Public Schools on Pause

A worker takes a break while cleaning up a basketball court at Glasgow Middle School, a Fairfax County Public School, during deadline day for families and teachers countywide to decide between teaching/learning from home or in the classroom due to the coronavirus, in Falls Church, Va., July 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
They operated on a trust built on reliability, now disrupted by COVID.

Public-school education is one of the major formative institutions in American life. And until recently, it seemed like a surprisingly solid one. Conservatives often complain about public education, how it is subject to fads, and that it often pushes aside the pursuit of excellence. The teachers’ unions often represent teachers in a way that makes the education of children seem like an afterthought of the vocation.

But any conservative should be impressed by the wide adoption of the public school and its place in the American imagination. Ninety percent of American children go to public schools, and public schools form the basis of many community associations. Public education creates one kind of common experience.

But the pause that COVID has placed on public schooling is now throwing everything about public schools into question.

Parents this summer are caught in a maelstrom of advice and guidelines, from their doctors, school districts, local and state health authorities, governors, the major medical associations, and the feds. Centers for Disease Control guidelines make schooling seem impossible during COVID-19. While the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized the necessity of pushing forward for the social and academic development of children.

Many school districts still haven’t decided whether they are going to aim for a five-days-a-week return to normal in September; a hybrid schedule of half-in, half-out, supplemented by distance learning; or an all-digital learning schedule. Districts are warning parents that even when a decision is made, unpredictable conditions can change those arrangements for weeks, possibly months at a time.

Private and parochial schools seem more inclined to open as normal, for parents who don’t want to pay for anything less than the full experience, but these too are subject to unpredictable lockdowns or hastily implemented health regulations as well.

Consider a family that has just two children in two different schools in the same district. If the classrooms open, many children will be kept in a smaller “pod” of students, so that if any one of them or their teachers contracts COVID, the subsequent quarantines are limited to a smaller number of families. But what if the child’s sibling in another school building is in a pod with a child deemed to have been exposed to COVID? Does the family connection take out pods at both schools? And if it does, do families of multiple children become a liability to predictable education of only children?

My own family doctor recommends that children over eleven stay home, but the COVID risk for children under eleven is so slight, and their developmental need for peer socialization so great, that they ought to be in school as normal. But — and this truly is a major proviso — if any child in the nuclear-family home is attending a school, that whole nuclear family should avoid seeing that child’s grandparents. In other words, parents are being urged to sign up for public-school formats that can shift wildly, and are being asked to demote their extended family to Zoom in the bargain. Following the advice means choosing between the regular socialization with peers that kids need and missing out entirely on ten months of their grandparent’s lives, including the 2020 holidays. Who is going to follow that to the letter? And what happens when they don’t?

And then there are public-health matters. Some schools, even preschools, want the children to wear masks all day. Do parents want young children to be masked at school for five hours or more a day? Do they think that sending them to a place that’s being treated preemptively as a source of toxicity is psychologically healthy? For children getting speech therapy, is looking at a teacher through a face shield really appropriate?

It’s no wonder that parents of means are looking to join together to expand into their own “homeschooling pods.” These can at least have the advantage of predictability. And for many parents, they offer a chance to improve on a public-school curriculum that was exposed to them in the spring lockdown. Homeschoolers and education companies have come up with a lot of off-the-shelf material that can be adopted rapidly.

The “pod” idea will give the children of capable and well-resourced families even more enormous advantages over children with less support at home. And it’s been shocking to see so few progressives urging states to do whatever is possible to keep public schools operating as normally as possible. For traditional progressives, public school is the key American institution of upward mobility and creating a more egalitarian society. Trump’s endorsement of reopening is causing many progressives to resist the idea altogether. This is an own goal.

But I think conservatives will feel they have lost out too in this bizarre situation. Most of our children will be public-school students too. While we tend to sympathize even more with homeschooling and religious schools, the local public schools are institutions that scale to the point of providing exceptional youth sports and decent arts programs for youth. The public school is a uniquely and pervasively American thing. That’s why it features so prominently in pop culture. The occasions that public schools provide for parents to meet and know each other is a spur to other civic associations.

But the whole system was like a perpetual motion machine, working because everyone knew the baseline of expectations for how and when the school operates. Public schools operated on a trust built on reliability. Every normal school day that isn’t normal breaks that trust. COVID has disassembled our schools, and I’m not sure that when we put them back together they’ll be quite the same.


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