The giant lumbering beast known as the US Economy–akin to a conveyor belt with countless moving parts–wants public schools to reopen. The beast needs workers, but right now too many adults are at home, supervising their children’s ‘remote learning.’ Open the schools, and the adults can go to work: it’s that simple….
But of course it isn’t simple. Putting kids back in schools will allow adults to work, and that’s important, but it is what happens inside schools that matters more.
A quick history lesson: We’ve always sent our children to school for three reasons: 1) Acquisition of knowledge, 2) Socialization, and 3) Custodial care. The internet has turned that upside down because it puts infinite information at everyone’s fingertips wherever they happen to be and because thousands of apps allow for ‘socialization’ with anyone and everyone. That left only custodial care as a vital school function, until the pandemic made even that impossible.
However, students swimming in a sea of infinite information need guidance, because ‘information’ is not knowledge. It takes a certain skill set to distinguish between wheat and chaff, and a certain value system to choose the wheat over the chaff. Skilled teachers make that happen.
Socializing via apps, though convenient, is fraught with peril, because that person you believe to be your age and your gender might be an adult with evil intentions. Skilled teachers help students learn to discern. And skilled teachers see that students use this all-powerful technology for useful purposes.
But perhaps the major lesson of remote learning is that young people want and need to be with their peers. Apps don’t cut it…and the kids are not alright.
The mental health consequences of prolonged isolation are becoming clearer by the day. “Students are struggling across the board,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager for youth and young adult services at the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, to The Washington Post in January. “It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines. Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms.”
If you read my blog last week, you were shocked by one reader’s response: “John, I’m wondering if we could have a conversation sometime. I am passionate about this subject. Our 13-year old grandchild just committed suicide after returning one single morning to virtual schooling. It was Monday, Jan. 4, first day back, after the holidays. They broke for lunch, Donovan wrote a note…. went outside, and shot himself.”
So when schools reopen, attention must be paid, not to catching up with the curriculum but to the needs of young people.
Now to the present: President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools by the end of his first 100 days, a monumental challenge. Reopening schools is a complex issue, but–sadly and predictably–opportunistic politicians and some in the media are framing the issue as a conflict between the needs of students and the selfish wishes of teachers and, naturally, their unions.
This false narrative hurts both groups.
Let’s consider where we are right now. Schooling at home isn’t working for many children for four reasons:
1. The yawning technology gap–the Digital Divide–between rich and poor and white and non-white;
2. Lack of training. Few teachers have been trained for on-line instruction, and many–perhaps most–aren’t good at it;
3. Unimaginative school systems. Most have simply told their teachers to do on line what they normally would be doing in classrooms; and
4. The aforementioned consequences of prolonged isolation.
Pre-pandemic, Trump’s Secretary of Education spent most of her time and energy subverting public education, favoring vouchers and private religious education above all. When the Trump Administration suddenly called for reopening schools, Betsy DeVos did an immediate 180 turn–but never once reached out to public educators to ask how the federal government might be of assistance. She was, in short, happy to see the enterprise flounder.
It’s not just DeVos and Trump. Politicians–including school board members–all across the nation have had more than a year to plan for reopening public schools. They knew vaccines were coming and could have insisted that teachers be seen as “front-line workers” and therefore entitled to getting vaccinated in the first round. Very few took that basic step, one that would have shown respect for teachers and concern for children.
What have school boards been doing? Not much. The San Francisco School Board has spent months arguing whether to rename schools for people more admirable than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, instead of preparing for reopening or pushing to make sure teachers would be vaccinated. While that’s pathetically politically correct, the behavior of some school boards was borderline criminal, in at least one case allowing their family members to jump the vaccination line ahead of teachers!
And so, today, not even half of states have prioritized the vaccination of teachers and others who work with children in schools. That’s an absolute disgrace. As one teacher noted on Twitter, “…for us it’s been about the lack of care and preparedness of the school district, how they’ve treated the teachers and staff, the lack of communication, and the moving goalposts for how and when to reopen.”
And what do we know about the physical condition of schools that our Economy wants reopened? A 2014 government report concluded that “53 percent of public schools needed to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school’s onsite buildings in good overall condition. The total amount needed was estimated to be approximately $197 billion, and the average dollar amount for schools needing to spend money was about $4.5 million per school.”
I spent a lot of time in classrooms over the years, and I would say that many of them were poorly ventilated–hot when it was hot, and cold when it was cold. Most were crowded. A friend who retired from teaching–in a fairly wealthy community–just a few years ago sent me this note:
My last classroom at (XXX) school was an unhealthy environment in the best of times: the sink backed up on a regular basis with smelly toilet water as the pipes were set in concrete and difficult to access when they clogged. I taped large pieces of styrofoam over the sink to keep the children out of it and to keep the smell down. One wall of the classroom backed up to the furnace room which spewed toxic fumes. I kept the door open to the hall. There was NO air ventilation! It’s going to be an expensive proposition to properly ventilate old buildings. That’s a reality that needs to be dealt with!
So, yes, schools should reopen as fast as possible–but only after teachers have been vaccinated, classrooms have been provided with adequate ventilation and PPE, and schools have developed safety protocols. In some instances, this will require immediate attention to the physical condition of buildings, because there are public schools in America without hot running water!
Experts have voiced concerns about what they call ‘Learning Loss,” which they tend to measure in months and sometimes years. I hope that others find it offensive to define learning in terms of quantity rather than quality, but let’s save that for another day. That said, it’s absolutely essential that adults stop obsessing about ‘learning loss.’ Cancel the damn standardized tests. Meet the children where they are.
Our giant lumbering economy wants schools reopened for another reason: It needs what our schools produce, high school graduates. After all, America’s education system has been a reliable conveyor belt, moving students along for 12 years before dumping them out into society. Higher education has come to depend on a fresh supply of close to 2 million freshmen each fall. Branches of the military need recruits, and so on.
COVID has stopped the conveyor belt entirely in some places, and slowed it down considerably elsewhere, but I believe that many who are demanding that the conveyor belt be restarted are not thinking about either students or teachers. They want to get back to ‘normal.’
That ain’t happening, and we must embrace that reality. This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed. But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, they have not failed! They shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have their ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.
They should get a mulligan, a blame-free, no fault do-over.
And finally, let’s acknowledge that the interests of teachers and students are aligned. They may not sync up with the interests of higher education, restaurants, bars et cetera, but students and teachers are in this together.