STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Five reasons COVID-19 is the best thing to happen to public education
By Jennifer Lade - March 25, 2020

As the world scrambles to curtail COVID-19 with social distancing, millions of parents are facing the prospect of involuntarily homeschooling their children for the foreseeable future.

As of Monday, 45 states have ordered all schools to be closed. At least 54.8 million school students are now home. Though initial school closures have ranged from a few days to a month, many speculate it could be a lot longer before schools reopen, if they do at all for the rest of the academic year.

While it is disruptive to the economy, as well as public school children and parents, a whole lot of good will come out of school closings — beyond the obvious benefit of slowing the spread of the disease.

Here is what parents and the public as a whole should take away from the school closings.

1. Public School could be cheaper, shorter, and online. 

Even though teachers had little time to prepare to shift their classes online, many school districts are offering their students online courses, video conference calls of their classes, and emailed work packets.

If all this can be done with just a few days of planning, imagine what could happen once teachers and students had settled into a routine. Already countless college courses and homeschool resources are offered online.

If public schools were held online rather than in a brick and mortar building, costs would plummet. There would be no transportation budget. The cost of renting and maintaining a building would evaporate.

Class sizes could be bigger because teachers would not have to deal with keeping order in a physical classroom, and their recorded lessons would be scalable to larger numbers of students.

What about lower-income students, who might not have access to the Internet in their homes?

If districts were committed to online schooling, they could outfit every child’s home with high-speed Internet and give them a personal computer for less money than they are currently spending per pupil — $12,500 is the national average.

As a homeschooling parent, I’m imagining what I could do for my kids with just half of one pupil’s allotment. Let’s just say we’d be using brand-name crayons.

The takeaway: If taxpayers are forced to fund public education, it should be as cost-effective and efficient as possible. Online schooling would be a step in the right direction.

But of course, the real cost of children learning online is that the responsibility of supervising them would shift back to the parents. And that’s the real issue. Because . . .

2. The “Education System” is mostly about babysitting.

Having kids is all well and good as long as you can spend 7 hours away from them each day on the taxpayers’ dime.

Suddenly, that’s no longer an option and people are panicking.

Of course they are. They planned their lives around their children being out of their house for “free” for 35 hours a week. That means more parents work; 66 percent of households with two parents and children under 18 have dual earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Add to that 13.7 million single-parent families, about half of which have full-time employment according to Census data, and you can see just how many people were banking on the school system to keep them afloat.

I’m not here to judge families’ reliance on a centuries-old “entitlement.” I’m simply pointing out that educating the next generation is not the main concern.

And it never was.

Mandatory public schooling in the US began in the mid-1800s when Horace Mann led the charge to require attendance in community schools for children ages 8 to 14 for at least 12 weeks per year.

The purpose, which the founders of public education did not try to hide, was to create an obedient and patriotic future workforce with the skills the elite needed in their industries.

Since then, the scope of schools has expanded to include younger children, longer school days and a longer school year.

There are also more services than ever: special education, school psychologists, free school breakfasts and lunches, after school care, and subsidized sports and extracurriculars. Anything a parent might have been expected to provide their own child — or at least pay for — has been picked up by the state.

So we can see how much the school system has influenced the economy. Children are away from home longer, at a younger age, and given more services. Of course it makes more financial sense for most parents to work than homeschool their children.

The message is clear: anyone can teach your kid, feed them meals, care for their emotional wellbeing and spend time with them. You, the parent, are more useful away from your child, contributing to the economy — and the tax base.

The takeaway: If supervision is the main goal of schooling for parents, throw off the government’s insidious goal of creating the next generation of mindless, obedient drones.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education has many examples of alternative schools that are actually good for your children. And many have tuition that is less than the average per-pupil cost in a public school.

3. Let the community help before the government.

If this pandemic has done anything to restore my faith in humanity, it’s in the offers for help that I have seen come from my community.

The local social media groups are flooded with posts offering food for anyone who relies on free school breakfasts or lunch to feed their kids.

Other people are using the time home with their children to write letters to residents of nursing homes or sew medical masks for hospital workers.

People are offering to bring groceries and toiletries to elderly neighbors and babysit children whose parents have to go to work.

Online educational resources have also come out of the woodwork to serve the needs of millions of reluctant, first-time homeschoolers. Companies are offering their online videos, worksheets, games and more for free.

In times of crisis, at least, there seems to be no shortage of help if you know where to look. And while it might not cover every need that exists in the world, it should be the first line of defense in our social network.

The takeaway: If a government safety net must exist, it should be just that: a last resort to help people when their community fails them, not the first place people turn.

