Education

How Long Can Public Schools Operate This Way?

Tracey Pucci helps her son Foxton Harding, 12, with a school assignment for Northshore Middle School, which moved to online-only schooling for two weeks due to coronavirus concerns, at their home in Bothell, Wash., March 11, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
Parents are asked to take on almost all the personal costs of homeschooling while getting none of its benefits.

I don’t think I can do this in the fall. What I mean by this is managing my kids’ new distance learning. Every time a day is finished I think, “How long can I do this?”

Much has been said about how colleges will struggle and some will close as a result of COVID-19. America’s aging and declining in fertility. More schools chase after fewer students. The moment that schools try to charge for the premium college experience while delivering a CD-ROM-level education over the Internet, the weaker ones will fall apart.

But what about K–12 public schools? The social contract of a public school requires a certain kind of uniformity of expectations from teachers’ unions, students, and parents. But, under COVID-19, every term of that social contract seems up for grabs.

Some parents want the teachers to conduct a class over teleconferencing software for four hours a day, to give them time to work. Other parents resent even as little as half an hour of online instruction when their own work-from-home and child-minding schedules are being improvised daily.

NPR’s headline warned that “remote learning could go on for years.” That’s at once impossible to imagine as a social reality, and it makes perfect sense when you read the guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control developed for school reopening. A school following CDC-provided guidance could be in constant agitation. Each COVID-19 case in a school would result in dismissal for two to five days. That school would need to find the resources to engage in disinfecting itself semi-regularly. The school would need to develop procedures for checking signs and symptoms of COVID regularly. Does that mean temping every student and teacher as they enter the building? And if it doesn’t, will parents demand something like this? Will teachers’ unions? States and the federal government can create liability exclusions, but teachers’ unions can still sue the state over such things, and parents too.

The public-school social contract also may come under much pressure in the fall. NPR says that schools serve other functions than education, including “child care for millions of working parents.” But if the schools aren’t accountable for children for five to seven hours a day, then they may be subject to the same considerations that have college administrators trembling about their budgets. Right now, the dominant public mode among parents is one of support. In my own district, teachers recently enjoyed a supportive, socially distanced parade. Can that last?

Somehow distance learning makes it seem that parents are the employees of the teachers, who are deemed the true educators of children. The teachers and schools still have the power to declare students truant or to fail them for not keeping up. But those teachers and schools are incapable of providing anything like the same kind of service in exchange for that power. It doesn’t help the case for the teachers that the media have filled up with (probably bogus or overblown) studies showing that missed time or a change in routine will dramatically change the lives of children for the worse. In any case, parents have had to step into that breach themselves.

And if I have to take the time to gather all the materials for every lesson and make sure all my children’s activity is logged, if I have to sit next to them while they do their school work to make sure they are connected and properly muted or unmuted, then I’m taking on almost all the personal costs of homeschooling while getting none of the benefits of it. Those benefits include determining the time and content of lessons, the books we use, the online tutors I hire, the friends that work with us, the pace that we go, and the days we are off.

It’s not just the schools either. Social services, early intervention, and any number of things done for the development of children have had to shift to simulations mediated by screens. In most cases, parents have adjusted to these substitutes begrudgingly as yet one more inconvenience of a temporary emergency. But patience is running out.

The product of both parochial and public education, I’m neither a public-school hater nor a diehard supporter. And I expect the schools to survive long-term, given how much has been invested morally and financially into the system itself. But this medium term makes no sense.

We have to shift back to normality very soon, or prepare for a season of rancor and disruption as that social contract that applies to most of the children in this country gets stretched to a breaking point.

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