The Coming Back-to-school Apocalypse
Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Right now, we don’t even have a plan.
The news media in some places are starting to pick up on the biggest story in the country, percolating among folks, that is now only weeks away from exploding.
A month into planning what fall might look like for the 2,700 students in his Gloucester County school district, Jim Lavender tore through 104 pages of guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education.
By Wednesday, Lavender had spent days, nights, and a weekend scouring every page three times, trying to figure out how he could safely meet social distancing, masking, and health requirements — to say nothing of teaching and learning.
“It’s almost an untenable task,” said Lavender, superintendent of the Kingsway Regional School District.
After an abrupt transition this spring to virtual learning that left many students and families struggling, schools are trying to craft plans to reopen while navigating a series of questions that don’t have clear answers.
Will kids keep masks on? Should temperatures be checked? And how much distance should schools maintain between students, from classrooms to bus seats, if those requirements mean some students will have to stay home?
Agencies, researchers, and advocacy groups have weighed in on returning to school during the coronavirus outbreak, but the guidance sometimes conflicts. Experts say children are less likely to be severely impacted by the virus, and also less likely to spread it.
Yet the evidence isn’t uniform, and schools are staffed by adults — many of whom are older, more at risk of illness, and not all comfortable with returning. Reopening schools involves evaluating those risks and balancing them against the pitfalls and child-care complications that emerged during months of remote instruction that widened achievement gaps and challenged families.
Education officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as in some other states, have called for at least some in-person instruction, but haven’t mandated a specific approach, leaving the reopening decisions to local school leaders.
“It’s a lose-lose situation,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Superintendents know that whatever they do, people are going to be unhappy, kids and staff are going to get sick. It’s going to be an incredible year, unfortunately.”
There are over 50 million children in the public school system, scattered in almost 14 thousands school districts. That 14 thousand districts does not count private schools, charter schools, regional education service agencies and supervisory union administrative centers, state-operated agencies, federally operated agencies, DODDS schools attached to the DOD, and other types of local education agencies, and the list goes on. Serving that public school system are 2.3 million teachers in the elementary and middle school levels. Count everything from pre-school to post-secondary, you are talking 6.1 million teachers. They are overseen by 938,000 school administrators including 460,000 principals. Each of those 14K districts have at least one superintendent. Then there are the local and state boards of education. Then the federal Department of Education, with its 4K employees and $68 Billion budget.
Education in American is a leviathan. Come the first day of school, it will be a confused, scared, and very much under pressure beast blindly groping its way into the unknown.
All those levels of bureaucracy inside the education system is its own byzantine mess under the best of circumstances. From the outside, there’s pressure of health officials, politicians, and state and local boards changing plans as fast as they demand implementation. From the inside, the already nigh impossible task of appeasing parents will be cranked to 11. The tension between the ever-growing administrator levels and the in-classroom teachers will be exacerbated by the need to bring in even more admins just to try and control the track and trace of students, not to mention myriad new rules, regulations, and guidelines. Guidelines most of which are changing every five minutes.
Think I’m being hyperbolic and fearmongering here? Almost all school plans right now call for some hybrid learnin, either alternating days, online study, or some other variation from the usual Monday through Friday school schedule. Parents who are trying to hold onto the jobs they have will have fun explaining how they are supposed to cover child care two to three days a week, or longer. Of those 50 million school aged children, some 13 million of them live in single parent homes, parents who will have even more demands made upon them. Health officials that think a classroom of 20 some kindergartners are going to wear masks all day, follow hygiene, and socially distance under the watchful eye of one or at best two teachers operating in the most chaotic environment the school system has ever seen are fooling themselves.
Add to all that the experience of the school shutdowns in the spring. After several weeks they finally found a bit of a rhythm to the proceedings of online classes and packets worth of work. That experience tells us whatever the plan for the fall is will last till the end of the first day, when the cries will arise to fix all the problems reality meeting best laid plans reveals in the real world with real kids and real teachers.
Let us be blunt. American education has lived in this pseudo-real bubble where money pours in and not much is expected to show for it. Oh, folks gripe and complain on Facebook and make PTA meetings a living hell, but in the grand scheme of things very little changes. School boards operate with a mix of inertia and neglect until some problem arises, which they pray will be mitigated quickly and business can go back to usual.
That’s not going to be an option this fall. The American education system is about to have a stress test, one that strips all the buzzwords and preconceived notions away by the brutal reality of a virus that doesn’t play by the rules the carefully constructed leviathan of professional education in America operates on. Administrators that make far more than the actual teachers will suddenly be in the spotlight like never before. Add the amount of “pass the blame” and “cover your ass” when the initial plans in a fluid environment fall short, and politicians, teachers unions, and pick-your-choice-of-educational-groups will be playing musical chairs to not get the blame.
Meanwhile, the kids and the parents are left stuck. Nothing crosses ideological lines like messing with someone’s livelihood or their kids. The coming back-to-school apocalypse is going to uniquely do both at the same time for a huge chunk of Americans. You don’t think that is going to affect, local, state, and federal elections?
Oh, by the way, most of those kids haven’t had their regularly scheduled preventative care checkups since the spring, so on top of everything else expect a nice outbreak of the usual childhood diseases once a bunch of kids get together that happens every fall anyway.
But maybe all that is just worst case scenario. Maybe in the next 6 weeks or so the Covid crisis will pass and the parents who count on the school system first and foremost as daily childcare will go off without a hitch. Besides the good schools with good leadership will adapt, overcome, and do just fine.
But how many of those do you think we have?
Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Right now, we don’t even have a plan. God help us.