So your child is supposed to start at a new school next year. Maybe it’s the start of their school journey; maybe they’re ready for middle or high school; or maybe you’re looking for a fresh start for another reason. For families in cities and towns with public school choice, as well as those looking at charter, private, and parochial schools, the application process is overwhelming in normal circumstances. Right now, it can feel downright impossible. How should parents and caregivers approach the school choice process this year?

Here’s what our Navigators recommend:

Define your priorities. This is always our go-to advice, and this year is no different. After all, eventually the pandemic will be over, and your child will still be going to school. What really matters to you? Last year, I wrote about the process of choosing a preschool for my daughter, and how my husband and I weighed different factors. In our work, we see families considering a range of priorities—from location and hours to instructional quality, extracurricular offerings, special needs support, school diversity, and more. There’s no magic formula that defines a great school; there’s only what matters to you and what works best for your child and family.

Explore virtual tour options. In non-Covid times, we always recommend visiting schools in person. Sure, this isn’t always possible—but it’s a great idea if you can swing it. But this year, most in-person tours are off the table. There’s no way to replace the in-person tour, but an online tour or “school preview” is a good place to start. At a bare minimum, you’ll get a sense of the building, hear from school leadership, and—ideally—see a classroom for your child’s year group. Depending on the school, you may be able to see in-person or remote lessons in action, or meet teachers.

Talk to current families. This might be the most important thing you can do in a year without in-person visits. If you don’t know any current families at the school, ask to be connected. (The school’s family liaison should be able to help. Social media platforms like Facebook can also be helpful as you seek out other families’ perspectives.)

Look at the available data, but be mindful of its limitations. States and districts usually have an abundance of data available on schools, but even under normal circumstances, it isn’t generally easy to dig through—and this year, it’s also out of date. State standardized tests were waived in spring of 2020, so the most recent data on student outcomes comes from the 2018-19 school year. And other metrics, like teacher turnover and family satisfaction, may well have not been updated for the current school year. While information on student proficiency, student growth, and student and family experience can help families make informed decisions, the numbers are going to tell you more about what the school was like a couple years ago than what it will be like next year. That’s another reason why talking to current families is more important than ever.

Finally, consider safety issues and weigh up what will make you comfortable. Even in normal times, it’s hard for parents to focus on anything educational unless we’re confident our kids are safe and cared for. With Covid-19, this is even more obvious. What kinds of measures are in place to protect students and teachers from virus transmission—and what is the plan for next year? (It’s reasonable to expect measures like masks and social distancing to still be in place in the fall, and school leaders should be planning for this.) How will your child get to school, and how does that factor into your decision? (For example, some families may consider schools within walking distance to avoid crowded public transportation or bus routes.)

Need help? We’ve got you. As a Kinda Guide reader, you have access to our team’s expertise through the Ask a Navigator feature. If you have a question or need help sorting through your own school choice dilemma (or anything else!), reach out to us and we’ll be happy to lend a hand.

“There’s no magic formula that defines a great school; there’s only what matters to you and what works best for your child and family.”



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