The pandemic has taught us that schools are the bedrock of American society. There is no way forward without them. This is not an argument that schools should be open or even that they should open in the fall. Such a decision requires expertise beyond my own.
But the President or any elected official who thinks we can open America for business before figuring out how to safely open schools, misunderstands the extent to which American society depends on those schools to function.
We see this in ways that range from light-hearted to potentially tragic. From parents (including this one) consulting smartphones to learn the properties of a rhombus so that we can teach them to our children, to the sobering notion that thousands of children at risk from abuse and neglect now live in a world where no one sees them, the central role of schools in American life has come into focus during our isolation.
Schools are the largest provider of day care services in our country. Any notion that America can get back to work without schools is foolish. Sure, a fortunate few may be able to continue distance learning but without the most basic service that schools provide — the care and custody of our children for seven hours each day — working families will be faced with the impossible choice of endangering their children by leaving them alone when they go to work or endangering them by not going to work, thereby plunging the family into economic insecurity.
This choice will be faced most acutely by hourly workers. Without schools, eventually we will have shortages in every industry that depends on them, including frontline workers who will be unable to continue crisis-level hours indefinitely with the kids at home. This is especially true for parents of disabled children, many of whom can’t access distance learning and are required to devote their time to keeping their children safe. Without school, these parents are removed from the economy.
Schools are also the best, and sometimes only, provider of food for a large segment of our nation’s — and our state’s — children. Districts have attempted to continue this work during the pandemic, but it would be unrealistic to expect that a switch to distance feeding would duplicate the comprehensive and efficient manner in which schools deliver food to people who need it.
The value of this service cannot be overstated. Back when I was a sportswriter, I talked to one college basketball coach who told me stories about trying to sneak into school as a four-year old to get a hot meal because all there was at home was Miracle Whip and white bread. He talked about the joy of turning five and going to kindergarten and knowing that he didn’t have to sneak in anymore.
Schools are the nation’s great safety check against child abuse. They are a place where teachers and other professionals have eyes on children each and every day. The true impact of the pandemic will not be known for years because it will be years before we discover how many children were left for months in places that were dangerous, unseen by the outside world.
Schools are the largest provider of disability services to families in need. Those who think trying to teach a youngster how to divide fractions is daunting should try to teach a child with a developmental disability. Educating children who require 1-to-1 assistance from a paraprofessional and other specialized therapists is difficult under the best of circumstances. Attempting to do it remotely is all but impossible. This is particularly true in districts where access to a computer is not a given. Thus, the impact of school closures, while it touches all of us, has fallen most heavily on cash-strapped urban districts that mostly serve children of color.
The future impact on the children themselves is unknown. School is where kids learn how to socialize and behave in a cooperative society. Where they learn how to navigate among social groups and how to balance their natural desire for fun and chaos with expectations that require them to be still and listen. The lack of school has become a huge void in our children’s lives and we do not know whether we have filled it adequately.
Smarter folks than I will balance all of these factors with the public health risk of reopening schools. But if officials think they are going to successfully reopen society without sounding the school bell, they are sadly mistaken.
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