In most public school districts, it remains uncertain if schools will reopen completely, or at all in coming weeks. In cities like San Francisco and New York City, parents have been told that students will have the option to attend school in person, only to later find out schools will stay closed. Instead of fully reopening, many districts have opted for a staggered approach that prolongs the threat of COVID-19 indefinitely.
Even in districts that have allowed in-person learning — what used to be known simply as “school” — campuses are required to follow onerous restrictions to minimize contact: masks at all times; desks kept at least six feet apart and disinfected after each period; prohibitions on paper materials and books; one-way hallways, and bathrooms monitored to ensure only one student enters at a time.
While it’s debatable whether these restrictions do much to stop the spread (outbreaks still happen), they do remove many of the benefits of physically attending school. This leaves the other option for students: virtual learning.
Unfortunately, virtual learning still presents significant challenges for students, parents, and educators. Numerous issues remain involving inadequate infrastructure, troubles logging-in, and the challenge facing teachers still hoping to take proper attendance or maintain genuine accountability and oversight. With motivated students, the virtual learning experience is awkward and incomplete. With unmotivated students, it’s nearly impossible.
Many parents now face the hard choice to either becoming de facto full-time teachers or leaving the children to fend for themselves. Worse still are those parents who bring smaller children to work, give them a chair and a laptop, and attempt to do their work nearby.
Even in the most ideal setups, children are essentially being raised by screens, forming no relationships with anyone, and having little contact with the real world. Meanwhile, parents are feeling burnout from the overwhelming stress of the situation as well as the guilt of feeling they’ve failed their children.
Not surprisingly, many parents have pulled their children out of public schools and opted for private schools and homeschooling. Nevertheless, all taxpayers are still paying for school systems that do not perform their essential function of teaching and supervising children.
Those who advocate for school choice (like myself) have pointed out the need for parents to have a choice where they send their children when neighborhood schools refuse to serve their communities. President Trump recently echoed this sentiment and made it part of his campaign message, “I would like the money to follow the student.”
Yet, even if school choice is possible, it’s unlikely much would change once it’s enacted. Why? Much of the pressure to keep schools closed is coming from parents who’ve been convinced sending their children to school is unsafe and unnecessary. With so many in the media and government perpetuating fear and paranoia about COVID-19, the first step to reopening schools is debunking the myths and noting the damage being done to families and communities. Parents need to know that so much more is lost than gained by today’s “new normal.”
The most prevalent myth that settles the minds of parents supporting school lockdowns is that the kids are fine. Sure, it’s an inconvenience for certain parents and certain children, but most families are managing. The kids still attend classes, still have teachers, and still do some kind of work. This is just happening remotely instead of in a classroom. Furthermore, children are learning important technical skills for the information economy (true “21st Century Learning”), so school shutdowns should be seen as an opportunity.
This is false. As this school year begins, many teachers are seeing in their students a serious regression both in academic progress and in behavior. This is not the usual summer lag students often have when they return to school in the fall, but something more unsettling. There are noticeable declines in not just learning ability, but awareness and responsiveness.
Instead of showing the expected curiosity, energy, and rowdiness of their age, students are tending to stay silent, often not hearing or understanding much of what teachers say. Indeed, studies show that many kids are suffering from depression and committing suicide because of the shutdowns.
Predictably, widespread technology addiction has accompanied this general unease in young people. Expectations of teachers that students will obey when asked to put phones and other electronic devices away and pay attention are nearly impossible when classrooms are paperless or virtual since many of these same devices are needed to complete their work.
If, in the course of “working” students want to watch a video or play a quick game with a friend, teachers have few options in response let alone in the way of prevention. Such modern scholastic problems with technology were bad before — the shutdowns have made the situation even worse.
Some parents may still allow for this because experts and media figures say the danger is too great. They will cite case after case of a country or state reopening schools only to see students come down with the virus. Of course, these reports offer little context or detail about the cases. Nearly all child infections of COVID-19 are mild and not life-threatening.
In truth, the threat in most places is negligible. And if it were more serious, enforcing a lockdown, strict masking, and social distancing will only prolong the threat, not eliminate it. A virus will inevitably come through, it will be treated, and life will go on.
Fortunately, there are treatments for COVID-19, and younger people don’t suffer as much from it as they do with the flu or other viruses. Although parents are told to expect an outbreak this coming winter, it’s more likely that the virus has already passed and COVID-19 infections will eventually decline as they have in more open countries like Sweden.
As it stands, students are languishing in their homes for little reason. This is no way to react to a virus like COVID-19, and the fallout from overreacting will become increasingly apparent. So many adults have lost their jobs and businesses. Now young people are losing their childhood. Parents need to put pressure on educational and political leaders to reopen schools before the very real and profound damage to keeping their children from having a normal, healthy educational experience becomes permanent and potentially irreversible.