There Is No Good Reason To Return To School

Amid all of the debate about when and how America should reopen its schools, there has been little talk about why we should bother to at all. The arguments are familiar:

  • We’re exacerbating inequalities and widening the achievement gap
  • Staying home is bad for kids’ mental health and social development
  • We can’t restart the economy without reopening the schools
  • Remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning and it sucks in all sorts of small and not-so-small ways.

Those are in fact all good reasons to return to school as it was. But none of them are good reasons to return to school as it is likely to be.

While no one knows exactly what reopened schools will look like next fall, we can look to schools that have reopened for some indications.

Here’s what Quebec is doing:

Here’s an example from France showing what social distancing on a playground looks like:

source: BFM News Channel via Twitter

And in Scotland, the children of essential workers get to eat in the cafeteria but…well…saddest lunch ever.

Jane Barlow/Zuma Press

This isn’t about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. No one should be demanding that students stay home from school until things revert to how they used to be. Some changes are going to be necessary. But it makes no sense to send students back to school if doing so won’t remedy any of the problems created by school closures and remote learning.

You’d be forgiven if after reading some of the reasons advanced by those in a hurry to reopen schools you believed that what gives us the best chance at closing the achievement gap is the mere presence of a teacher.

But at-risk learners don’t catch up to their peers simply by attending school. They learn more at school than they do at home because they get more attention and help there. But how much attention and help can teachers (or peer tutors) give if they’re required to keep their distance? How much reading improvement can we expect if teachers can’t sit next to a struggling reader? How is live teaching any better than virtual instruction if the teacher can’t walk over to a student’s desk and show them how to correct their misunderstandings? What measurable difference will attending school make for students who can’t get the very help we know they’re missing by not being at school?

And while it is unquestionably suboptimal for social beings to be locked inside their houses for months and likely even worse for kids, it’s hard to imagine how being confined to a desk for hours and having to play inside a chalk square on a playground is much of an improvement.

Why should we assume that placing young people in an environment of masked peers whom they aren’t allowed to approach will result in an improved mental state? And if adults are going to be serious about restrictions they’ll have to enforce them. It’s my deep suspicion that punishments for hugging friends, admonishments for encroaching on six-foot personal bubbles, vigilant surveillance of hand-washing and line spacing, daily temperature checks that send a recurrent message that everyone else is to be feared, and possible repeated school closures when someone inevitably catches the virus will not produce an atmosphere conducive to improved mental health.

As for not being able to fully open our economy, one wonders how parents have managed annual two-month summer vacations without destroying small businesses and corporate America. But even if we grant that the public school system’s most valued role is as a massive child care provider, the proposed solutions don’t remedy the problem. Sending students two days a week, sending half the students in the morning and the other half in the afternoon to make social distancing possible, employing some sort of virtual-personal hybrid model – none of these allow people with normal jobs to go back to work as they did before. Schools can only serve as daycare centers when they can watch students for at least the majority of parents’ workdays.

Yes, remote learning is substandard. It creates a bunch of nasty problems. But going back to school this fall is about risk-reward. And make no mistake, there is risk, as the 70 COVID-19 cases that have appeared in French schools within a week of reopening proves.

And given that in-person schooling won’t actually solve any of the problems associated with remote learning, it’s worth asking why we should return. Why would any country, district, or parent be in a hurry to pack their children off to school when going to school as it is likely to look won’t do much to narrow inequalities, improve students’ mental health, allow for meaningful socialization, or help reopen the economy? It’s not a good enough reason to say you want to go back to school because you hate remote learning, you miss your students, you pine for the recent past, or THIS JUST SUCKS.

Instead, we should consider what we will gain by doing so, and more importantly, what might we lose?

Right now, there’s no good reason to return to school. The rewards simply don’t outweigh the risks.

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