The School Debate

It is looking like many, if not most, schools are returning to “virtual” “learning” this Fall. Some schools are offering hybrid options, while a few others are at least now planning for a full, five-days per week return to in-class learning.

While there are certainly many parents who are quite happy to keep their kids home, most are disappointed (if not outright angry) that at least some in-person education is not being offered. Our experience as parents this Spring after schools were closed does not inspire us with confidence. The consensus experience was that virtual learning was a complete disaster, if not farce. Leaving aside the difficulty parents had in keeping track of their children’s different Zoom, Google classroom, or whatever other platform schedules, children just did not have the same quality of instruction as they did in-person.

Most troubling of all, continued school closures and distance learning will most adversely impact precisely those students most in need of the structured environment of schooling: special education students and the poor. It also is generally ineffective for elementary school children, and maybe barely tolerable for middle school and above.

And none of this even touches upon the lack of socialization. One of the misunderstood aspects of home-schooling is that under normal circumstances home-schooling families usually take part in cooperative ventures and other joint group efforts to enable children to interact. This virtual learning “home-school” experience lacks this element. Many children have lacked almost any interaction with friends or similar-aged children for months, and this will now continue for months more. Sure, there are ways parents might be able to help encourage playtime with certain other families, but that is not an option open to all families.

What is most frustrating to those of us who think schools should re-open is that there is this repeated mantra offered by public officials and school superintendents that they are just following “science” and “data” when it is apparent they are not, or at least are not adequately informing themselves of all the data. It’s true that there is much that we don’t know still about the virus, but it is now fairly clear that small children just are not susceptible to becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID. While COVID is 5-6 times more deadly than the flu for the general population, that’s not the case with chidren who are 10 and younger. Older kids have more risk, but it’s still fairly minimal compared to the general population.

As for transmittal, that’s a bit more uncertain. This study out of South Korea suggests small children do not tend to transmit the virus, but older children (10+) do at the same level as adults. The study’s sample is small, though, so it may not tell the whole story. From what we know of the virus and how it is transmitted, it makes intuitive sense that small children probably are not generally transmitters, but I of course understand that school boards don’t want to go by intuition alone. But if older kids do present a greater risk to their adult teachers, they are also much more likely to reliably wear masks and keep them on than, say, a kindergartner.

With that being said, I want to address a pair of common arguments presented by either side of the debate. On the one hand, there is a common thread that parents are willing to put teachers’ lives at risk just because we need babysitters. First of all, though the risk for teachers is admittedly higher than it is for the children, it’s still relatively small for teachers who have no other underlying conditions. One would hope we would be able to figure out ways to protect the more vulnerable teachers. As for the sneering dismissal that parents are just looking for babysitters, while it contains a hint of truth, it is ultimately unfair.

It is decidedly true that two-income parents are going to struggle if there is no school. Teachers are going to get paid either way, but lots of moms (and some dads) will not be able to work. Some families may have to develop very divergent schedules to enable both parents to work at different times, but this will obviously be a further strain. Furthermore, though the childcare aspect does concern many parents, almost every parent I know is primarily concerned about another four months, at least, of stalled education. Speaking personally, my two youngest are both deaf/hard of hearing (with cochlear implants), and go to a school for the deaf. My youngest child in particular needs a lot of attention, and distance learning is completely useless for her. Even my two older children struggled. This distance learning just does not work effectively, and we don’t want our children to fall further behind.

On the other side, I’ve heard a lot of sniping that teachers are just looking to be able to take more time off. This is unfair. Almost every teacher I know is as frustrated by the distance learning as are the parents, and that goes double for teachers who themselves have small children. It is no picnic for them, and it’s not like more distance learning means they get to sit back and take siestas all day. And while the ridiculous demands of the Los Angeles teachers union damage their reputation, I don’t believe they represent anything like a majority of teachers out there. I know that most teachers are trying their hardest, so let’s not scapegoat them. Well, all of them.