm up the number of students attending in-person and online, so they can continue their planning. On the other hand, many parents would like the option of returning to in-person classes if the virus infection outlook gets better and in-person classes become less risky.
So, what should you do if your school district is requiring a full semester or school year commitment to online learning?
First, you should ask your local school district if they would consider allowing you to enroll in their online program without the commitment. We believe that, as the law stands right now, any parental commitment to attend online only is unenforceable if the school district ends up offering in-person classes to other students in the district. Under Ohio Revised Code Section 3321.01, students who reside within a school district have a right to attend if the district is offering in-person classes. We do not believe schools can force parents to waive this right.
The good news is that we also think school districts will soften on requiring the commitment when they consider the alternative. The alternative for parents is withdrawing your children from the local school district and enrolling them directly in any one of the handful of e-schools that exist in Ohio. These schools are considered charter schools (even more accurately, “community schools” in Ohio). If a parent or student exercises this option, the state per-pupil funding received by the local school district would be re-directed to the online school in which the student enrolls. These online schools are tuition-free for students because the per-pupil funding is redirected to them.
By enrolling in an e-School, there is also no doubt that a student could return to the local school district at any time in-person classes are held, without a full semester or school year commitment. This is because students can always re-enroll in their school district of residence under the same law identified above.
So, depending on: (1) how your school structures their own online program and the benefits it provides, and (2) how rigid your school district is being about securing a full semester or school year commitment, you can always consider enrolling directly in a statewide e-School. Knowing these options might inform your conversation with your school district and/or help you make the right decision when choosing between the two options.
Mark A. Weiker, Esq. is an education attorney with Albeit Weiker, LLP. Contact the firm by calling (614) 745-2001 or at www.AWLawOhio.com