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Year in Review: Educational fights and flare-ups

COVID-19 restrictions, race debates, transgender issues, and testing controversies all contributed to school changes this year


Pro-mask wearing demonstrators stage a protest at the Cobb County School Board headquarters on Aug. 12 in Marietta, Ga. Associated Press/Photo by Mike Stewart

Year in Review: Educational fights and flare-ups

Schools across the United States this year continued to grapple with a constantly changing landscape as COVID-19 prevention measures prompted the extension of virtual schooling, social distancing, and mask requirements. Parents, teachers, school officials, and government leaders often disagreed—sometimes bitterly—over vaccine or mask mandates, with many disputes ending up in courts. But COVID-19 wasn’t the only source of contention. Schools saw division over curriculum, police presence in schools, and gender issues. For many parents, the time seemed right to make a drastic change in their children’s education. Here’s a summary of our top Schooled stories of 2021.

All things COVID

In February, about a third of American K-12 students were still attending school virtually when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance encouraging schools to work toward reopening for in-person classes. Despite relaxed pandemic requirements, just under half of school districts were offering fully in-person instruction as late as April 26, according to an American Enterprise Institute estimate. As schools navigated health recommendations, parental concerns, and virtual school, many students struggled to learn—and some students, such as the homeless, those with special needs, or those without reliable internet access, were more likely to fall through the cracks. As schools worked to balance classroom coverage with teacher quarantines, they also faced a shortage of substitute teachers to fill in the gaps.

Some colleges began encouraging their students to get vaccinated in the spring, but later vaccine mandates sometimes met with student complaints and even lawsuits. In K-12 schools, most of this year’s pandemic-related debates centered on masking.

Unfriendly school debates

School board members have listened to passionate and angry parents at meetings for years, but school board meetings seemed to reach a new intensity in 2021. The tension—and reports of threats against board members—prompted a plea from the National Education Association for federal investigative help that only seemed to anger many parents further. The NEA later retracted its request for federal intervention, but school leaders, teachers, and parents remain divided over various issues, including how race and controversial historical events are taught in classrooms. Some of that disagreement made its way to state legislatures, where lawmakers have proposed bills in several states restricting how teachers approach controversial topics. In some districts, transgender issues provoked ire.

Parents for school choice

Legislative proposals for school choice expansion this year were likely sparked by parents looking for alternatives to pandemic-era remote learning. Charter school enrollment grew by 7 percent while other public schools saw decreases. New research showed charter schools’ successes and flouted claims that they negatively impact local public schools.

Homeschooling continued to be a popular educational option for families after its explosive growth during the early months of the pandemic. For some families, their pandemic-initiated homeschooling experiment may become a long-term educational choice, but not all parents who jumped into homeschooling planned to continue. Among black families, the popularity of homeschooling grew to five times the pre-pandemic rate, spurring interest in African-American homeschool groups.

Standardized testing adjustments

After allowing schools to pass on standardized testing last year due to the pandemic, the federal Education Department again required public K-12 schools to administer the tests this year. The department did offer waivers and flexibility on timing. While some educators warned that student stress would undermine the accuracy of test results, others pointed out the tests would provide valuable information on student skills and attendance. Meanwhile, a handful of top schools decided to adjust admissions standards to increase diversity among students, factoring in disadvantages such as homelessness or time in foster care to student GPAs. Most schools faced backlash over the changes from residents and parents who argued the new rules admitted unprepared students and discriminated against Asians.

Some colleges and universities joined the ranks of schools not requiring ACT or SAT scores from applicants, partly due to pandemic-related test site access difficulties for students. While some schools may reinstate test score requirements, others have already made the new policies permanent.


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.

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Bob W

Regarding "Unfriendly School Debates": the NSBA did not "retract" their letter to the Biden administration. As far as I know, they did not write the administration to retract their earlier request, nor did they repudiate or rebuke the signatories of the letter. The NSBA's letter to members apologized for some of the language used, for their communications process, and for causing members stress; they promise a formal review of their process. If WORLD has an update to this, please share it. Thanks for your reporting!