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Did Lockdowns Finish Off Public Schooling?

Did Lockdowns Finish Off Public Schooling?

We moved to a good school district. The area was growing. Built for families like ours, all of the public schools in the area received “A” or “8/10” ratings. There were two very expensive and very fancy private schools in the area. It was an idyllic place to raise children.

In retrospect, we had a few frustrations with the public schools. Some of the curriculum seemed ridiculous, the math in particular. The apps used to communicate with the teachers were barely functional. It was somewhat difficult to track what the kids were learning, but the teachers had no complaints, so we didn’t make any either.

In March 2020, the world changed. The entire school experience became a series of apps on a screen. Classes met daily in the morning on Zoom. All of the curriculum was hastily added to Schoology during the initial two-week lockdown. I still want to call it School – ology. We became intimate partners with the printer and scanner. They were necessary to scan and upload completed assignments.

The initial two-week closure was extended to the end of April. With only one more month of school after that, the district remained shuttered for the rest of that year. School would remain a computer screen.

There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. We didn’t know how the grades would work. We didn’t know when the school would reopen. We didn’t quite understand how to find and complete the assignments. The assignments were exceptionally basic and shoddily organized. We were skeptical that we were uploading them correctly. We were not teachers. We did not expect to be teachers. We had full-time jobs.

My experience with Zoom School was so utterly terrible that I was convinced the children had to be back in school. We lived in Florida, and we were lucky the schools reopened in August the next year. Our Governor had to fight our district to open. Striking back, the district delayed the opening as long as legally possible.

To my great regret, the strength of my belief led me to send my children into a classroom that had plastic dividers between the desks and masks covering all the faces. I was still naïve enough to believe that people wanted this over as soon as possible and would act rationally. I was already wrong, but I couldn’t see it yet.

The few pleas for normalcy fell on the deaf ears of our school board. I could not understand it, but they seemed to actually enjoy it. Every time a mandate could be extended, it was. Despite strong opposition, the decisions were often unanimous.

Our Governor removed all of the state-wide mandates in September 2020, but allowed the schools to enforce their own for the time being. The school board promised dropping the mandates after the Christmas Break. I supposed that was reasonable and I accepted it. We returned in January to the same restrictions.

The board meetings blew up at that point. The dishonesty of the board and the frustrations of the parents were a volatile mix. Their authority and character impugned, the board doubled down and continued the restrictions through the end of the school year.

I finally accepted reality. I spoke with the founder of an Umbrella School, a way of homeschooling. She was fabulous. She had homeschooled her own children and was a respectable psychologist. During our brief conversation, she convinced me that Zoom School was not homeschool, and that I should reconsider my opinions. However, unfortunately, we both concluded removing my kids from school so late in the year would not work well. I had waited too long.

My children finished out that year. The school board voted unanimously to remove all mandates for the next school year. We travelled that summer. We rented an RV. An old man I play cello with told me I should write a travel blog. I did. We were refreshed. The long ordeal was over.

In the first week of the new school year, during school dropoff, an emergency meeting was called. Parents could not attend, they were busy dropping their kids off at school. In a 3 – 2 vote, the school board reverted their stance on mandatory masking. Masking and even the dividers would return.

I immediately called the Umbrella School, and Friday of that week was the end of our time in Public School. I will never send my children back to publicly ran schools. For the second time, unexpectedly, I was a homeschool parent.

The homeschool curriculum was marvelous. The books on history and science were what I remember from school. The readers had heroic stories with moral themes in them. The math book was the best I have ever seen. The English book included sentence diagramming that I had to relearn myself. There was handwriting, cursive, art, and long-form creative writing.

As we worked through the homeschool curriculum, I realized several things. My children had never brought home a textbook. There were no chapter assignments to read for history or science. What had come home from the public school was usually a single worksheet of some kind. The topic to be addressed on the front, some questions on the back, and then immediately forgotten in favor of the next worksheet.

