I have two children in public grade school in Illinois.
While some public schools around the country and even in this state have conducted in-person learning, the vast majority of schools in densely populated areas have been teaching remotely since the start of the 2020-21 school year. These schools previously shuttered in-person learning for the final three months of the 2019-20 school year that ended in June.
Aside from a week when my local district attempted to return students to a hybrid (two days in person, three days remote) model, which lasted less than one week because trending averages of COVID-19 cases in the region prompted a complete shutdown, my kids have not been in school since the week before St. Patrick’s Day.
To say remote learning is not going so well for us shall be my expletive-free understatement of the year.
Each of my grade-schoolers has a problem with electronic devices. No, not in using them. On that front, they are regular IT wizards. But rather falling into them.
The tablets that we received from the school district are not restricted in any way — and they cannot be restricted. So, when learning about digging trenches during World War I or while they should be hunkered down on an at-home, indoor physical education class that involves yoga theory, you can bet my kids are playing some kind of online game or watching someone play Temple Run with expert commentary from some random 11-year old on YouTube.
Why? Because they can, and there isn’t anyone to stop them from doing it. There are no parental controls on the device. Not even a passcode to enter the device.
Not me, not their mom, and not their grandmother, who sits in the same room with them in an attempt to keep them focused on whatever was going on in the classroom — none of us has been able to prevent the irresistibility of holding access to anything and everything in the world in your hands. I am hearing from other parents my kids are not uniquely inflicted with this issue. And the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommendations on electronic-device usage years ago that remains salient.
Initially, I was — and again, expletives deleted here — displeased with my children and their lack of attention to online school. But I have softened my stance on this largely because I know where my mind is after the 31st minute of a Zoom call. I cannot get behind the idea it is OK for children to be on a tablet, laptop or desktop for the bulk of a seven-hour school day. I cannot believe anyone would be locked in and learning this way when they are 8 or even a teenager.
No, I do not believe that is possible. The only proof I can bring forward is my kids have rings around their eyes and bags under them on the days when they successfully achieve what the school has asked them to do, and have very little left in the tank to talk about what they’ve learned that day. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, ask yourself what the takeaways for the day were the next time you have four or five Zoom calls and a battery of phone calls with your work associates during the course of a workday.
K-12 public education’s response to COVID-19 has been woefully bad and dangerous — I would say more dangerous than the terrible virus we’re trying to keep at bay. Public education simply hasn’t measured up to the expectations taxpayers have for a high-quality education. And it appears they did not give improvements to remote education much consideration during their summer vacations.
Where I live, just a shade less than 72 percent of my annual property tax bill goes to fund local schools and pensions. I live in Illinois, so the pension part of the school tax-payment equation is not insignificant.
Hey, you might say, couldn’t you have put your kids in private school? Well, yes, but no. I could have, if we had any meaningful run-up to the start of the school year to make a decision such as that.
Our district surveyed parents in the first week of July — less than six weeks before the start of the school year — and asked us whether we wanted our kids to learn in person, in a hybrid model (part time at home, part time at school), in a fully remote at-home setting or to be homeschooled. We chose in-person. Overall, of the about 1,800 families who responded, 63 percent chose in-person learning. Of the 37 percent who indicated they were uncertain about sending their kids back to school full-time, 68 percent said they were good with the idea of a hybrid plan.
About 10 days later, and five weeks before the start of the school year, the district shared results and then a new survey was released. In-person learning was eliminated as an option.
At this time, though, it was announced a task force had been formed that included “district administrators, building principals, teachers, support staff, school nurses and union leadership.”
So, right then and there, I should have seen where this was headed. But I fell for it. I believed returning to school might be possible, or my district and districts similar to mine actually wanted to return to school.
The task force eliminated the in-person option, and parents were left to choose from hybrid learning, remote or homeschooling. This time, 67 percent of parents chose hybrid, 31 percent chose remote and 2 percent chose homeschooling. It now was less than one month from the start of the school year.
Less than three weeks before the start of the school year, the district determined through its task force starting the year remote was how it would go forward.
Not long before the start of the school year, my local district emailed a flier to every parent in the district, promoting a private remote-learning facility where my kids could receive tutoring and maybe learn some karate if they wanted. It was $1,000 per month per child, or about what I pay for the tuition portion of my oldest daughter’s college. I am sure they were attempting to be helpful. But if my kids couldn’t be in their school, I struggled with the idea the school thought it might be OK for them to be learning in-person somewhere else.
Oh, and I eventually did attempt to get my kids into the local Catholic school — in October. By then, I had seen enough. It was conclusive my kids were falling behind and struggling to maintain the high educational standards that remained despite low-quality content delivery and an absurd notion school is school whether taught in person or over an iPad. That Catholic school, by the way, has operated in person since mid-August and has had two cases of COVID-19 they dealt with by quarantining a single classroom.
Meanwhile, COVID-19, while insidious and scary, has not affected our children in any meaningful, statistical way. In fact, statistically, in the part of the world where I live, there have been more children killed by stray bullets than COVID-19. This summer in Chicago, seven kids 13 and younger — six of them 10 or younger — were killed by gunshots.
I do not know how much education my kids are missing. A lot, I am sure. But, I also know they are not alone.
A study, conducted by the Fairfax, Va., County Public Schools Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, is equal parts sad and fascinating. But it confirms largely what any parent knows too well. Some 83 percent of students in that district have more than one F grade in their classes, and failing grades overall are up in some cases more than 100 percent among student demographics.The execution of remote learning is trash. The fear that drives our public policy decisions is flaming trash. The state of K-12 public education in this country is flaming trash in a Dumpster, floating down a flooded street.