4. Learning happens without school all the time.

It is admirable that organizations are offering free online content to parents to fill the gaps provided by public school closures. But I do take issue with the way the help is phrased.

CNN reported Scholastic was launching a “Learn at Home” website offering free courses for children in preschool through grade 6.

“So your kids can keep learning while schools are closed,” the headline explained. As though it takes a special website to encourage children to learn.

Children’s brains are often compared to sponges because of their amazing ability to absorb skills and knowledge without the kind of instruction we associate with schools. Just ask any kid who learned to walk, talk and ride a bike without any formal lessons. 

Or look at any kid with an Internet connection and the ability to ask, “Alexa, why is bird poop white?”

Last week, my 10-year-old wanted to learn about cremation, of all things, after learning a late actor she admired had been cremated. After a 30-minute perusal of a few funeral home websites, she now knows more about cremation than most of the adult population of the United States.

Of course, when people suggest children need school to learn, they mean that they need schools to tell them what is necessary to learn. Then force it upon them, whether or not they are receptive to the topic — and whether or not their brains are developmentally ready to learn the concept.

In that case, yes, you’re going to need the strong arm of school to get a classroom of kids to simultaneously listen and try to absorb the main exports of the colonies during the American Revolution.

If you wait until they’re interested, they’ll absorb a lot more. Some will never be interested in that particular factoid and that’s OK too. If it ever becomes a necessity to know, they’ll ask the internet.

The takeaway: Educational resources are great, but they aren’t magical. Kids will learn faster and retain more information if they are interested in the topic and motivated to find out more. 

Schools do the exact opposite: force unmotivated kids to memorize and regurgitate information that they don’t find interesting.

If we don’t remember anything from middle school science, then we should stop forcing middle schoolers to sit through middle school science classes.

5. Most parents would be great at homeschooling.

The parents pushed into homeschooling by the school closures seem to fall into two camps. 

The first camp is half-jokingly calling for teachers to make $1 million a year. These parents are pouring over unfamiliar math with their kids and struggling to work from home and keep their children occupied simultaneously.

The second camp is gung-ho about recreating school at home, right down to “circle time” and the inadequate recess. They are frantically trying to keep their children from “falling behind” and want to ensure they can slip right back into the routine of a classroom when the time comes.

But neither of those experiences reflect the reality of long-term homeschooling for a number of reasons.

First, because some schools are assigning work, parents are being asked to take the agenda of the public schools and try to enforce it at home. It’s like one endless homework battle. 

Homeschoolers largely come up with their own agenda.

Unschoolers, like my family, allow the kids to set the agenda for what they’d like to learn (see my future mortician above).

Second, despite stereotypes to the contrary, homeschoolers don’t isolate themselves in their homes all day, every day, as we are now being asked (forced?) to do.

My homeschooled children had a vibrant social life and many out-of-the house activities before social distancing cancelled them. Isolation schooling can be harder because the parents and siblings are the only people physically present to teach, supervise, and entertain.

Third, it will get easier with time. Parents and children will fall into a natural routine once the novelty of being home all day has worn off. Plus, the process of “deschooling” will begin to take place — that’s when all the schoolish behaviors and expectations get unlearned.

It means letting go of school-based measures for success, like tests and grade levels. It is getting accustomed to initiating learning opportunities rather than waiting for instruction.

It’s even more important for parents to deschool, as they are older and have spent more years under the culture’s influence of what education means. As deschooling happens, homeschooling gets easier and a lot more fun.

My greatest wish for the school closings is that they help parents be more confident in their ability to raise and educate their own children.

Most parents can homeschool, and homeschooling doesn’t have to look like a death march through pages of worksheets or a rigid schedule that separates learning into subjects. Living life alongside one’s children is good enough.

Parents can accept their kids’ interests and help them dive deeper. They can offer books, toys, tools, and games that look enjoyable. They can have conversations with their kids at the dinner table. They can use Google when their kid asks a question.

Someday, when the quarantines end, they can take them to museums and libraries and concerts and sporting events.

The takeaway: More parents should realize that they are awesome at homeschooling and should continue doing it even once schools are open again.

For all the training and specialization public school teachers have, they don’t know a child better than his parents, and they certainly don’t love him as much.

Teachers might be better at managing a class of 30 kids, but parents can learn how to manage their own kids and how to enjoy life with them.

The other resources we discussed can fill in any gaps.

Online classes can take care of chemistry and calculus. Alternative schools can provide supervision when needed. Generous community members can provide supplies and expertise. 

This will be more than enough. Better than school.

Could COVID-19 change the face of public schooling forever?

I certainly hope so.

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