Lately, in Florida, where I live, there have been two trains of thought on school-re-openings.
The first is: “Yes! Please open up the schools already! Our kids are driving us crazy and we can’t get any work done. Besides, kids don’t get sick from the Coronavirus, anyway, do they?”
The other train of thought says: “I can’t even walk to the mailbox without a mask. How do you expect my six—ten—fifteen—eighteen-year-old to keep one on, the whole day long, with class, recess, PE, the school bus, etc?” Not to mention the sweltering heat. Or the hormones raging.
Underlying most of the arguments for an immediate school reopening is an assumption that homeschoolers will find familiar. They have heard it again and again as an accusation, and a slander.
The Price of Not Re-Opening
The assumption is, that children, unless they are housed in a brick and mortar school, with hundreds of other children around them, and kept there six hours a day minimum for at least 180 days a year,will not learn. Without all these precise conditions, finely-tuned over decades, and led and orchestrated by the most devoted and experienced teachers and administrators, the children that we love and cherish will –egad!—fall behind.
Falling behind assumes a level playing field. A normal school year. With everyone in class. With identical subjects, identical resources, identical teachers. Identical support in the home. None of these conditions exist, least of all during a year when a novel coronavirus prevails.
Homeschoolers have long known a subtle truth. Children learn. It’s what they do. Here, there, and everywhere. Under all conditions, and to varying degrees, certainly. But variations are normal. Life interruptions are normal. And somehow kids muddle through.
Opening the schools is not the life or death proposition that we are being presented with. The life or death of the child’s education, that is. In many other ways, medically for instance, it is most certainly at this point in time, a life or death proposition.
But as for their education, children are actually quite resilient. Children will continue to learn, regardless of their circumstances. Under a parent’s supervision, they will likely learn in a fashion quite suitable and impressive for their age and abilities. Will they learn the identical material as others, being taught by their own parents? Perhaps not. Will they learn at an identical pace? Most likely not. The question really is, what are we looking to gain, from sending our children back to school? Are we looking for education, or uniformity?
Why Listen to a Homeschooler on Re-Opening the Public Schools?
Just this week, I graduated my first homeschooler. Yes, in July.
I continue to usher toward completion a much more difficult, unique and complicated education, for a second young man.
So I speak with ten years of unofficial authority, when I say, that the assumption, that children will fall behind,if the schools are closed, is false. They will not fall behind, not in any real sense, when you remove them from the schoolhouse. Children are learning machines. They will learn, to the degree they can, and are willing to, as long as there is an opportunity to do so. And opportunities come in all shapes and sizes.
Now, with that out of the way, as a reason for sending kids back to school, let’s look at the real reason.
But First, I Digress to Check My Privilege
My situation is not typical. I am a white, over-educated stay-at-home mom with four kids, all grown now. One of them has a disability and is still schooling, so to speak. I have had the luxury—and the drudgery—of staying home for the duration of my children’s school years. Many would not—or could not—choose this path for themselves.
Yet, at this moment in time, with COVID lurking on our doorstep, many moms and dads are opting, or being forced, to do just that. Lots are choosing to homeschool, rather than return their children to a questionably safe environment.
(When I speak about “choosing” to homeschool, I realize this is not the reality for most people during the pandemic. I shouldn’t really call it a choice, at all.)
Why Homeschool Now?
Is it any wonder that many parents prefer to quit their jobs to care for their kids’ education themselves, rather than send their kids off to schools which are woefully unprepared, for the logistical challenges posed by this crisis? I have seen knock-down-drag-out fights over the safety of playground equipment, in my years in the public schools. Do you think that those same parents would allow their children to be sent into harm’s way, to serve as guinea pigs in some mass experiment, to judge the effects of COVID on children and the surrounding community? Uh, no.
It reminds me of John Meacham’s “Hope Thru History” podcast episode about the polio epidemic of the early twentieth century. People longed for a vaccine so much, that they lined up their kids for the trials of the first version. Many of those poor children caught polio from the vaccine and died. Because the vaccine wasn’t ready. But the parents were willing to take the risk, because they were desperate.
Now, I do not mean to suggest that anyone refuse a COVID vaccine, should we ever be so lucky as to have one. I think that everyone who can safely be vaccinated should be vaccinated. Today’s pre-release trials judge efficacy and safety to a much more conclusive degree, than they ever did, back in the day.
But in this rush to return to school normalcy, we are not given even the least promise of a cure. To recall an Elvis Costello song, our children are sheep to the slaughter.