My children struggled. My oldest, who was in fourth grade, had no understanding of phonics. Phonics was taught in the year interrupted by Zoom School. Writing a full sentence was difficult. He could not describe what a verb or a noun was. He didn’t even know the vowels. He had passed every grade in Public School without incident.

Reading a section of a chapter several pages in length was difficult for both of my kids. Answering the questions at the end of the section by flipping back through the chapter was impossible. We worked very hard those first two months, but an interesting thing happened. They knew they were learning, and they did the work.

I kept a log of how many pages they read each week. I paid them for each page and for good grades at the end of the week. By the end of the year, my fourth grader had read 2,300 pages, my second grader 1,600. It was all done in less than four hours a day. We were usually done by lunch, when I went to work at my full-time job. That caliber of work cannot occur in the public schools.

They began to have interesting conversations. At swim class, they were doing chin-ups on the starting block. The instructor asked them if they knew the name of the muscle they were using. My eldest – who had anatomy as part of the science program – blurted out, “Bicep!” The instructor was speechless. She had instructed for years, and none of the kids had known the answer.

A funny anecdote is writing a letter to one of my son’s friends. We addressed it “Master R—.” We mailed it. We expected to receive a letter in return, and I envisioned an old fashioned penpal relationship blooming. We earned a text message in return.

After our year of homeschooling, we decided to send them to a private charter school. It is a fair mix between the public and private systems. The school has made an effort to ensure we are aware of all the curriculum and can follow the progress of our children. It is quite similar to the schooling I remember. We have been happy with it so far. We are also ready to immediately drop everything and return to homeschooling should insanity roar back.

I don’t think the public schools can be fixed. The bureaucracy is overcrowded. Union control is absolute. Awful ideas abound about everything. There is a tendency to rely on technology rather than time-tested fundamentals as the preferred solution to any problem. As a result, the amount of technology is overwhelming; The amount of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic – vastly underwhelming.

The teachers are handcuffed. Details down to the placement of desks in their classrooms have an official policy. Our district had circular tables. Several of the kids always had their backs turned to the whiteboards. In order to take notes, they had to turn around and had no surface to write on.

Nominally nonpartisan, the boards are thoroughly politicized. Their seats are filled with many very unserious people. Reformative voices are quickly silenced and the unions quick to exile them.

The idea that school was optional, and could be shuttered and reopened at will without harm was always laughable. The data show that chronic absenteeism is worse in states that closed schools longer.  Brown University shows that learning loss was greatest in districts where the schools were closed the longest. The passing rates in Math were significantly lower.

The people in charge, who care so very much about your children, declared classrooms unsafe, and then left to take selfies on a beach vacation, or send their children to private school. As infuriating as that is, it should not be viewed as hypocrisy. It is hierarchy.

If one reads old novels, you’ll eventually come across a character like Jane Eyre. It is easy to daydream nostalgically. Was it better back then?

The idyll of a little, single room schoolhouse. A single headmistress with living quarters in the back, charged with educating a mixed range of ages and abilities. Yet despite the rusticism and lack of technology, the students and teachers could speak several languages, quote and read the classics, take hardship in stride, and were unfailingly civil and polite. Idyll indeed.

My two semesters as the parent principal educated me in the realities of the Public School system. It taught me that proper schooling can make the spirits of our children flourish and bloom.

That blossoming intellectual development we all desire for our children is absolutely within reach when we only allow the freedom for it to occur.

This article is reprinted from the Brownstone Institute where it appeared under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license. It first appeared on the author’s Substack.

Image credit: Pexels

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  • Avatar
    Robert Myers
    September 28, 2023, 9:30 pm

    Excellent essay. I am a 50 + year educator….You are doing the best for your children. You have revealed the truth of public education in America. RTM

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  • Avatar
    Janet
    November 22, 2023, 8:05 am

    Here in Texas, rural politicians vote against vouchers as their constituents think their public schools are wonderful. They know their children's teachers personally, so the schools must be as fine as they are, right? Meanwhile, I hear poor grammar and witness adults who can't spell. Frustrating.

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