It may be regarded as reasonably safe for them, given our current understanding of the virus. Not so much for their families or communities who might catch it from them.
And who’s to say? In time, this virus may well mutate in cunning ways, making it an even more effective, and deadly, threat to our children.
The Heartbreak of Schooling During COVID
In Florida the schools shut down in March and haven’t opened since, though they are scheduled to do so, any day now. Parents were forced to school from home, in the spring, mostly with the aide of online platforms that connected their children to their teachers. We should thank our lucky stars for modern technology!
I even saw a child being taught in my neighborhood drycleaners, where she sat not far from her mother. As I turned in a load of clothes, I heard the teacher’s voice. “Johnny. Johnny. Johnny. Please press the mute button.”
Some of the most touching videos I watched, during our anemic, partial, and short-lived shut-down in Florida, were the prom and graduation episodes on “Some Good News” with John Kasinski from “The Office.” In the graduation episode, high school seniors wore cap and gown, and celebrated their graduation remotely, giving mini-valedictorian speeches about their high school experiences and hopes for college and beyond. In the prom episode they dressed up and danced with family and close friends in their homes, and celebrity entertainers provided the soundtrack and commentary. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it now.
Having a son who is a high school senior during COVID has made me privy, to the alarming shut-off of the spigot of social interaction that these kids thrive upon. One day they’re in class or hanging out with friends. The next, they’re stuck at home with their parents.
School Choices During COVID are No Easier After High School
Add to this pain, the disappointment of our decision not to send him to the dorms, and to have his classes be virtual only, at least for the fall. Looking at the numbers in Florida tick up-up-up for the past few weeks, there was no other logical choice.
In addition, the university he decided to attend has completely shifted the risk of COVID onto the students, by adding a proviso to dorm and mealplan documents, that no money will be refunded, whether COVID closes the school for a day, or for the entire semester. The prospect of losing thousands of dollars per semester, in exchange for nothing, has made the decision much easier for me, thank you. But no easier for my son, who cannot help but lament all the people he might have met, and the delights of independence that he might have enjoyed, had COVID not come to call.
Cases have been spiking here for several months, on a slow upward trend since the June re-opening, and deaths are at an all-time high, each successive day. I read that hospitals are at capacity, meaning an uptick could lead to worse conditions, with people in hallways, on floors, in the street. I heard that the 1918 flu epidemic death toll would have been infinitely better, had there been enough hospital beds and nursing staff to care for all the cases, even with their paltry early twentieth century medical methods. Let us hope, we are not in for a repeat of that.
Still, you are only eighteen and entering college once in your life, and it is hard not to take it personally, when a pandemic crushes your dreams for independence, College is a time to take control of your life, to organize your time to your own satisfaction, to never ask approval for anything.
This is the harsh reckoning of our reality. We live in a warzone and we must not tempt Fate.
Public School as a Right
The parents of elementary and secondary school students will not necessarily see things the same way. This pandemic has brought out all the flaws in our system, the vulnerable spots. School is, after all, for a vast majority of parents, the most cost-effective solution for supervising their children during working hours. Without the crutch of school, we are indeed handicapped as a society.
At the same time, school, as we traditionally practice it, is fraught with some of the most risky conditions possible, during a pandemic.
Large group gatherings: check.
Young and old together: check.
Frequent close contact: check.
Release of participants to every segment of society: check.
Likelihood of spotty participation in recommended best practices: check.
Children or Canaries?
In the news, I heard that 76% of the children in of a group of about 344 at a Georgia summer sleepover camp tested positive for the virus. They had only been there a few days.
A camp is just a miniature school in all the pertinent respects. It actually has some aspects that are an improvement on school—more outdoor time, for example, and smaller groups. But children grouped inside a room (sleeping in this case) for hours on end produced predictable results. Why do we delude ourselves that children in school will miraculously suffer a different fate?
Anyone who has had kids knows what efficient germ-carriers they are. This camp incident is just a canary in a coal mine. Are we willing to let our child be part of this atrocious experiment, to be a kind of test tube baby? Why should we believe that our children will turn out as Jekyll, when theirs turn out as Hyde?
We cannot open up our schools. We cannot work with our kids at home.
I have heard that a sign of intelligence is being able to hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s mind, at the same time.
Let’s be intelligent and find another way.
For another post about how COVID is transforming our lives take a look at Shut In, For a Season.